How will you capture the attention of your audience? The first words that readers see are crucial. Will those words give a good impression? Will they motivate the reader to read on? Will they motivate the reader to care? Or to think well of your work (and of you)? Here are some suggestions for how to think about your opening words.
These considerations have taken on greater import to me than once. Once, I would have said that the ideas were all. Was the underlying story a good one? That’s what mattered. With greater maturity, I recognize that no matter how good the underlying story may be, if it is unheard/unread, it is of little value (setting aside the value that the writer may get from writing). And to get the attention of readers, the opening moves are crucial.
I’m thinking specifically in terms of my new blog, but everything I write has a beginning. What works in a blog is not the same are what works in other contexts, but the basic consideration is still the same: I want people to read what I write. How can I accomplish that? As a writer, the words I choose are the only tools I have to get people to read (well, I could include images in my blog posts, but, for better or worse, that’s not the aspect of writing that interests me). In this era of search engines, there’s a double level, in needing to get the search engines to notice and then getting readers to pay attention, but still, words are the tools I’m using.
Whether you are writing a blog or writing for publication or writing a doctoral dissertation, a good opening helps. If you give your readers something that they want, and something that interests them, then your opening moves are going to help you the rest of the way. A good first impression matters.
Because I’m aiming at an audience of writers, I opened with questions of concern to writers, which I hoped would spark the interest of some to read on. Different readers, of course, want different things. Your opening moves want to be particularly sensitive to these differences, because it is at the beginning of your relationship with the reader that you most need to draw them in. Once you have succeeded in getting someone interested in your work in a positive way, then you can start to pay more attention to your own interests and to discussing your own interests.
Once you have captured the attention of your reader, you want to try to anchor it by suggesting that the rest of the work offers some promise that they want fulfilled. For example, as the last sentence of my opening paragraph, I promise some suggestions for how to think of your opening words, which, I hope, is a promise that got you to read on (I suppose that if you’re reading this that it might have worked). Or, for example, if you’re writing about research, you get the reader interested in a general question, and promise to reveal interesting things about that question (or about researching that question). Or, for example, if you’re writing fiction, you foreshadow some future tension (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” — Austen), or you introduce a character (“Call me Ishmael” — Melville; “I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man…. I believe my liver is diseased.” – Dostoyevsky), or something strange and interesting (“In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”).
What you don’t want to do is answer too many questions. You want to keep the reader wanting more. If you raise good questions right at the beginning, those questions can hold a reader’s attention through descriptive detail that gives background to your work, but that might be dry in and of itself (not that a good opening is an excuse for a bad continuation, but that’s another question). To keep the reader wanting more, it’s also useful to keep the opening short, that way the reader knows you’re not going to waste too much of their time—you don’t want to earn a “tl; dr” whether literal or metaphorical. And to that end, although there’s a lot more that could be said, I’m going to wrap this up.
- The opening matters
- Pay attention to your readers’ interests
- Appeal to those interests first
- Raise questions that you don’t answer
- Keep it short