How Shall I Begin?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

When we were studying abroad, our assignment each week was to read about six million books and prepare an essay of similar length. One of the essays was on the treatment of justice in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Over the week's course, we read the play, we read law; we covered theories of retribution, we pored over the concept of being wronged. By the time we sat down to type the paper, we had everything we wanted to cover laid out, arguments arranged, and Smirnoff blue label uncorked.

And we just stared at the blank screen like a chimp slogged on mescal. How should we begin?

Intros are the toughest part of writing for many people--and we were often among them--but here's a tip to make them a bit easier:

Open with an anecdote.

That's about it.

It's pretty dull to just say what you're writing about, so tell your reader a story. People enjoy stories, even if they're (the stories, not the people) short, say a paragraph or two, so it's a great way to get them interested in your article. It also puts your main idea in context. Say you're writing an informative piece on using MS Word's autocorrect function. The kind of person who's going to benefit from reading your article is probably going to ignore it if you begin with a list of instructions and a lot of intimidating technical jargon--after all, that's what manuels are for. Plus, they may not think that what you have to say is especially important to them. But if you open with a quick recap of the time your co-worker wrote up a memo to Mr. Big Client and autocorrect changed his last name to "Bitchpatrick," you demonstrate your article's relevance--in plain English--and get your reader wanting more.

Plus, anecdotes are easy to write and do wonders toward upping your word count--in college that meant our papers were done faster; in the publication world, that means you get paid more.