Three books that will enhance your ability to write and edit your work—from sentence structure, to organization, to crafting dialogue and suspense:
*If you’re working with nonfiction, and only have time to read one of these, read Zinsser’s.
Tip #1: Leads, Closers, and Call-outs
When I edit raw articles, I often highlight the three most eloquent, powerful, or surprising sentences—essentially, the three best lines. One I move to the Lead, another I move to the Close, and the third I turn into the Callout (the words, often in bold, that appear in a box to the side, drawing in the reader with a compelling quote).
Why? Because even dedicated subscribers rarely read every article in a magazine. They typically take only a few short seconds to decide, “Do I want to take the time to read this?”
The Lead and the Callout are your chance to convince them, “Yes!” Often, the Lead and the Callout are your only chance.
Similarly, when the reader is done with the article, three primary components—the Lead, the Callout, and the Closing lines—typically determine the reader’s lasting impression of the article and the writer. Whenever the reader flips through the magazine again in a future sitting, he or she sees the Callout, skims the Lead, and remembers the Close. And since that’s where readers glean their impressions, that’s where editors and publishers want excellence, and that’s where you will need excellence to sell your work.
Once I’ve identified the three best lines, I ask myself, “Can I rearrange the order of this article to make it compelling in the lead? Convincing in the Close?”
For example, let’s say a father writes an article about the lessons he learned after reading his daughter’s journal in the days following her suicide. He might begin his article like this: “I learned some lessons after I read this and this in my daughter’s journal. She committed suicide, so these are important lessons. Here they are.”
Typical, but bland.
Though the meat of this article is the lessons learned, the most compelling components are the tragic suicide and the notes in the journal that convinced Dad to change his life. Is there perhaps something his daughter said, or something she wrote in her journal that really hits the heart? If so, let’s rearrange:
Lead: “On November 14, 1999, my 14-year-old daughter committed suicide. I sometimes still scream at God for allowing my baby to die. Yet I thank Him for what her death taught me.”
Body: Story of the journal and lessons learned
Callout: “ ‘You don’t understand me, Daddy!’ If I had, perhaps she’d still be here.”
Close: “I can’t bear reading her journal much these days. But I have torn out one page. I framed it and put it on my desk. In her hand it reads, ‘Love. Isn’t that what a family is for?’”
Hit hard with the Lead. Intrigue with the Callout. And leave the right impression with the Close, because the impression you make will linger.
Tip #2: Launching the Lead
The lead is what sells the reader, and more often than not, the editor. And yet, novice writers frequently botch it.
Understand, you have two sentences, tops. Three if they’re short and punchy. That’s how much time you have to make the sale. Use it well.
No apologizing: “I can’t remember when it was, but…”
No passive voice: “It was on the first day of December that what
No rambling: “Join me on a journey, a voyage into the deep, interior
regions of a darkened mind, where agony and sorrow meet together
in the tidepools of a desperate heart.” – WHAT are you talking
Get to the point: “A badger saved my life. Not a dog, or a horse, or a
noble beast. A badger.”
Use active verbs: “My father collapsed on the pavement. A stray bullet
had pierced his heart.”
Bring the reader into the middle of the action: “You can’t go golfing
Sunday morning,” my wife said. “You’re the pastor!”
Several authors have identified categories for leads. Some identify more than 20 categories. Let me offer a few that I see most often, followed by some tips on each:
Question leads: “What do golf clubs, Volkswagens, and marching bands have in common?”—Advice: Don’t do it. Don’t use the question lead. No matter how intriguing you think the question is, readers don’t want to have to figure out your riddles, they don’t want hypothetical questions, they want to be captured. A question doesn’t capture.
Quotation leads: “Benjamin Franklin once said…” –Advice: Not recommended. You can use this one, but only if the quote itself is dramatic, only if it summarizes your main point, only if you’ve seen enough quotation leads to separate the good from the bad. Too often, the writer thinks the quote is interesting, so he or she starts with it. But outside your context, is it really all that interesting? Or is it only interesting after you already know the content of the rest of your article?
Quote leads: “I can’t be a mother anymore,” Mom said. “Go live with your father.” –Not to be confused with quotation leads, the quote lead is common, and common because it’s effective. Dialogue is a compelling narrative element, and bringing the reader into the action, even out of context, can generate immediate interest. Just make sure the conversation that you’re allowing the reader to eavesdrop on is relevant to your article (the above example had better be about mothering, troubled childhoods, or divorce).
Story leads: “In the Blizzard of 1979, I stepped off the front porch into four-foot drifts. Though the ground was hidden under snow, somewhere out there, my grandson was hidden, too.” –The story lead, even one that only flows into a brief anecdote, is a great way to begin an article. If you have no anecdote to begin your article, perhaps you should think of one. Instead of telling us the point of your article, tell us the story of the event that convinced you of the point.
There are several other forms of leads, and many variations of the story lead, but a lead must draw in the reader immediately. You can’t afford to wait too long, or the reader turns the page.
One final note about leads: If you have an old article of yours in front of you, ask yourself, “Could I write this same article, but without the first paragraph? How about without the first three?” Writers often slide into their main point. Perhaps they’re too timid or lack confidence in their writing. They want to “soften the blow”. Don’t soften the blow. A lead should hit hard and fast. Get to the point. Make it snappy. Too often, as an editor, the first edit I make to an article is a big red X through the first three paragraphs. And when I do, it’s usually a much more interesting article.
Tip #3: Cut words
Need a 1,500 word article? Write a 2,000 word article and cut it down. By purposefully slimming and trimming your writing, you will create a "tighter," snappier, more interesting article. Some common ways to trim words and improve writing at the same time:
Active/passive verbs: "She was slowed down by the traffic" needs to become "The traffic slowed her down." Likewise, "Laughter is caused by comedy" needs to become "Comedy produces laughs." Likewise, "What happened was a tragedy" becomes "A tragedy happened."
Adverbs: Cut most of them out. Replace a dull verb that needs an adverb with a single, exciting verb. Why "move noisily across the floor" when it can "prattle across the floor"? "Throw hard" becomes "hurl". And avoid redundancy. Is there any other way to blast than noisily? So why "blast noisily"? No need to "guffaw heartily". Isn't every guffaw done that way?
Modifiers: Little words that detract from how much something is done (like "a bit" or "sort of" or "pretty much") do exactly that--they detract. Cut them out! Do the same with the word "very." My senior editor used to say, "The only time to use the word 'very' is when you really want to say 'damn' but can't."
In every sentence, look for words to cut. Ask yourself, "How many words can I cut out of this? If I cut that word, does it change the meaning?" If not, out it goes! Adverbs, adjectives, modifiers--are they really necessary? You'd be surprised how often the answer is no. And if it isn't necessary, then it's likely making your writing worse.