How to Start

Lecture Text

Readers can bail on us after any word: this one, or the next. Their time is precious; the world is lively with distractions, and increasingly the page where we meet them is studded with seductive links.

Re-read the first sentence, please. I wrote it to introduce a post about the importance of first sentences, but I didn’t mention sentences at all. In fact, the whole short paragraph avoids the brittle topics of sentences and introductions. Instead, it invites readers to contemplate a personal relationship between themselves and the writer, in this case me. It suggests that readers who stop reading are betraying the author. It sympathizes with readers torn between alternatives. It conjures the page as a temptress luring our readers away from us. In this tiny human drama, the reader is the prize and the writer has everything to lose.

The paragraph even plays hard to get, suggesting to the reader that she could probably find more enjoyment elsewhere. It makes her consciously commit. And yes, this reader is female; I can tell you what she looks like. I imagine her to remind myself I’m having a conversation.

Consider the alternative.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of a first sentence. A good one fulfills three essential roles: to engage the attention of the reader, to introduce the primary topic of the essay that follows, and most importantly, to compel the reader to go on to the next sentence.

You might argue (as I always do with you) that this new paragraph 2 does the job better—that the original purple paragraph 1 and its first sentence waste time and words and don’t get to the point. I would counterargue that humanizing the commerce between writers and readers is the point. The second version names the roles of the sentence, but doesn’t explain why we care. The first version says: it’s personal. We write to fulfill our own needs, and without our readers that need is unmet.

Real Life Examples

Now consider these professional examples from some recent newspaper stories (New York Times, Economic Times, Wall Street Journal).

1. Democrats have for too long been passive in the face of the vast amounts of corporate money, most of it secret, that are being spent to evict them from office and dismantle their policies.

  • Creates a clear dynamic and pits two parties against one another for jobs and influence. Suggests that one side has been devious, the other weak.

2. We’re in the middle of a remarkable shift in how Americans see the world and their own country’s role in the world.

  • Horrible. The vagueness of its claims (“how Americans see the world”; “their own country’s role in the world”) adds up to no claim at all.

3. In the end it was his father’s left hand, found a couple of years ago in a pile of charred bones outside La Plata, that enabled Gonzalo Reggiardo Tolosa to know for a fact the man he never knew was dead.

  • Gonzalo never knew his father. He now knows that father is dead. His evidence is the charred bones of his father’s left hand. I’m going to read Sentence 2.

4. Every literate person assesses written language every day. We find arguments compelling, lyrics melancholy, jokes humorous. We can explain what makes a particular sentence resonate.

  • Wastes its humanity. These sentences point at emotion and feeling instead of illustrating them. Its claims are too abstract: we assess; we find; we explain. There are jokes in this paragraph, sad lyrics, and arguments, but its tone is flat.

5. Days after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 shortly after midnight on Saturday, investigators considering a range of possible causes — mechanical failure, pilot error and terrorism — have yet to turn up solid clues.

  • Suppose instead this story began:

    239 people vanished from the earth on Saturday, and we still don’t know why.

6. More than a dozen Latino men on Long Island have reported being robbed by a Suffolk County police officer, saying he pulled them over while they were driving and stole their money.

  • Suppose instead this story began:

    If reports are true, a Suffolk County cop has been pulling over Latino drivers on Long Island to rob them.

7. The results of Europe’s most comprehensive survey on violence against women are shocking. The survey, released last Wednesday, reveals that more than one-third of Europe’s women say they have been subjected to physical or sexual violence from the age of 15 on.

  • Suppose instead this paragraph began:

    Europe’s women are in terrible danger. By their own report, more than one-third of them have suffered physical or sexual violence since turning 15.

8. The Obama Administration may have finally found a way to stop the boom in U.S. energy production.

  • Does a brilliant job of creating a villain in a sentence. The administration has been actively trying to kill a profitable business, it says. The evidence? The administration wants to place new animals on the endangered species list. Protecting them will slow approval for new drilling licenses. So the delay in issuing permits to punch holes in the earth is characterized as a “way to stop the boom in energy production,” not as a “way to protect our fragile environment from the disastrous methods we currently use to produce energy.”

9. Liberals claim that only government can control health costs, and when market competition proves otherwise, the White House tries to hide the evidence by sabotaging the market.

  • Whatever you think of the argument, there’s no arguing this sentence lays its cards on the table, face up.

10. The investigation into passengers aboard a missing Malaysia Airlines flight who were traveling with stolen passports has drawn attention to a thriving market for illicit documents and the disparity in aviation security across the globe.

  • Suppose this sentence began:

    From certain airports, our fellow passengers are much more likely to be flying on a stolen passport.

Student Essays

God Hates Fags

The gay rights movement is one of the most prominent movements in the United States. In 37 out of 50 states, gay marriage is still against the law. Gay rights have been fought against for years now and much progress has been made. Even still, people combat the right of homosexual individuals. One movement however, sees this movement as an abomination to society.

  • It’s hard to tell from this paragraph that the essay will argue that the incendiary rhetoric of the Westboro Baptist Church has actually created sympathy for the homosexual community. The talk of “movements” generalizes and politicizes the argument before it gets started.
  • Suppose instead it began:

    The Westboro Baptist Church and its provocative pastor claim they know who God hates, but the anger and revulsion at a recent rally were aimed directly at the church.

The Macronutrient Diet

Nutrition is something that many people in America struggle with. In today’s culture, practically everybody wants to either lose fat or gain muscle. However, the ability to diet accordingly is usually the most common setback that people encounter when trying to improve their physique. The term “diet” itself is often intimidating with its implication that it is going to be extremely restrictive with the quality of food it allows one to consume. Layne Norton, a professional natural bodybuilder with a PhD states that, “‘Diets’’ are interventions that typically target weight loss by elimination of certain types of foods, food groups, or macronutrient groups”. With this is mind, the quality of the food must be prioritized over the quantity, right?

  • This article isn’t about macronutrients. It’s about fear. People are afraid of diets. They find them intimidating. Suppose instead this paragraph began:

    Nobody wants to diet. The word conjures images of starvation, or worse—months of subsisting on packaged foods that don’t look nearly as good as the pictures on the package.

The Happiness Factor

The most common misconception with someone who is happy is we think that person has meaning in their life. A person who is happier may even have less meaning in their life than there less happy counterparts. Happiness doesn’t define meaning rather it defines contentment. Having meaning in one’s life runs deeper than the mere sensation that happiness brings. Meaning is about contributing to the world, to something greater than oneself. Happiness is just satisfaction with one’s current standpoint on life, and their environment. The world defines happiness as something much greater than what it actually is. Happiness is nothing less than just the satisfaction of one’s current standpoint.

  • Contentment, happiness, satisfaction and meaning are riding a merry-go-round. There isn’t a person in sight. More accurately, there is one person, whose name is One.
  • Suppose instead this paragraph began:

    Happiness is over-rated. It may even be something to be ashamed of. Because it derives from meeting our own selfish goals, we may have to be greedy to call ourselves happy.

Death by Shower

Accidental injury or death can occur at any moment. Accidents are not planned for, it just occurs. Possible accidents are avoided every day, such as slipping in the shower or tripping on a sidewalk. Such a death is unexpected and can be devastating. Although, everyday routines are ignored and are assumed to be safe, when the chance of having an incident can happen on any day. Many insurance policies don’t cover accidental death, and others offer it as an add-on.

  • This essay isn’t about actuarial data on accidents. It’s about staying alive. Suppose instead the paragraph began:

    We cheat death a thousand times a day, maybe more. Statistics are hard to come by, but the odds of us dying from some silly accident of everyday living are so prevalent that many life insurance policies don’t cover them.

About davidbdale

Inventor of and sole practitioner of 299-word Very Short Novels.
This entry was posted in davidbdale, Professor Post, Writing Help. Bookmark the permalink.

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