Archive | February, 2012
24 Feb

There is a popular meme going around the Internet right now (especially predominant on Facebook), and I really enjoyed this writing-related version of it.

It brings some thoughts and questions to mind…

What do other, non-writing friends think we do all day?

What do we want to accomplish as writers?

What is the writing “reality” like?


Writing Effective Leads–12 Different Approaches

20 Feb

As you get ready to write your article (whether it’s for a magazine, newsletter, newspaper, or website), you will probably first consider how you want to START it.

The first impression you give is of upmost importance, after all. You want to start an article with a catchy lead, capturing the reader’s attention from the get-go.

Here are 12 different techniques to consider using for the next lead you write:

1. Summary Lead

A summary lead — which is sometimes thought of as the straight news lead — states the key point of the article. (For example: “Howard B. Unruh, 28, a mild, soft-spoken veteran of battles in Italy, France and Germany, killed 12 people with a war souvenir Luger pistol in his home block in East Camden Tuesday morning. He wounded four others.”)

2. Direct Address Lead

A lead that is a direct address to readers  —  a “you” lead  —  is calculated to induce them to continue reading because it involves them to some degree. (“If you have a shape like a pear, don’t let it bother you. You are more likely to succeed in life than most people.”)

3. Anecdotal Lead

      An anecdotal lead tells a real-life story that illustrates the point of the article. While not always the case, anecdotal leads can be emotionally charged (poignant or humorous, for example). (“It’s the night before Sarah’s wedding. The images she’d dreamed of for years — the perfect dress, the meaningful vows, the sumptuous cake — now seem to reside only in the land of fairy tales. Her bridesmaids are fighting, her groom hasn’t reported on the state of his vows, and the wrong flowers were ordered. Thinking of the disarray around her, Sarah bursts into tears. This isn’t the way her wedding day is supposed to be.”)

4. Descriptive Lead

A descriptive lead describes a person, place, or event. It transports readers immediately to the location or helps them “see” the setting of the subject the article will be about. ( “The long line of Khaki-clad youths stood at attention. The last notes of a bu­gle across the parade ground floated through the late-afternoon light. In the dis­tance, a warm window light shone, and John Henry felt a lump growing in his throat.”)

5. Why Lead

A why lead emphasizes the “cause” and is combined with the “what.” ( “They told Williard Johnson he’d never be a football player. After all, he had only one leg.”)

6. Unbelievable Lead

An unbelievable lead grabs the reader’s attention by revealing something startling. The reader will say, “I almost can’t believe that,” and then will want to continue reading to find out more.   (“Five out of 100 people have an extra rib. Every three days a human stomach gets a new lining. The record for the loudest burp is 118 decibels, which is as loud as a chainsaw.”)

7. Cliché Lead

      A cliché lead takes a familiar saying and puts a twist on it. The saying must be related to the theme of the article. Avoid bro­mides, platitudes, and triteness.  (“A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it’s not worth much of anything if it’s out of focus.”)

8. Contrast Lead

A contrast lead combines two or more antithetic elements to make an idea more significant or interesting.  (“School teachers went on strike this fall for the third time in eight years, but the city’s 62,000 public school pupils were told to report to class.”)

9. Quotation Lead

A quotation in the lead can draw readers into the ar­ticle. The quotation, though, should be brief and part of the gist of the article — and, most importantly, it should be powerful enough that it deserves being used in the lead. Don’t just use just any quote.  (“One evening in January when their children were in bed, Richard and Eu­genia Smith sat before their television set, talking. ‘All right,’ Richard said coolly, in re­sponse to an accusation from his wife. ‘I don’t love you, I haven’t for some time, and I want a divorce.’”)

10. Figurative Lead

Metaphors, similes, and other figures of speech may be used in a lead. Be certain, though, to avoid triteness and banality. (“The colorful dark horse wearing a white rose, running headlong into the election of 1872, hoped to buck the ‘superiority of man’ harness off America’s women.”)

11. Question Lead

A good question lead makes readers want to know the answer. Don’t ask a frivolous question. Choose one that provokes your reader’s curiosity.  (“Were the best presidents of the United States the sickest ones?”)

12. Combination Lead

      Leads may combine two or more of the preceding types of leads. You might, for example, combine an anecdotal lead with a question lead. Such a lead would present readers with a real-life situation and then ask if they have ever been through a similar experience. Or you could combine a quotation lead with a direct address lead … or you could use any other combination of lead types.

A Love Epiphany

15 Feb

(I wrote and published the following essay several Februarys ago. My daughter, Sydney–who is 7 now–was 4 at the time. On this day after Valentine’s Day, I thought it might be a good story to share with you all. It’s also a good example of a type of writing you can get published today–essays based on your own experiences. I hope you enjoy it, and perhaps get some inspiration from it as well.)


I am generally an upbeat person. I take things easy. I don’t let people get under my skin. I don’t experience conflict (not because I avoid it, or don’t like it, but because I generally don’t see the need for it). I rarely go to bed with anything gnawing at me. I definitely don’t hold a grudge, or rarely even feel angry.

But the other day was a different story.

I was really upset at someone (several people, actually) and all I really wanted to do was shout at anyone who would listen to me: “Can you believe that people can be so petty and stupid!?” and basically act like a little child throwing a temper tantrum. (You know. Lying in the floor, fists hitting the ground, feet kicking.) I wanted to tell someone off. I was not really feeling very lovely or loving.

As I ranted and raved internally, Sydney traipsed downstairs holding a book. She sorta shoved it under my nose and I thought to myself, “Not now, Sydney. I really don’t want to read a book to you.” I didn’t say it out loud, of course, but I sure thought it.

I then realized what book she was holding. It was one of those New Testament-only Bibles that she had gotten at one of the various Vacation Bible Schools she attended last summer. She was flipping randomly through the pages, but then settled on a page she had reached.

She had the pages turned over and handed it to me, saying, “You gotta read this to me, Momma. Right here.”

I looked at it and saw that it was opened to First Corinthians. I could see chapters 14 and 15 on the page spread.

But then Sydney pushed her hands in front of me and switched it back one page. “No, Momma,” she said. “Actually [her favorite word is ‘actually’] you need to read this. The one that says 1-3.”

That’s when my heart sorta did a little leap into my throat. As someone who’d been to Sunday School (both dragged, and of my own volition) since a little girl, I immediately knew what First Corinthians 13 was gonna tell me about.

Sydney then said, “Momma, you gotta read it to me. What does it say?”

Before I even read it, I smiled a little smile heavenward. It was a smile that said, “You got me, God. I’m not even gonna fight it, or ignore it. You somehow told Sydney to grab that Bible, and march down to me, and open up to that page right there. So, yep, you got me.”

Sydney looked at me and I read it…paraphrased it a little bit, but pulled out the words that I think God wanted me to see highlighted in front of my eyes.

Love is patient.
Love is kind.
Love is not rude.
Love is not easily angered.
Love trusts.
Love never fails.

Sydney put her head on my shoulder. “I love you,” she said.

And then off she went, traipsing upstairs with that little New Testament in one hand and a Polly Pocket in the other. Clueless as to what message she had brought to me.

I’m not gonna lie and say I stopped feeling mad right then and there. God sends me messages; I don’t always do a 180 right away like He wants me to do.

But, I softened.

I reverted back to Old Cheryl, and realized that anger’s never done it for me in the past. Why let it start now?

I prayed for a loving attitude. I realized that people act in ways that I won’t always understand. I saw the good in the people I was ticked off at. I unclinched my fists and calmed the butterflies in my stomach. I realized that, as trite as it might sound, love really is the way to go.

And, because I’m older (and getting older day-by-day), I didn’t count Sydney’s visit to me as circumstance or coincidence. I stopped to acknowledge the lesson. The epiphany. The “That is so amazingly cool!” moment. The Meaning in the message.

“Can I read the article before you print it?”

10 Feb

I recently had a fellow writer tell me about a situation she had after interviewing a source for an article. The source asked her to let him read and approve the quotes she was planning on using in her story. She asked me what she should do. Since this is a common situation writers often find themselves in, I thought I could approach that topic today.

Feature writers find that sources often make three comments to them. They might say, “I’m not sure I really want you to use that quote” (or “This is off the record, right?”), or make the request, “Please clean up what I say to you. I’m not a writer. So make me sound better,” or ask, “May I read the article before you print it?”

Each statement creates challenges for writers. Here are my suggestions for how to handle them:

1. If someone asks you not to use a quote, try not to agree right off the bat.

Talk with the person and try to compromise on a quote. Say something such as, “Is there some other way you could phrase it?” or “Is there something related to that point that you would feel comfortable talking about?” The request not to use a quote most commonly comes into play when a person is talking about a controversial issue or about a personal experience that includes other people whom the source does not want to involve. By being open, honest, and willing to work with the source, you should be able to strike a balance. Realize that requests about sensitive quotes are usually easier to handle when writing feature stories for magazines than hard news for newspapers. Newspaper reporters often deal with sensitive or controversial news, which is more likely to cause problems.

2. If someone wants you to “make me sound better,” reassure him that you will.

The main change is usually cleaning up simple grammatical mistakes. The source may say something incorrectly, but correcting it doesn’t really change the nature of the information. In that case, it is okay to polish a quote. In some instances, you will want to retain a source’s dialect or colorful language. In that situation, you may wish to leave the quote as it is.

3. If someone asks to read the article before it comes out in print, you should usually say “No.”

Getting approval from sources is a taboo for most newspaper reporters and “hard news” writers, and that is usually the case for feature writers as well. The main reason is that having a source read a manuscript can add greatly to the amount of time required to get it into finished shape. Some people who make such a request do so because they want to control the situation. The request, of course, can create problems for the writer and editor. If, though, the person wants to see the article simply for an innocent reason — for example, because she’s never been interviewed before — you may consider compromising and read a quote or a paragraph to her. Gauge each situation on an individual basis, considering both practical and ethical concerns.

A Little Inspiration

9 Feb

Many of you may be familiar with the Pinterest website (or, as I like to call it, “that place where you go and waste many, many hours when you’re really supposed to be finishing that last draft of your story”). While the site mostly makes me dream of beautiful homes and perfect travel destinations, it also inspires my writing spirit.

Here are some inspiring images I’ve stumbled upon there recently…

(I especially love that one. And I reiterate its truth to you today!)