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It Takes Convincing: How To Write Opening Paragraphs

You believe that whatever you’re writing about is worth sharing. But your reader probably isn’t so sure. After all, there are now close to a billion websites. That’s a billion websites promising to have something of interest to someone. Readers know better.

Your opening paragraph or lead has to overcome this skepticism. But how?

The Dos

I would hazard that the dos all boil down to keeping it fresh, to energy and originality.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Consider that, in an average week, Dashburst publishes about ten articles on photography. How many different ways can you introduce a series of photos?

If you’re a writer, maybe your lead comes to you in a snap—it’s that quality that drew you to your subject in the first place. But, if you’re stumped, you might look for:

    • A powerful statistic or fact
    • A great quotation
    • The unexpected, strange or surprising
    • An intriguing question

The lead will often bubble up from the article itself. After you’ve finished a first draft, you see that, say, the third paragraph is the most compelling, so you move it up to the top—the third paragraph becomes your first paragraph.

Of course, if nothing bubbles up, don’t hesitate to do research, even when your article is a simple write-up. Often, a quick Google or Wikipedia search will turn up an interesting fact.

Here are example leads from recent DashBurst posts:

Quotation

    “As many as 80% of all the people on earth today have never had the chance to witness a clear view of the Milky Way.” With that powerful statistic, this short video “Illusion of Lights” begins a timelapse journey through the American West at night.

Fact

    In a city like Seattle, where it rains 155 days in an average year, it’s nice to have some reason to smile when the nimbus clouds roll in. Luckily for the city, a local artist named Peregrine Church creates amazing sidewalk art that only becomes visible when it’s wet.

Surprise

    Bean: 1, Tourist: 0. It’s been such a long and brutal winter, everybody – and everything – is sick of it.

Intriguing question

    What does a show about six friends living in New York City in the 1990s have in common with the wizarding teens of Hogwarts? Absolutely nothing. Until now, that is.

You can also use unusual syntax or description (beautiful/clever/playful) to excite the reader’s interest.

Notice here how a very long sentence precedes a very short one in a way that delivers a shock:

    Thought Cinderella was an innocent children’s tale about a poor, hard-working girl, grossly mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, who finds love despite her life’s many challenges? Think again.

And, in this example, the writer marries an intriguing question to intriguing syntax:

    Because why wouldn’t the unusual collaboration of three powerhouses like Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney turn out brilliant?

Don’ts

These should speak for themselves, but, again, when you’re churning out articles, it’s hard to resist the easy and cliché.

Avoid the obvious. For example, a draft from the other day opened with: “Our sun creates the most stunning sunsets known to man.” How many other suns’ sunsets have you seen?

Ax dull and pointless questions. When you open with a question, make sure it’s one people actually ask. That means avoiding, for example, “Do you ever think about how people around the world enjoy comic books?” The vast majority of readers, even those who read comic books, would answer no, so this doesn’t make for a good opening. Make sense?

And, lastly, avoid wordiness – but we’ll discuss tricks for writing succinctly in another post.

It Takes Convincing

The opening paragraph of your article, like its title, has to meet the high expectations and overcome the short attention spans of readers.

Hopefully these dos and don’ts will get you started. Of course, feel free to add to these suggestions in the comments section.
 
This post is part of a series on writing for the web, which so far includes:

“A Model for Writers and Editors at Shoestring Online Magazines”
“The Art of Titles: 6 Lessons on Style”
 
Featured image by Ash Kyd / CC BY 2.0

   
 
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