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Writing the Lead and Ending

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February 2010
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William Zinsser wrote in On Writing Well that “the most important sentence is the first one” when writing creative nonfiction or nonfiction.  Your first sentence needs to grab the readers’ attention and compel them to read on.

Zinsser also wrote that good piece of creative nonfiction includes an ending that makes an important point, one that readers can think about after reading.

Whether you write a personal essay, memoir, or article, your piece of writing requires a lead at the beginning and an ending that makes an important point.

This article explains how to write a lead and ending.

Writing the Lead

What is the lead? It introduces your essay, memoir, or article. According to Zinsser, a good lead does the following:

  1. It grabs the reader’s attention and inspires the reader to read further. This is called a hook.
  2. It tells the reader why the piece was written.
  3. It tells the reader why he/she ought to read the article or essay.

There is no rule about the length of a lead. Some leads are short, only a few sentences. Some are only a sentence in length. Other leads are longer, taking several paragraphs. The length of your lead will depend on the type of genre and the audience you are writing for.

Methods of Writing a Lead

There are several methods to write your lead. Here are the most popular methods:

  1. Ask a question. Example: How can the federal government reduce unemployment?
  2. Make a thought-provoking statement. This type of lead makes begins with an important point. Example: The unemployment rate is 10%, the highest since the Great Depression.
  3. Write an anecdote. It is a short story that reveals a truth or makes an important point.
  4. Use a quotation. Write an interesting quotation from an interview or one that you discovered when you conducted research.
  5. Write a summary lead. It compresses the article or essay into a few sentences.
  6. Use a combination lead. This method requires you to use a couple of methods. For instance, you might begin with a question, and then add a quotation from a well-known person.

When writing your lead, you can also answer a few questions, such as:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • How?

Writing the Ending

Once you finish writing your essay or article, you require a good ending. In “On Writing Well”, William Zinsser writes the following: “Knowing when to end…is far more important than most writers realize. You should give as much thought to choosing your last sentence as you did to your first.”

A good ending is a sentence or two, or paragraph in length, but not any longer. A good lead should take the reader by surprise and seem like the correct place to stop.

How do you know when you are finished? Zinsser writes that when you are ready to stop, stop.

 Here is how to write an ending:

  1. Don’t summarize your essay or article.
  2. Your ending should encapsulate the central idea of your essay or article.
  3. Your ending should finish with an important point. Otherwise the reader will think “So what? What was the point?”” Zinsser suggests that this sentence should jolt the reader with “unexpectedness.”

A popular way to end your piece is with a quotation. Another method is to restate the beginning. Other popular methods include:

  • An opinion
  • Judgement
  • Recommendation
  • Call to action

A good piece of creative nonfiction includes both a strong lead and close. Be sure to learn the ways to write a lead and ending. Then use them when you write.

For more advice on how to write creative nonfiction, you can read  On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

Next, I will discuss writing style, as it applies to creative nonfiction.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them to this blog.

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