Writing the Lead Last

Fasten your seat belt, here comes another crazy Don Fry idiosyncratic technique. I usually write the lead, the opening paragraph, last. And about five percent of the writers I know use this technique. They thought they were nuts until they heard me talk about it. They’re also among the fastest writers I know.

I want a perfect lead to introduce the subject matter, set the readers’ expectations, and establish my authority as a good guide through the journey of the story. I find it hard to write such a terrific lead on a body text I have to imagine. So I write the body text first, and then the lead.

Good leads mirror the language of the body text, and I find that simply typing the piece creates a lead before I reach the bottom. Sometimes, I just write bits and pieces (the way I’m writing this book) and let them all fall together. By that time, a lead will appear in my head, and I type it.

Sometimes, a terrific lead pops into my head as I compose the body text, and I just type it in wherever I am. I avoid the distracting temptation to polish it on the spot, and move it up later during revision. By the time I type to the bottom, an even better lead often shows up.

This may sound like Zen nonsense, but I know how it works. As I’m typing the body text, my brain is watching key words appear on the screen. Those words call up other words and phrases, and my head creates a lead for me. Sometimes I tell people that I have a staff in the back of my skull that watches me type and manufactures a lead.

Here’s the good news: a lead invented from an existing body text seldom needs revision. Maybe a little buffing, but no heavy reworking.

The best lead writers often have a head full of openings when they sit down to type. As they gather materials, their ears stay tuned up for leads, and they write them in their notebook. I mark potential leads (“PL”) and potential endings (“PK,” for “kicker”) in my notes. On a good day, I may organize with five possible leads and a couple of endings already in play.

So, even though I write the lead last, I’ve already done a lot of thinking about beginnings before I start drafting. Writing doesn’t start when you first put your fingers on the keys; writing begins in the IDEA stage. The fastest writers think about form through their whole process.

Published in: on March 1, 2009 at 12:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

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