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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

An engaging lead captures the reader’s attention

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Also see blogs & newsletters
 

 

How do you write a good blog or newsletter article?

 

Simple. Just choose a topic that is timely and relevant to your readers. Gather more information than you need so you can use only the best stuff. Appeal to your readers’ interests and concerns. Recognize their values and biases. Tell them something they don’t know.

 

Present enough background to make your story understandable. Challenge your readers to take a fresh look or to think more deeply about your topic. Point out the significance and broader implications of your topic. Urge them to take action or get involved.

 

Write in short sentences to set a fast pace. Enliven your material with quotations and testimonials. Illustrate your main points with relevant examples and illustrations. Define any unfamiliar technical terms or jargon. Avoid wordiness and ambiguity. Use natural, conversational language.

 

Write in a relaxed style. Avoid common newsletter errors such as clichés (“had the opportunity to attend” for “attend”) and false formality (“prior to” and “subsequent to” for “before” and “after”). Ensure the accuracy of all information (especially dates and the spelling of names). And invite feedback from your editor and a few prospective readers before your article goes to print.

That’s the easy part. The hard part is coming up with a good lead.

 

As William Zinsser points out in his book, On Writing Well, “The most important sentence in any article is the first one.”

 

After the opening sentence, according to Zinsser, the next few sentences should form a natural progression, with each sentence “tugging the reader forward” until the reader is “safely hooked.” Without an effective lead, “don’t count on the reader to stick around.”

 

Good leads come in several varieties. Here are some common ones:

 

Ask an attention-getting or thought-provoking question. This lead appeared in a publication by the Minnesota Department of Transportation: “Vacationing in Minnesota this summer? You may want to pick up a copy of the 1995-96 Official Minnesota Highway Map to help in your travels.”

 

Draw an interesting character. An article in the University of Minnesota’s newsletter, Update, begins this way: “Joanne Leslie doesn’t skip classes anymore, and she makes sure to sit in front. Scott Burstein studies standing up. These ideas – and a sharpened focus on what they want to accomplish as students – they acquired in a course called Becoming a Master Student.”

 

Depict an inviting scene. Another article in Update begins, “The basement dance studio in Norris Hall is a long, narrow room with a bank of mirrors along one wall and thick black mats, marked off in lanes, on the floor. This morning the lawn-level windows are open to catch any breeze, and a gleaming studio upright stands in a corner.”

 

Say something playful or funny. Here’s a delightful example from a YWCA brochure: “Pumpkins in the pool? It sounds like a Halloween prank but in reality it’s our third annual Pumpkin Relays Swim Meet.” Zinsser offers this example from an article he wrote about male cosmetics: “Until this year I have always wanted to smell as good as the next man. But now the next man wants to smell too good.”

 

Present a paradox. Ellen Goodman begins an article on guilt by declaring, “Feeling guilty is nothing to feel guilty about.”

Other common leads include opening with a clever quote and stating an interesting or unusual fact or idea. The point is to arouse the reader’s curiosity. Whether you are writing a newsletter article, a news release, a sales proposal, or a fund-raising letter, you need a good lead. 

And yet, as Zinsser reminds us, there are no fixed rules for how to write one. There is only one broad principle: Don’t let the reader get away.

 

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