The First Sentence: so Critical to Writing Success

Peter B. GiblettStarred Page By Peter B. Giblett, 17th Feb 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/uht8oct0/
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Tips

How do you open each article you write? Is it strong, is it powerful, does it move the reader? Truth is we have gotten used to writing that is just OK, headlines that are OK, and introductions that are just so. We need something more, we need something powerful.

The Difference one Letter Makes

A single character can make or break the opening sentence of your writing, having moderated many an article I do get to see plenty of other people's mistakes and many turn serious pieces into a comedy of errors yet writers seem oblivious to them and seem to spend too little time checking what they have written, one such error is repeated here for educational purposes.

The original sentence read:

    "Forests are becoming scare around the world with the passage of time."

it should have read:

    "Forests are becoming scarce around the world with the passage of time."

Do you see the difference between the two with or without the letter "c"? Certainly it is possible to get a scare by going into the forest, but this is not the message the writer wished to convey, their message was a serious one about the depletion of forest lands and as that is so simple a fix to make it should have been discovered while the writer was editing their submission before attempting to publish.

Truth is we all need to put our best foot forward with our opening sentence.

Spotting Mistakes

It is true other people are more capable of spotting the mistakes more easily than you, but few of us can pay an editor to correct our errors. The opening sentence or paragraph of any writing is perhaps the worst place to make a single error. I have told many a Wikinut writer about errors in their opening sentences or paragraphs, only to have the article returned to the Wikinut moderation queue less than an hour later unchanged. Clearly where the writer does not care enough to read why their article was rejected, because correcting a spelling error is one of the easiest things to fix (especially when someone else tells you precisely what you have done wrong).

As both a writer and moderator here at Wikinut you should know firstly that I am not able to moderate my own work. One day. I thought I had submitted a great article I had not noticed that I had committed a spelling error in the middle of a pivotal sentence in the first paragraph - I was of course horrified-mortified-angry and any of a dozen other words of disappointment you can select to have been rejected, but relieved to have had the opportunity to correct that error during the moderation phase rather than after it was published (when the error could potentially be there for all the world to see) especially given that most of my articles are auto-posted onto social media soon after publication.

Post something with an error in either the page title, summary or the opening sentence and I spot it then I will tell you about the error once, if you re-post without change then I will simply approve your article and you only have yourself to blame for not taking a moderator's advice. If people do not bother reading what you have to offer, do not blame moderators when they gave you an opportunity to correct it.

The Need for the Perfect First Sentence

Think about the following:

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

    Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

This opening sentence makes comparisons between the best and worst, wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity, light and darkness, hope and despair, in all it makes us think, it makes us counterbalance the good and bad, overall it is giving the background to the whole story that follows and this is a truly powerful sentence that makes us listen.

Let's take a look at another opening:

    If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

    J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

He sets the scene in quite a different way and in some respects he is anti-Dickens, with his disregard for David Copperfield, but in doing so makes you aware the limits of where the writer is prepared to go to at this time and potentially what the limits are to the story, indeed it could be argued that to the writer there are things that the reader is best remaining ignorant of.

Of course there are as many favourite opening sentences as there are great novels and you may have your own personal favourites, the two selected here came nearly a century apart yet they are great because the writer has made the reader think, think about where the story will go, they also to a great extent set the background of the story. Often an opening sentence is used to get readers hooked and draw them into reading the next one and the one after that.

Opening and Ending Strong

Truth is first sentences are one of the greatest tools the writer has to tell their story and this is as true whether you are writing a fictional or factual piece. I remember an evaluation of one of my speeches at Toastmasters and it certainly has some relevance here.

    "Open strong and finish strong," was the advice, "asking a question or using a quotation is a powerful way to link your audience's mind to the words you are about to speak."

Personally I am not a great believer of using quotations because there are many that are quoted out of context or are simply used as stock quotes in that the words quoted have been used so often they no longer bring any value, but they can be used as a device to focus the mind, the same can be true of asking a question, especially when that question drives to the heart of a wrong that needs to be righted. Think about it, then ask yourself how powerful a question can be, because people do respond to questions, it makes them think for a moment about the question at hand, perhaps start to produce their own answer before reading on. Getting into the reader's mind will help them focus on the same issue as you wish to address and will help hold their attention, so precision in crafting the opening and ending is surely the centre-point of the writer's craft.

Image Credits

  • The fright in the forest by Deviantart.com
  • The Error Icon from Windows
  • Best of times, a freeze by Peter Giblett.
  • Winning the race by mintigo.com

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Any thoughts? Truth is most people do and Wikinut is great a place for you to share some of your personal wisdom, that insight or knowledge about any subject you wish. You could start by adding a comment to any article, but the true writer will need to do something more, in which case you could join Wikinut, write then become connected to others who share a passion for writing.

Tags

First Sentence, Make Or Break, Move The Reader, One Letter, Opening Sentence, Peter B Giblett, Powerful, Spelling Error, Strong, The Difference

Meet the author

author avatar Peter B. Giblett
Author of "Is your Business Ready? For the Social Media Revolution"

Social media consultant, with C-Level background.

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Comments

author avatar Grant Peterson
17th Feb 2015 (#)

Peter, I note a lot of what you say, the opening sentence may be the most important of all you write, but I was surprised you quoted Salinger, given I remember you hated Catcher in the Rye at school.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
17th Feb 2015 (#)

Only you would know that Grant. I am not a fan of the rest of the book, but I don't have to be to appreciate the opening sentence.

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
17th Feb 2015 (#)

Bad spelling, or poor grammar, in the summary or opening sentence are unforgiveable as they will turn off readers very quickly.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
17th Feb 2015 (#)

I spend more time on getting the first sentence right than I do on editing any other part of the article. For this article I probably changed the opening sentence 15 times before having the right balance.

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author avatar L. R. Laverde-Hansen
17th Feb 2015 (#)

Very well said. Openings matter so much. I confess that I use quotes, probably more than I should, but only as a sort of punctuation or for emphasis. Needless to say I am trying to wean myself from that tendency.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
17th Feb 2015 (#)

Thank you.

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author avatar Retired
17th Feb 2015 (#)

All great advice, Peter! Doing it well is another matter.

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author avatar Nancy Czerwinski
17th Feb 2015 (#)

Peter, I truly enjoyed reading this article. I welcome all tips for writing. My goal is to submit articles that everyone can learn from and enjoy. Thank you again.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
17th Feb 2015 (#)

No problem Nancy.

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author avatar Retired
17th Feb 2015 (#)

Useful.

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author avatar Deepizzaguy
17th Feb 2015 (#)

I can relate to the point of your article since when I write a fan fiction or a sports report, I have to proofread it to make sure I do not sound like I flunked basic English.

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author avatar spirited
17th Feb 2015 (#)

Thanks Peter.

Focus changes over time though, and today Dicken's opening sentence would be rejected/criticised by most school teachers, and also probably it would not be read if it was used on the internet.

I have been told many times that short sentences work best, especially here on the internet. His one used there is a monster of a sentence.

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
18th Feb 2015 (#)

Actually I am a great believer in using powerful sentences, irrespective of their length. I find Dicken's sentence very powerful and still appropriate today, even on the Internet.

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author avatar spirited
18th Feb 2015 (#)

Actually I do too Peter.

It's just that is what most other writing sites have told me, but then maybe my long sentences were not powerful enough, and were perhaps more just meandering thoughts, joined together by too many conjunctives, haphazardly constructed piecemeal, without enough thought about sentence construction being appropriately matched to my article.....or something like that I suspect....

I like monster sentences, and big words too like the Germans use, but sometimes I guess people choke on them whilst reading them....LOL...

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
18th Feb 2015 (#)

My best advice regarding long sentences is to look up a course by Prof. Brooks Landon of The Univ. of Iowa called "Building Great Sentences" - I have found this very useful.

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author avatar Retired
18th Feb 2015 (#)

Very helpful! Thank you for this educational and great post!

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
18th Feb 2015 (#)

My pleasure.

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author avatar johnbee
18th Feb 2015 (#)

Thanks for sharing. Your article is very true and it has been proven down through the ages.

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author avatar Ptrikha
18th Feb 2015 (#)

Wonderful article and great advice.

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
18th Feb 2015 (#)

A meaningful first sentence, or introduction, is an inviting door opener for what is to follow. Good advice and tips, thanks Peter - siva

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author avatar Peter B. Giblett
18th Feb 2015 (#)

You are welcome Siva.

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13th Apr 2015 (#)

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