“You better not never tell nobody but God.” In that simple and sinister utterance, Alice Walker defined a character, set a mood and pulled the reader into “The Color Purple.” What is written in the first few lines can serve as a bold red stop sign or an alluring neon welcome. Whether they call it the lead or lede, hook or catch, writers of speeches, essays, novels and even scholarly articles need a good start.
Introduce Good Examples
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish.” “It was love at first sight.” "Mother died today.” Dickens, Hemingway, Heller and Camus all knew a thing or two about the “hook.” Before students can become good writers, they need to know what good writing is. They learn by example, and the broader their exposure to those catchy first lines, the more willing they will be to take a chance.
Although writing is often considered a solitary endeavor, group brainstorming can open student minds to possibilities they might not consider on their own. Teachers can orally present a few facts to an incident and then group students in pairs to allow them to work together to create catchy phrases they might use if they were writing a story about the event. This is particularly effective for news stories: Teachers can present details wildly out of order to see if students understand how to include the most important pieces in a lead.
Children are great storytellers. Left to their own devices, they know exactly how to relate their stories in interesting and relevant ways. Before asking students to write, teachers should ask them to talk. It’s unlikely that a child just returning from the zoo would begin his account with his payment at the turnstile or stroll toward activities. Yet, student writers often do just that -- offer a methodical and chronological recount of a day’s activities. By encouraging students to write a story the way they would talk, teachers make the process less intimidating and teach students to let their voice shine through in their writing.
Teachers should introduce students to tools of creative writing and ask them to try out a few. Beginning an essay with a quotation connects students’ ideas to those of other writers and places good writing at the top of their papers. Using hyperbole, bold statements or astounding statistics are some examples of good beginnings. Students can also start with short anecdotes that relate to the body of their work or intriguing questions that a reader might want answered. A caution for questions, though: If a student asks “Haven’t you always wondered?” and the answer is no, he’s lost the reader in that first line.
- The Color Purple; Alice Walker
- A Tale of Two Cities; Charles Dickens
- The Old Man and the Sea; Ernest Hemingway
- Catch-22; Joseph Heller
- The Stranger; Albert Camus (trans. S. Gilbert)
- Portland Public Schools: Hooks in Persuasive Writing
- Scholastic Teachers: Make Kids' Writing Shine: Using Beginnings and Endings to Teach Craft
- A to Z Teacher Stuff Forums: Teaching Kids to Write Fantastic Hooks
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