It is a
truth universally acknowledged, that writing in possession of a good message,
must be in want of a strong opening.
OK, so it’s a clumsy version of one of the most famous opening lines in fiction*, but the intent is valid. It doesn’t matter how good a story you have to tell, how valuable your offers are, or how insightful your opinions, if your opening lines are poor the good things that follow may never get read.
Openings have three functions:
- grabbing attention. Readers, and particularly busy ones, are always asking themselves whether they are interested in reading on, whether they have better things to do. Anything you produce has to pass this test;
- setting up what comes later. It’s tempting to draw a reader in with something compelling or very topical … but completely unconnected with what follows. Don’t do it. At best it’s naff; at worst, it’s misleading and trust-breaking. Concentrate on making a bold statement or raising an intriguing question that a reader will want to see you support or resolve;
- first impressions. Like a handshake or that head-to-toe glance to take in what someone’s wearing, your opening creates a first impression that will colour your reader’s perception of what you say thereafter. Don’t be afraid to use a bit of personality to start building a relationship, and be interested in your reader if you want them to be interested in you. Remember you should be writing as if to a single reader, so what works in a social setting works in print.
The last thing I’ll say here about openings is that you don’t have to write them first. Get the bulk of the writing done then create the best opening you can. The greatest authors do it; so can you.
* It’s no accident that I picked the opening of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to illustrate the importance of how to begin a piece of writing. Austen makes a bold statement that “a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” No messing about there. The idea is the centrepiece of the whole book and isn’t just an attention-grabbing headline. We know quickly what we’re in for, in both style and substance, and what follows does not disappoint. We can all learn from the best.