How to

Pithy First Sentences – The Essence of Sizzling Good Writing

Pack great content into your first sentence and first paragraph.   Foreplay is great for sex.  But with writing:  Plunge right in.

The opposite —  first sentences and first paragraphs that are vapid and content-free – is sadly the norm with amateur writers.   My dad used to call this “clearing your throat.”   You should not waste the top of your article clearing your throat.  

The standard journalism-class term is “burying your lead.”   (Rhymes with “weed.”)   Don’t bury your most exciting, informative sentence in paragraph 3 or 7.   

If you can’t train yourself to give away your main point in the first sentence and summarize your whole article in the first paragraph upon first writing, go ahead and write your old way for the first draft.   Then the first editing step should be to unbury your lead and strike out your throat-clearing paragraph.  

 If you read your first draft with an eye toward finding, somewhere within it, a sentence that grabs the attention and drives straight to your main point, you’ll often find it.   When you do,  cut and paste it right to the top. 

“No, no, no” I can hear some of you moaning.   “That will be too abrupt!”    Or, “If I give away my whole idea in the first paragraph, my article will be too short!”

Nonsense.  Would this article have been better if I had started like this?

“Everyone likes good writing that informs them and doesn’t waste their time.   But what is the secret to good writing?   How can you improve everything you write so people will want to keep reading?   Well, in this article I’m going to tell you how.   We’ll talk mostly about how to begin articles in a way that really gets them off to a good bang-up start.” 

Sound typical ?    But you learned absolutely nothing from that alternative first paragraph.   It didn’t inform.  It didn’t provoke.   It didn’t grab your attention.   It didn’t summarize what was to come.   It’s  like those styrofoam peanuts inside  shipping boxes.  Pure packing material.   If you have paragraphs like that anywhere, throw them away. 

Compare that to my actual first paragraph.  It gave away as much as possible.

So:   Don’t use your first paragraph to sharpen your pencil.   Start your articles with an already-sharp pencil.  Your readers will thank you.

And don’t worry about your articles being too short.  When you’ve said what you came to say,  restate it once briefly and then stop.   Short is good.

[The author made his living for 7 years in journalism.  Then kept using what he learned there in several subsequent careers in other fields over a 40-year span (so far).  He recommends Art of Readable Writing (Click)
by Rudolph Flesch, a book his writer dad once recommended to him.  Flesch has written many books on writing and the easiest way to browse them is to click the link  and when you get to Amazon look for more books by the same author].

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Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by jimluckett - January 7, 2011 at 9:12 am

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