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Quick Tip: Give Your First Sentence the Axe

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.

We’ve talked about fonts and backgrounds before, so let’s turn to the latter: think about nixing your first sentence (or your first few) to create an intro that hooks readers right away.

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?

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  1. I like this tip a lot! I never really thought about the opening sentence like that but you are right. We write it that way to get ourselves going but the reader just doesn’t need it. Good job on illustrating the point, I really got it 🙂

    Liked by 8 people

    1. In general, I liked both intros for Irony Prt. I and Prt. II. They made me wonder why the character would be placidly working at a wheel when surrounded by weapons, or why from the other POV, the character was so full of hate for the man working at his wheel. Where my interest faded was actually in the body of the story. The introductions had a faster pace and more tension. They built me up, but once I started reading more about the character, I found I wasn’t as interested in their lives as I should be. I think flow, organization and pacing are key, and without a great balance, a story can be thrown off.

      Keep up the good work, and KUDDOS for asking for feedback–it will certainly make you a better writer.

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      1. Thanks a lot for your helpful advice. I’ll quicken the pace in part 1, but part 2 serves as an important chapter for upcoming parts. Thanks a lot 🙂

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      2. That makes sense, and I think it will work well with a following section–you’ll be really into the meat of the story then and a slower pace makes sense. Good work and good luck.

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  2. I no longer write but long ago my first newspaper editor (for words, not photos) said of a piece: “Great first paragraph, Howard, someday you will find an article to put it in…” My late wife checked my articles & papers but normally said, “Throw out the first page or paragraph; then show it to me.
    The post above is excellent advice for blogging, news, fiction, love letters…

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  3. Great advice! I often end up moving or deleting the first few lines, which are usually something awful like “yesterday I was thinking about the fact that bla bla bla.”

    I agree–we usually need these to get going, but then we must release them! Firsts drafts so often barely resemble the finished product!

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  4. Depends what you are trying to write, a dropped intro piece (ie the news comes well late), in my newspaper days we referred to it – derogatively – as a Sunday Express story, or hard news.

    But an interesting moody first sentence can work well for fiction. In this example, I liked the intro.

    I don’t like this theme. It is tablet unfriendly. I can’t read the original post and comment. Come on, do wise up somewhat!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I try to have my opening sentence, with a thumbnail to lead into the main post… If you have time to take a look at some of my posts to see what I mean and to see if it works…

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  6. I really enjoyed reading this! This is definitely something I need to work on in my own writing. I looked back at some of my blog posts, and can already see how dropping the first couple of sentences can improve the flow of the post, make my tone less passive, etc.

    Thank you.

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  7. Sorry that this isn’t on topic! I keep getting two emails (the same) from Daily Post. I just unsubscribed from one and it looks like I’ve unsubscribed from both now as there’s no Daily Post in my list. I want to keep getting your very helpful emails – but one is enough! What should I do?

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  8. This was a great tip! It really helped as I sometimes just write on and on and on and then get to the juicy details… 🙂 I’m just a new blogger on WordPress and I’d be so happy if you could give my blog a chance! I just posted my first post. 🙂

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  9. Oooh I’ve just re-read a few of me recent posts with this in mind and you are SO right (of course, not that I doubted you)! I’ll think about it differently when I edit mt drafts now. Thanks for the great tip!!!

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  10. Our opening sentences are crucial. We all knew that, but this reenforced it, just like the Executive Branch enforces things, isn’t that right? Sorry for bringing Civics into blogging and writing… 😉 Anyway, I’m a new blogger here on WordPress and I’d love it if you could check my blog out! 🙂 See ya! (PS: Obviously, I’d check yours out too and I’d comment and like everything 😉 )

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