F=First Impressions Count (Feb 7)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that Jane Austen sure knew how to write a catchy opener. // Shutterstock

In many forms of writing, the first sentence is crucial to grabbing the reader’s interest. This is true in journalism, marketing and creative writing, though less so in technical writing (anyone remember the first line of their Windows operating manual?).

There are two ways of approaching your opening line.

One: Express the essence of the piece.

Two: Convey the facts of the matter.

Intros that express essence are more interesting and ambitious than fact-filled intros, whereas fact-filled intros are more utilitarian and achievable. Here are four intros that express essence:

*The opening line of Goodfellas: «As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.»

*The opener of Pride and Prejudice: «It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.»

*The start of Peter Pan: “All children, except one, grow up.”

*The full instructions on the dashboard of a long-ago video game: «Insert quarter. Avoid Klingons.»

*A page 1 opening line from The Wall Street Journal of October 20, 1987: «The stock market crashed yesterday.»

 To capture and convey essence is challenging. It requires discipline, reflection and inspiration. On the other hand fact-filled intros, being formulaic, are easier to deliver when you are pressed for time or not inspired. That is why they are more common.

Fact-filled intros provide the who-what-where-when and sometimes the why, like so:

City council at its meeting last night voted to fine anyone whose dog poops in the park.

Who: City council

What: Voted to fine anyone whose dog poops in the park

Where: At its meeting

When: Last night.

You could vary this by dropping «at its meeting» because that’s obvious. A second variation would be to add the why:

«Responding to more than 200 public complaints, city council last night voted to fine anyone whose dog poops in the park.»

If however you aspire to write intros that express essence, here are four tips:

• Write «The point of this article is that…»: and whatever you write after the ellipses is your intro.

• Write «This article matters because…»: and do as above.

-Picture your audience as one person, maybe your mom or dad. How would you explain this to a parent in one sentence? My daughter is studying oceanography and if I were to explain her research to my mom I would write something like: «By studying the mix of nitrogen and oxygen in seawater, we can learn about changes in the ocean’s nutrient cycles and currents.» That’s 22 words: short, simple.

-Think and keep thinking. Distilling something to its essence is like making maple syrup. You start with watery sap, but by laboriously boiling away the water you are left with just the good stuff. As part of this process it can be helpful to ask yourself questions like, What is the vein that runs through this piece? Where is the tension? What is the big picture?

Non-native writers sometimes try to stuff too much into each sentence, perhaps as a way of compensating. Brevity will prevent your sentences from spinning out of control.  In general, strive to keep it simple: one sentence equals one thought.

Whatever type of intro you write, try to stay under 35 words or even better under 25. The four examples from Goodfellas et al above are 14 words, 23 words, four words and five.

LEARN: Go to your bookshelf and measure for yourself the word count in each book’s first sentence.

USE: Write the first sentence of your life story – first as no more than 35 words, then 25, then 15.


Published by robanderik

We are long-time writers and editors, now living in the Middle East. Our idea is to create a series of tips to help others improve their writing and editing skills. Think of it as a lesson plan for ESL learners that combines the practical with the aspirational.

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