We make split-second decisions about whether to read a post or click away. Make sure your opening lines get right to the nitty-gritty.
When we surf the internet, we make constant split-second judgements about what we want to read. There are lots of reasons we might click away from a post — a hard-to-read font, a busy background, or an opening that doesn’t grab us.
The beginning of our story is not always where we think it is.
Often, when we’re drafting, we use our first sentences to set up and focus our posts, and then we get into the nitty-gritty. For example:
Sometimes, my imagination gets in the way of real life, and it puts a strain on my marriage. I was in the living room thinking about what color to paint the walls, and Jim was in the kitchen making suggestions about what to order for dinner. He asked if I wanted pizza, but I didn’t hear Jim’s question until the fifth time he asked — and by then it wasn’t so polite.
Ask yourself: when did I start getting interested in the story? I’d bet you cash money that it was near the end, at “I didn’t hear Jim’s question until the fifth time he asked — and by then it wasn’t so polite.” That’s where the real story starts: it’s the key moment and introduces the conflict at the heart of the post.
Now, look at the first two sentences. Do they tell you anything that’s important? Do they feel necessary or like something that could come later, a supplemental detail? All details are not created equal; some add richness, and some are a barrier between the reader and the story. Telling us “Jim was in the kitchen” just makes us read five extra words when we’re not yet committed to the post.
Not convinced? Think about that friend you have who can never get to the point of a story. They start to tell you about a trip they took, but get hung up on whether it was Tuesday or Wednesday, or whether they look the 12:15 train or the 12:30. You sit patiently (or not so patiently!), thinking, “Get on with it!” We all do that in writing, all the time.
Don’t bury the lede!
In our example paragraph, the last sentence does a better job of grabbing readers because it makes people wonder: what was the question? Why did he have to ask it so many times? Why is he angry? These are the questions that get me invested in the story.
Once I’m invested, you can tell me the rest. Including lots of non-essential details in your first lines buries the point of the piece — and the longer it takes for readers to dig for the point, the more likely it is that they’ll check out and click on to the next thing.
On a related note, stating the entire point of your piece in the first line — “my imagination gets in the way of real life, and it puts a strain on my marriage” — gives away your point and keeps me from the meat of your story. It’s easy to fall into the overkill pit; we want to entice ALL THE READERS, so we throw ALL THE INFORMATION up front. The problem: why should the reader keep reading? We want to know about your marriage and your habits.
Write an intro for you — then edit it for your readers.
These opening lines are important for us as writers, because they orient us in our own stories and help us get the details down on paper. After they’re out there, though, you might not need them any more. They helped you build your post, but your reader doesn’t need them.
Once you’ve finished a post, take a look back at your first line: does it actually start your specific story, or is it just a set-up line that can go?