In my first post one year ago, I talked about the downsides of starting sentences with “There is” or “There are” (http://www.normfriedman.com/blog/dont-stumble-at-the-start/). Now let’s look at another kind of less-than-optimal opening.
To make my point, I’ll focus on what I thought was a minor shortcoming in an otherwise expertly written fundraising letter I received in June. It began, “Warm weather and sunshine aren’t the only things that inspire our work this summer at the (name of organization).” Why did I save this for three months to share with you?
Reason #1: I wanted an illustration of the many online and print messages that begin with a reference to the season or an approaching holiday. Sure, once in a while the tie-in to the message is compelling, but often the calendar reference comes across as a cliché that only delays getting to the real theme.
Picky, picky reason #2: If you noticed, in this case the false start is also illogical. Warm weather and sunshine are generally perceived as making workers wish they were on vacation, not cooped up indoors meeting deadlines.
How can we do better?
A helpful first step is recognizing that because many of us have trouble getting started on an important writing task we reach for a crutch. We grasp an easy entry point like the weather or a holiday and then see if we can fuse that opening to what we truly want to say.
For a better approach, here are a few suggestions:
• Don’t begin by writing. Begin by brainstorming for a few minutes on scrap paper or a computer screen to generate ideas. Roughly organize the ideas and then start writing. Usually any need for a false start disappears.
• If you do want to begin with a metaphor, consider something in the news or pop culture. Or consider opening with a personal experience or observation you can keep short. Readers like anecdotes and insights a lot more than needless reminders of what month we’re in.
• Imagine a title for the message even if it won’t have one. That phrasing will likely lead to a highly focused opening sentence that will help propel the rest of the piece.***
So if you want to start your next important message with descriptions of radiant, multicolored leaves and the crackle of acorns crunching underfoot, be my guest. Just know that you will not be alone in conjuring a splendid autumnal scene.
*** Many monthly or quarterly articles by leaders are headlined “Message from the President” or humdrum words to that effect. If you are involved in creating that kind of piece, consider putting the obligatory “Message from the President” title in a smaller font and using a larger font for a “real” title that will pull in the reader.
In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml.