Part II of:
‘How do I even start this thing?’ Guidance for when your boss asks you to write
By David Hugh Smith
In the Summer Post Dave provided ideas for jump-starting a piece of writing. He suggested two approaches for beginning: a memo, an important letter, a release to the public, an update on social media, a video blast, a newsletter article.
First, he discussed a straightforward announcement lead, where you provide the who, what, where, how, and when of your topic. Then he looked at the story lead—an event related to your topic—as a way to begin.
In this Post, he presents four more ways to start something you need to write.
So it’s 8 p.m. And again, you’re still at the office. You are so hungry you are ready to raid the lobby vending machine—even though the only “food” left is a single package of melted-together gummy bears.
Your boss, happy so far with what you’ve written—and how you have used leads to create readable, useful copy—has given you a tougher assignment. Perhaps it’s to announce some bad news. Or a policy change that will make fellow employees and/or clients unhappy. Perhaps instead it’s just some complicated corporate development that will be hard for most to understand.
You feel a fresh approach is needed. But because you don’t exactly know how to start to bring freshness to a boring announcement—or piece of bad news—you’ve instead been tossing thumb tacks toward your neighbor’s desk in a way that they all land directly on his chair.
Of course it’s important not to let writer’s block, in terms of the creation of a compelling lead, stop you from going ahead and writing as much as you can of your piece. That said, some people find that by creating a really good lead they are able to more easily write the rest of a piece of writing.
Here are a several additional ideas for beginning a piece of writing:
1. Slice off a piece of the story—something that is easier, or at least less controversial, to communicate—and use that to begin.
Let’s say, for example, corporate needs to stop offering a product or feature clients love. Perhaps this product or feature generates a lot of sales.
So you are part of In Your Eye T-shirt company, and your manufacturer no longer is willing to produce your most popular T-shirt, which depicts a rich and famous politician now having to panhandle. You could begin this way:
“In Your Eye T-shirts sells over 150 designs that stores across North America snap up at a rate of 300 per minute. About 80 percent of the daily run of the largest domestic manufacturer of cloth tops is for IYE’s “political” tees.
“‘The design and creative departments at IYE work vigorously and continually to create new winning tees that will amuse and, we hope, not offend too deeply,’ says marketing vice president Lance Leerman. ‘However, one of our tees—The Latest Tweet—may have failed that test. Our primary manufacturer has asked us not to make any more of these very popular tees.
“‘Please know,’” Leerman said, ‘that we already are hard at work coming up with fresh ideas for tees we believe will sell just a well as Latest Tweet.’”
So here you start off with happy news—the many designs offered by In Your Eye. And how successful the company is. This provides a way to slide into less-happy news that IYE no longer will offer a big-selling shirt. Readers may be placated by the promise to replace this shirt with other successful ones. And managers may be more likely to approve a piece of writing that starts in a positive way, then gets only briefly negative, then quickly goes positive again.
2. Begin with some history. This approach, of course, is similar to the story lead.
Let’s say corporate no longer will match 401(k) contributions up to 5 percent of employees’ gross salaries. It’s now only going to match 2 percent. Here’s where starting with some history could quiet a storm of dissatisfaction.
“Gator Business Systems debuted its 401(k) plan in 1981. The enthusiastic response of employees, who during these past 27 years have contributed almost $150 million from their salaries, has demonstrated this to be a valuable employee benefit.
“‘In the wake of offering our extremely successful Snap Tooth system in 2012 we tried an experiment,’ Logan Limoseat said last week. ‘We increased matching to 5 percent of gross salary. And many employees have benefitted.’
“But as a result of a recent slow-down in sales, Mr. Limoseat said, ‘Gator can only, at this point, match up to 2 percent.’”
Readers, it is hoped, will be grateful the 401(k) plan was initiated in the first place in 1981. And rather than get upset the corporate match is dramatically lower, they will understand why.
3. Start off with some description that might stimulate interest.
Let’s say Giant Multidivision Corporation is reorganizing its structure in a way that most will find incomprehensible. Perhaps a way to at least start to explain might be by writing a description.
“If you want numbers crunched you need to see the accountants on floor 10. All 20,000 square feet of space on the top floor of the Wheeler Building has been occupied by men and women who ‘keep the books.’
“But beginning this November, according to Giant CEO Brian Biggins, accountants for manufacturing will move to floor 5 of the Dealer Building to be closer to the departments they service. Meanwhile, systems marketing will replace them on 10, to be closer to the numbers experts with whom they work.
“‘All this is part of an effort we call ‘neighborhooding,’ and it should help our efficiency,’ Mr. Biggins said.”
4. Create a scenario to help readers immediately identify with a situation.
The lead to this story is an example. We initiated this article by creating a situation related to this topic that attempts to vividly lead readers into this story.
There are many ways to begin a piece of writing. The six mentioned in these two articles are some of the most reliable methods for leading your readers into your text. Of course the topics you are asked to write about may call for entirely different approaches. Bottom line: your objective is to interest your readers in a story in a way that also begins to enable them to understand the points you need to communicate.
David Hugh Smith is president of Right Writers, a Brookline, Mass., communications company. He’s also editor of PDC publications. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.