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Apologies to Tom Petty, but the waiting really isn’t the hardest part. Not for writers, anyway.
The starting is the hardest part. Getting those first few words on paper (or more likely, on the screen) can be pure torture. And once you’ve figured out how to begin, the rest of the piece usually easily flows.
When I don’t know where to begin, I often let an anecdote lead the way, followed by a strong summary sentence.
Here’s how I do it:
Think of an anecdote as a teensy story that perfectly illustrates, or sets the stage for, what the rest of the article, essay, blog post, or pitch letter will discuss.
But keep it short and sweet — just a paragraph. Any longer than that, and the piece will lose focus. The anecdote’s goal is to grab the reader’s attention with a nice little example, but if the anecdote meanders too long before getting to the real meat/reason for the article, it will overwhelm the article and the reader will either get bored or confused (what’s this story about, anyway?). The anecdote should set the stage for the story — not overwhelm it.
Also be sure it fits. The anecdote should be a good example of the points that the rest of the story makes. I remember editing an article on questionable parenting styles, but the opening anecdote described a mom doing all the right things while her bratty kid threw a tantrum. Readers were likely to be confused when the story then veered off to describe what not to do as a parent. A better anecdote would have shown an example of a parent doing everything wrong.
THE NUT GRAF
Immediately follow the anecdote with a sentence (or short paragraph) that sums up the point that the article, post, or essay is making. Teachers may call this a “thesis sentence;” journalists call it a “nut graf.” Either way, such a summary statement is essential to a good article, essay, or blog post for both writer and reader.
The nut graf answers the questions: What’s the point? Stories missing this essential element are likely to ramble and lose focus — confusing to read and to write.
The nut graf serves as a smooth transition between the anecdotal beginning and the rest of the story or essay. Even more importantly, the nut graf helps the writer stay on track and not float off-topic — every sentence should amplify, illustrate, reflect back to, or further explain that nut graf. Readers use the nut graf as a guidepost to know what to expect in the rest of the article and why it’s important.
An anecdotal lede can be theoretical — that is, describing a typical scenario that the reader could relate to. Probably more often, an anecdote describes a real-life, true example. I pulled a few anecdotal beginnings and nut grafs from my own past published articles, so you can see how they work together.
From an article I wrote for a health magazine
ANECDOTE: Ever have one of those days when absolutely nothing goes right? The alarm doesn’t go off, so you oversleep. Already running late, you spill coffee on your new jacket. During your commute, some clown cuts you off and you miss your exit. You make it to the morning meeting just in time to hear that your pet project was turned over to someone else. If you were 3 years old, you’d throw a tantrum. Instead you bite your tongue — and later bite off the head of everyone who crosses your path.
NUT: No one can blame you for being furious, but rage not only creates chaos and conflict, it’s also horrible for your health. Studies show that anger can cause headaches, stomachaches, and breathing difficulty; boosts blood pressure and pulse rate; and increases risk for heart attacks, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. Far better to get to the root of your anger and confront it. The goal is not to stuff, shut off, or suppress your feelings, but to recognize and express them in a controlled, composed, constructive way. Here’s how.
From an article I wrote for an online dating site
ANECDOTE: You have a great date with a great guy, hit it off, feel chemistry, make sparks fly. At the end of the evening, you say “Thank you; I had a wonderful time.” He says, “I’ll call you.” And you never hear from him again.
NUT: Irritating? Sure. Confusing? You bet. But you can take comfort in knowing you are not alone. In fact, the mystery of the missing call may be the number-one complaint among single women. Why don’t men call when they say they will? We asked them. Here’s what they said.
From an article I wrote for a trade magazine for sales reps
ANECDOTE: Tiki torches, tribal masks, inflatable palms and blow-up rafts fill the offices of ABC COMPANY, an IT services provider in Norcross, Georgia. It’s all part of its “Survivor” and “Fear Factor” contests — which may send one salesperson parachuting out of a plane while forcing another to speak in front of her peers.
NUT: Adventure and creativity have become some of the most popular and effective tools to motivate high performers or encourage team spirit. Here are some incentive and team-building programs that have earned rave reviews.
From an article I wrote for a trade magazine for HR directors
ANECDOTE: Twice each summer, the employees of XYZ COMPANY, a public relations agency in Rockton, Illinois, attend an event so important that no one may schedule a doctor’s appointment on that day or skip it except in true emergencies. What’s the big occasion? It’s the company picnic, held at a nearby park.
NUT: While many employee benefits have shrunk or disappeared in the past decade, company picnics have often survived and thrived. While the events – which sometimes cost in the tens of thousands of dollars — may seem frivolous, there’s little doubt that they are good for business in the long term, HR executives say.
Try an anecdotal beginning in your next piece of writing. Don’t forget the nut graf. Let me know how it goes.
And if you’d like help writing an article, essay, or paper, get in touch with me.
Write on —
by Maryann Hammers — your solution for all writing and editing needs