Ask the Editor™
Volume 6, Issue 4

In this issue:

In the Beginning: Writing a Lead Paragraph

Your first paragraph is a bit like the first time you are introduced to another person. It's difficult to overcome a bad first impression.

The most important part of anything you write is your lead. Lose your readers in the first paragraph, and lose them for good. If it fails to compel the reader to read on, he or she most likely won't.

Your lead must engage your readers right away. Begin by arousing their curiosity through an interesting idea or unusual fact. Then tell readers why the piece was written and why they should read it.

The opening paragraph comes first for the reader, but not necessarily for the writer. I usually write the lead last, after I know what I'm introducing.

Other times I'll suddenly be inspired to write the introduction in the middle or even at the beginning of writing a draft. When this happens, I'll get it down as best I can and go back and revise it later until I am happy with it.

Very often the idea for the lead will come to me during the prewriting stage. As I go through my research and interview transcriptions, I'll flag interesting facts or insightful quotes with a Post-It note.

Other times I'll be inspired out of the blue after I've had time to digest the information. This sometimes happens at the least opportune times, like when I'm waking up in the morning or driving. That's why I've learned to always keep a pen and paper handyand to get off the roadwhen the idea comes.

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“The last thing we decide in writing ... is what to put first .” Blaise Pascal

Orfield Communications

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Possible Elements of an Opening

  • Dramatic statement about the topic
  • Provocative question for the reader
  • Interesting fact or detail
  • Insightful quote
  • Important news
  • Illustrative story
  • Humorous anecdote
  • Challenge a widely spread assumption or opposing point of view
  • Statement of topic, purpose, and main point
  • Background and context
  • Preview of points to be covered

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“I always know the ending; that’s where I start.” Toni Morrison

Tips on Writing an Effective Opening

  • Grab the reader's attention right away and force them to keep reading
  • Imagine how your readers will respond; ask yourself what would seize their interest and what would bore them
  • Lead up to the main purpose of your writing; then tell readers why the piece was written and why they must read it
  • Don't expect the reader to stick around; let them know immediately what's in it for them
  • Don't waste your readers' time with vague generalities and pointless detail
  • Remember that you will likely collect more material than you will use; choose the details that are most interesting and important, and don't try to use all of them in the opening
  • Delete the "warm-up" paragraph that presents relevant, but not essential, background on the subject
  • If you have information that is pertinent and necessary but might make for a tedious introduction, save it for later in the piece
  • Revise your opening with a critical eye; rewrite until you are completely satisfied with it

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“I start at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop .” Anthony Burgess

Ask the Editor™ Question

I'm careful not to use language that might be considered sexist, but is there anyway around using "he or she" or "his or her" when the antecedent's gender is unknown? It gets a bit clunky.

Paul Bly

One way is to rewrite the sentence to eliminate the pronoun. For example, the sentence, "A salesperson is expected to meet with his or her clients twice a week." can be rewritten, "A salesperson is expected to hold two client meetings a week." Another option is to recast the sentence so it is plural. Instead of, "Each applicant must provide references from his or her last job." write, "Applicants must provide references from their last job."

“The Editor”

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