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Creating the Perfect Lead, Part II

Posted on Friday, December 30, 2016 at 3:29 PM

More tips on preparing your reader for what's to come in your introductory paragraphs.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Last issue I presented my three "assigned duties for a lead," and gave examples of usage. What follows are two more exemplars of good lead development.

Exemplar 1: An Autobiographical Approach

The New Yorker invited the respected veteran journalist, Roger Angell, to comment and opine about this year's presidential election. In a timely essay titled "My Vote," Angell prepared the reader for what's to follow with this lengthy but enlightening first paragraph:

"I am late weighing in on this election -- late in more ways than one. Monday brought my ninety-sixth birthday, and, come November, I will be casting my nineteenth ballot in a Presidential election. My first came in 1944, when I voted for a fourth term for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, my Commander-in-Chief, with a mail-in ballot from the Central Pacific, where I was a sergeant in the Army Air Force. It was a thrilling moment for me, but not as significant as my vote on November 8th this year, the most important one in my lifetime. My country faces a danger unmatched in our history since the Cuban missile crisis, in 1962, or perhaps since 1943, when the Axis powers held most of Continental Europe, and Imperial Japan controlled the Pacific Rim, from the Aleutians to the Solomon Islands, with the outcome of that war still unknown."

Angell then quickly adds that he's voting for Hillary, which you, my reader, will either approve or disapprove of. But the importance for this column is how Angell gets into his piece. His approach involves autobiography. He explains himself with his own past to let us know where he's coming from, what his belief system is, what motivates him, how he loves his country, how he values the gift of being able to vote. What follows becomes clearer and more definitive, thanks to his here's-who-I-am lead paragraph. Such information can be vital in assignments that require a personal tone, a "Here I am and that's why I'm taking this action" direction. Purpose met.

Exemplar 2: A Data-Strong Approach

One more example: In the New York Times' "Views" section on September 25th, a specialist in writing about health and science, Moises Velasquez-Manoff, discusses "The Trouble with Tylenol." Here is his starting prose:

"If you're a pregnant woman and have a backache or headache, or a fever, your options for over-the-counter treatment basically boil down to one medication: the pain reliever acetaminophen, better known as Tylenol. Doctors advise against using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, like ibuprofen and aspirin, during late pregnancy because they can compromise fetal circulation and have other adverse consequences.

"But evidence has accumulated that, when taken during pregnancy, acetaminophen may increase the risk that children will develop asthma or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The elevated risk in most studies is small, and whether the drug itself is really to blame is debatable. But considering that more than 65 percent of pregnant women in the United States use acetaminophen at some point during their pregnancy, the number of children with problems stemming from it could be substantial."

Here we have data-strong material for Velasquez-Manoff's beginning. The title itself is likely to woo readers, but the author wants to set up his discussion with medical background. It's a you-need-some-information-first approach that makes what follows much more approachable and understandable, an educate-before-postulate path toward a reader's understanding of the issue. Purpose met.

Always think about what you want to get across to the reader and, then, decide how best to do it in terms of substance. Do so before you sit down to write. The writing will come easier, and the result will be more successful.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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