You probably have about fifteen seconds to grab your reader’s attention, whether you’re writing an essay or a story. Poems have even less time.
A teacher, examiner, editor or any type of reader will have made a decision of some sort regarding your work in the first fifteen seconds.
A potential reader (and that could be almost everyone in some cases) browsing through a bookshop is going to either get interested or not in your work in that split instant of picking up the book and reading that first paragraph. Therefore your opening serntences and your first couple of paragraphs are key to establishing how things will develop.
Let’s not start with specific advice on how to write an opening sentence. There’s plenty of time for that. Let’s begin by stepping back from the whole process of writing for a moment and taking a look at what is really going on.
Even when you're not consciously thinking, your mind can be bubbling away on a super-conscious level. (Why “super-conscious” and not “sub-conscious”? It’s just a term to describe a level of consciousness which is not that of the ordinary, everyday mind going about a daily routine. When it comes to the creative processes involved in writing, I prefer to call it a “super-conscious” activity.)
Creative activity takes place all the time in your head on one level or another. It isn’t always visible to you.
Numerous anecdotes spring to mind about people suddenly remembering names or details that they couldn’t recall consciously; you probably have a hundred examples of this yourself, so I won’t overstate the point. Let’s just agree that creative activity, even thinking related to essays for school or university, goes on all the time.
With this in mind, all those tips about keeping a notebook suddenly make sense in a new way. Keep notebooks with you to record insights as they become visible or enter your normal consciousness. By writing down the insight or idea or image, you’re training your mind to produce more of the same, and, once you get into the swing of this, by the end of each day your notebook will be full of ideas.
Improve your writing by expanding your notebooks into a journal. Putting your thoughts into words allows you to think more clearly about what you're exploring. Written words conjure up other words; words paint images, imañges yield concepts. Write in your journal, in your blog, on scrap paper. After a short while you will see that writing is a powerful tool for thinking which will take you beyond what you can accomplish in other ways.
Writing and thinking are ongoing, overlapping activities.
A great many writing guides and writing courses compartment off the subject of “writing” and treat it as something distinct from the rest of life, like cake baking or mechanical engineering. But writing is an art, and art is uniquely bound up with what we feel and think. A composer of music wouldn’t try to separate his music from his soul, so why should a writer? Being successful as a writer isn’t so much about learning new techniques as about removing the barriers between you and your work.
What aspect of your personality seems prominent to yourself and to your friends and family? What’s in your heart? Tiny outward characteristics ¢may give you clues. You can gently survey this amongst people you love and trust, but knowing more about you will open up the most important resource in your quest to be a better writer: You.
However, finding out more about yourself, important though that is, is something you’ll need to do while reading on. We have a lot more ground to cover!
Let’s take a look now at openings.
An opening sentence is a keynote -it can suggest humour, be moving, clever, soothing, exciting or thoughtful. A first sentence might read "On a moonlit evening, a single star glimmered between white mountains of cloud." Immediately, the reader relaxes and is drawn in. The key note has been established. Maintaining the same mood, conveying appropriate images, the story could develop from here into something witty or clever or entertaining or moving.
There are lots of things you learned at school about this kind of thing. Literary devices s≠uch as personification and metaphor are very effective at captivating your reader. Of course they are -that’s why writers use them. But rhythm is the key: sound a key note and then establish a rhythm.
All readers love, and are secretly looking for, a rhythm which eases them into a piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction.
Writing guides will ask you “Does your work flow and make sense or is it choppy and disunited?” or “Do you prove your own argument or do you lose the plot?” What they are fundamentally talking about is rhythm. Like music, is your work a complete entity with all parts relating to the whole? Does it have an interlinked beginning, middle and an end? Or is it full of jarred disharmonies and interrupted melodies with no overall pattern or direction?
Your opening sentence is roughly equivalent to a greeting. It's meant to catch your reader’s attention, grab interest, increase reach to know more. It’s a first impr¥ession, a keynote, a moment in a rhythmic cycle. You are either pulling your reader in or pushing your reader away.
Which should you do with your opening, push or pull?
Here are some tips to apply to avoid losing your reader in the first fifteen seconds:
• For essay writers, avoid telling the person what you plan to tell him or her. This pushes the reader away.
• If you're contemplating doing or saying something really dramatic in order to get attention, think again. It can be done, but you have to time it right so as to pull the reader’s attention IN rather than push it OUT. Invite the reader IN -present a puzzle, involve them in a motion, capture their imaginations with an image, gently but firmly.
Think of a book or story or essay as an attention-capturing device. It works better when it pulls in at first rather than pushing out.