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Titles and First Lines (or Leads)

First impressions matter in love, in business, and especially in writing. Readers are picky and quick to glance to something else unless we catch their attention. As writers, we have only a few seconds to draw them into our text or we will lose them. Two of the most important tools you have for capturing your reader's attention is your title and your first line or lead sentence. In this guide, we will excerpt a section from Donald Murray's The Craft of Revision to illustrate activities you can do to create a good title and 1st line for your writing piece.

The Game of Titles

(Excerpt from pgs. 34-35)
When I was freelancing magazine articles, I would start writing an article by brainstorming 100 to 150 possible titles, in fragmants of time as the research was winding down. Each title was a window into the draft I might write.

To brainstorm, you have to be willing to be silly, knowing that in this freedom may lie an important insight. If I was assigned to write a paper on roomates, I might start with titles that would remind me of experiences--and problems and conflicts and satisfactions--I had with roomates

My roommate for 43 years
My 40 Army roommates
Why We Had a Fistfight
My Roommates Smell
Snores and Bores
Don't Room with a Philosopher
Familiarity Breeds Familiarity
Ten Rules for My Roommate
How to Drive a Roommate Crazy
Talk's OK--But at 3 AM?
My Roommate's Snake
Why I Murdered My Roommate
Why I Murdered My Roommate--and Was Acquitted
Roommate or Cellmate?
Cheese, Toothpaste, and Computers
The Music Wars ...
One Roommate and Four Alarm Clocks ...

You could go on and on, and so could I. ... Join me in the game of titles. I used to do 150 or so [titles] at a run. And what if number 3 of 150 is the best? Well, now you know it! The discarded titles may turn up as lines in the article or as starting places for other articles.

How to Play the Game of Titles
Open a word processing document or get a blank piece of paper out. Then, begin dashing off as many possible titles as you can think of for your writing piece. Anything goes. Move fast. As Donald Murray says, to brainstorm in this way, you have to be silly. Catchy titles both play with language and capture some focused meaning for your writing piece. They should be just unusual enough to capture your readers attention and interest while still providing them some kernel of what your writing piece will be about. Don't worry about writing a dud. Just move on and write another possible title. Donald Murray may have written 150 possible titles, but you should find good results in writing 15-20 possible titles.

Below is another set of example Titles over an essay about rescue dogs to new dog owners. Which one do you think would work best to be a title for this essay? Notice that titles are capitalized!


Beware Rescue Dogs
Who’s Rescuing Who?
Trauma and Rescue Dogs
Don’t Make it Worse
The Fragility of Rescue Dogs
Some Words to New Rescue Dog owners
What Every Rescue Dog Owner Needs to Know
These Friends are Fragile
Handle With Care
Be Gentle with These New Friends
Rescue Dogs DeserveSpecial Care

Rescue Dogs Are Forever—Handle with Care
Barks and Tail Wagging Forever
Don’t Make Tails Between Legs
Ignorance Can Lead to Disaster
What You Need to Know to Avoid Disaster with Your Rescue Dog
Do No Harm
Do No Further Harm
Do No (Further) Harm
Setting Up for Success
Preparing Rescue Dog Owners is Key
No Tails Between the Legs Allowed

Writing Engaging Lead Sentences

(excerpt from pgs. 35-37)
As a journalist, I am a great believer in writing the lead--the first line, the first paragraph or three, the first page--first. Let's see what happens if I write a few leads for that roommate column:

  • As our grandchildren go off to college for the first time, those of us who have the same roommate for 40, 50 years, or more should share our cohabitation wisdom.
  • Selective wisdom--or elective blindness--is the first quality a student should develop in facing a college roommate for the first time. ...
  • My first college roommate and I got along after we had a genuine, male, prancing-around, dirty-words fistfight in our closet of a room. ...
  • I've heard of people who keep in touch with their college roommates decade after decade and I've heard of hostage victims who grow fond of their captures, but one of the good things about getting old is that I will never ever have to have a roommate again. I hope. ...
  • The first great lesson of college is that someone with a sense of humor--or sadistic need to cause trouble--has locked you and your roommate into a small space for a long year. ...

What have I been doing? Playing my way into an essay, trying on beginning points, voices, ideas the way you try on clothes before a party. Each lead gives me a direction in which I might go. The entire piece of writing grows out of the beginning that establishes the following:

  • the questions in the readers's mind to be answered in the draft
  • the authority of the writer to answer it
  • the direction of the draft
  • the pace of the writing
  • the form
  • the voice

How to Write Leads
Just as you did with generating a list of titles, you can do the same thing with brainstorming different possible leads to your writing piece. You may take longer and have to think harder to come up with different leads, but approach the task with the same spirit of experimentation and freedome. Anything goes. Sometimes these leads have been called "hooks." With this first line or set of lines, you seek to hook your reader into reading your writing.

You may find this list of different types of leads helpful in your efforts to generate different openings for your draft. I encourage you to try out each one:

    • A startling statistic or unusual fact
    • A vivid example that illustrates the issue or point you wish to make
    • A paradoxical statement
    • A quotation or bit of dialogue
    • A question
    • An analogy (comparison)
    • An illustrative story

As you brainstorm different possible leads for your writing piece, I encourage you to push yourself to find at least eight to ten different openings to give yourself lots of options.

Example of 1st Line Leads for the Paper on Rescue Dogs

65% of new rescue dog owners have never owned a rescue dog before. If you are one of these 65%, I am speaking to you.

Who said the famous line, “Preparation is key,” is exactly right. If you are about to get a rescue dog, you need to prepare yourself in important ways.

Imagine carrying a live bomb into your house. Do you think you would be careful about doing that? Well, a rescue dog is not exactly a bomb, but not handling them correctly could blow up in your face to the dog’s and your harm.

Think about the time and preparation most young parents give to bring home a new born baby. You might not have thought about it before, but you need to similarly take time to prepare for the arrival of your rescue dog.

You will never know the trauma these dogs have experienced.

Have you ever been beaten? Yelled at? Have you ever been kicked or had your face rubbed into your own feces? Sounds pretty bad, huh? Do you think these types of abuse might affect you? Your new rescue dog may seem cute and happy to have a new home, but they often mask a darker past of abuse you need to be sensitive to as a new rescue dog owner.

Bringing home a dog from the dog shelter is like bringing home a Christmas present. Everyone is so excited for a new member of the family, and it can feel good to save a dog from a worse fate. The kids may love to have a new friend to play with, and the dog can seem so happy to finally have a home. But beneath all this sunshine and roses, new owners of dogs from dog shelters need to understand a few things.

Would you bring home a used car without checking it out thoroughly? The same thing applies with getting a new dog from a dog shelter.

Final Selection of Title and 1st Line Lead (from the rescue dog essay example)

These Friends are Fragile

Have you ever been beaten? Yelled at? Have you ever been kicked or had your face rubbed into your own feces? Sounds pretty bad, huh? Do you think these types of abuse might affect you?Your new rescue dog may seem cute and happy to have a new home, but they often mask a darker past of abuse you need to be sensitive to as a new rescue dog owner.

Would you be drawn and interested to read an essay that began this way?

See also:
Guide on Writing Introductions
More examples of Titles and 1st Lines
















































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