Brainstorming a Powerful Lead

Sometimes, the hardest part of writing for anyone, especially for our students, is just getting started. The lead of a story can be challenging to write, but with mentor texts and a little brainstorming, students can learn to start their writing in a way that hooks their reader and leaves them wanting more. 

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1. Start with Mentor Texts

To improve writing, writers read. The most important thing in helping our students to write more powerful leads is to read them. I usually start by asking my students to bring their reading books to class, especially if we are all reading different novels, and then I ask students to read leads to each other, talk about them, and dissect them. I often share a few of my favorite leads, reading them aloud to students to demonstrate the power a lead can have on its readers.

When choosing mentor leads, choose leads that use dialogue, action, reflection, or description to start the story. The more variety the better. Help students to see the many creative ways they can start a story.

2. Complete a Lead Analysis

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Looking at mentor texts is great, but really dissecting the author's craft will give students tools that they can also use in their writing. For example, I ask my students to specifically identify how the author helped to engage the reader. What did the author do to hook you?  

Second, I ask my students to identify how the author orients the reader to the context and point of view of the story. How did the author introduce the story and provide context without giving too much away? Writing a lead is an art, and I love facilitating the process of stopping to notice the art of the lead.  

Students do the work of answering questions that help them to analyze the lead: they discuss with a partner, find evidence, and then we have a class discussion. Through our class discussion, we create one master list of methods of engaging readers from the start and a second master list of ways to orient the reader to context and point of view. Both lists hang in our classroom as we write our own leads. 

3. Use Mind Maps

The ideas in our mind are a series of connected concepts.  The things we experience do not make it to our long term memory if we don't connect them to what we already know. Mind maps are not just elementary graphic organizers, they are useful tools that help students to visually map out their ideas. 

To use mind maps when writing leads, we first talk about how the authors of our mentor leads might have mapped out their details. Next, I ask my students to map out the point of view, time, place, and narrator of their lead in overlapping circles. Visually, we work on blending the details so that we can begin crafting our lead in an artful way. My goal is to move my middle school writers from leads that tell, to leads that show the context of their stories.

To see the mind maps we use in my 7th grade ELA class, check out the downloadable freebie above.

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4. Teach Students to Freewrite

Freewriting is my favorite method of brainstorming.  Once students have figured out the point of view, narrator, time, and place of their story, and once they have analyzed plenty of models of strong leads, I ask my students to pick up their pen or pencil and begin writing for five minutes without stopping. Students don't worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation.  Students do not worry about writing a perfect lead or even the lead that will make it to draft. They simply write their first thoughts.

I love starting the freewriting process by modeling it for my students. I use my own mindmap brainstorming to begin, and then I write without stopping, displaying my work on the document camera. I let the students time me, and I talk aloud as I scribble out my first ideas.  I allow my stream of consciousness to flow, sometimes skipping punctuation, sometimes commenting on the random sounds of the heater, or a student talking in the hallway, and I model the process of bringing myself back. Students love seeing me write. They love seeing me throw the rules to the wind and focus on my ideas instead.  I make sure to model how I use the freewriting to craft my lead, as well.

What leaves a freewriting session are strong ideas. After the five minutes are up, we go through our freewriting and circle the stuff that works, the ideas that catch, and the gems that flowed onto the page. For the rest of our ideas, the journey is done. 

From freewriting, students are often able to let loose and write without the worry and stress of getting it right.  The most creative ideas often come from freewriting. Ask students to share their freewriting with a partner and even with the class so they can receive feedback and inspire others. Look for what works and what could be improved. Encourage students to use the sparks of strong ideas to begin drafting their leads.


 Grab this freebie to help your students brainstorm powerful leads using mentor texts!

Grab this freebie to help your students brainstorm powerful leads using mentor texts!

Once students have read and analyzed mentor leads, mapped out ideas, and completed freewriting, they are prepared to write a powerful lead that will engage and orient readers to their story. Brainstorming results in stronger, well-thought-out writing. Teaching students to use their reading as a tool to improve their writing is an important lesson that students can apply beyond their school years.  Allowing students to map their ideas and freewrite helps them to engage with writing without pressure or fear.  Creative ideas are born in brainstorming.

About the Author

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Emily is the founder of Read it. Write it. Learn it. where she designs secondary ELA curriculum and blogs about her teaching experiences.  She is also a collaborative blogger at TeachWriting.org.

Teaching ELA to 7th grade students for the past 15 years has been one of Emily's greatest adventures. Her goal is to design curriculum that engages and motivates students to love reading and writing.  

When she's not in the classroom or writing curriculum and blog posts, Emily enjoys spending time with her three kids, three cats, and teacher husband. 

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