Write strong leads. Notice the importance William Zinsser attaches to opening sentences:
The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, you article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is safely hooked, a write constructs that fatefully unit the lead.
Leads can make or break you with your readers. Editors, executives, admissions directors, and many other readers are busy and often impatient people. If your opening doesn’t engage their interest in two or three minutes, they’ll move on. “But,"You may say, “That’s not true of professors. They have to read what I write." Well, yes that’s what they’re paid to do. But if your first paragraph rambles. You’re off to be bad start. And if readers can’t grasp your main idea by the middle of the second page, they may lose interest in what you’re saying.
A good lead does these things.
• It engages the reader’s attention.
• It makes a promise about what’s to come.
• It sets the tone for the piece.
• It gives readers reason to continue reading.
You can accomplish these goals in various ways.
Here are two reliable strategies:
(1) Catch your reader’s interest with a provocative statement or question.
(2) Make your reader anticipate what is to come.
The Writer who seeks to engage the reader may do so with an anecdote, an analogy, reinterpretation of maxim or cliché, intriguing facts or a series of informative questions.
Here’s an example of a lead that wryly interprets a maxim:
Ever since the first Florentine loaned his first ducat to his first Medici, it has been one of the most shopworn clichés of the financial industry that the best way to rob a bank is to own one. This maxim, like all maxims, is rooted in a basic truth about human nature : to wit, if criminals are given easy access to large sums of money, they will steal and under such tempting circumstances, even honest men may be corrupted. To forget this is to invite madness and ruin. (I. J. Davis : Chronicle of a Debacle Foretold)
To trigger the readers’ interest in her subject, the science write Natalie Angier opens an article about scorpions with a series of intriguing facts about four ancient civilizations:
To the ancient Chinese, snakes embodied both good and evil. But scorpions symbolized pure wickedness. To the Persians, Scorpions were the devil’s minions, sent to destroy all life by attacking the testicles of the sacred bull whose blood should have fertilized the universe. In the Old Testament the Hebrew King Rehoboam threatened to chastise his people, not with ordinary whips, but with scorpions – dread scourges that sting like a scorpion’s tail. The Greeks blamed a scorpion for killing Orion, a lusty giant and celebrated hunter. (Natalie Angier : Admirers of the Scorpion)
The following opening paragraph illustrates the strong informative lead:
Any woman who has devoted herself to raising children has experienced the hollow praise that only thinly conceals smug dismissal. In a culture that measures worth and achievement almost solely in terms of money, the intensive work of raising responsible adults counts for little. One of the most intriguing questions in economic history is how this came to be. How mothers come to be excluded from the ranks of productive citizens? How did the demanding job of rearing a modern child come to be trivialized? When did caring for children become a Labor Of Love smothered under a blanket of sentimentality that hides its economic importance? (Ann Crittenden : How Mothers’ Work Was Disappeared)
The paragraph introduces a chapter that traces how attitudes have changed in the past century about the work women do as mothers and housewives. This kind of informative lead works particularly well for serious pieces and class projects because it gives readers an immediate signal about what they’re going to learn.