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Opening phrases

February 18, 2013

???????????????????????Opening phrases are on/off switches. How much do you read before you decide to carry on or turn the page? How do writers create opening phrases that will hold your attention?

I have done some research (picked up papers and magazines lying around my house and checked my favourite blogs).

Here are opening phrases picked at random from ‘History Today’:

1. Two hundred and fifty years ago this month…

2. Men of the Gloucestershire regiment, the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars and the Royal Engineers…

3. As late as the 1990s, the global dominance of ideas, values…

4. All of America, in fact most of the world, was in love with flying in the late 1920s…

Here are some from the Independent:

5. From singing together in seaside pubs to securing a 1m recording contract…

6. The village leader did not recognise the man who came to her house…

7. Edinburgh zoo’s two giant pandas could be ready to mate…

8. Nuls points. Twice. The European Survey on Language Competence…

Here is a mixture of others:

9. A petrol station has been granted permission to sell alcohol 24 hours a day… (Buckinghamshire Advertiser)

10. I have a strange habit. For the past few years, I’ve collected handwritten notes… (blog ‘66,000 Miles per Hour’)

11. There are all sorts of silent letters tiptoeing around the English language… (blog ‘The Inky Fool‘)

12. As a speaker, you may have the greatest content in the world, but… (Toastmaster Magazine)

These openings have a couple of things in common:

  • They are articles published in magazines or blogs rather than books. So they are competing for your attention with other articles.
  • They were written by people who take writing seriously (rather than people who write emails simply to get the job done) so I consider it fair to comment on their choice of words.

So are some more successful than others? In my opinion, yes, but that is just the point. If I am the reader they were trying to attract and I stop reading after the first line, they have failed. But if what if I would never have been interested in the subject matter however well it was written?

Comments on History Today

I think numbers 1 and 3 take too long to tell me what is going on. My advice is never to start with statements about dates and times such as ‘The company was founded in 1924’ because nobody cares. Or is it just me that doesn’t care?

Number 2 bores me because I am not interested in regimental history but if I were it would catch my attention immediately.

Number 4 sounds lively and packs a lot into the first few words, so if I care about the history of flying I will read on. I might even read on to see if I could learn something new because I like the writer’s accessible style.

Comments on the Independent

Number 5 is intriguing –  a remarkable story summarised in a few words.

Number 6 is drawing us into a personal story. We do not know the individual but we are being asked to imagine being in her place. In the first few words we know she is female and a strong character (village leader) and we are beginning to suspect that something awful has happened. I certainly read on.

Number 7 is news about a well known story of great interest to some. We know what it is about up front and that is all we need. We know that number 8 is going to be written in a jaunty, informal way and that it is about languages. I read on for both reasons – but I guess just as many people would be put straight off. Is that a problem?

Comments on the Mixture

Number 9 uses a common technique (in this paper anyway) of referring to an unnamed pub, MP, street or village and then in the next paragraph to tell you which one it is all about. I guess the purpose is that you read on thinking ‘Oh no! surely not MY pub, MP etc’ for a bit longer than if they had told you up front. I’m not convinced.

Number 10 is openly whacky and I love it. I like most of the writing on that blog and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in writing techniques. Many people would no doubt dismiss it as pointless and silly.

Number 11 is about silent letters in English – a pretty specialist area with little general appeal but surely you cannot fail to be impressed by the use of the word ‘tiptoeing’? I will read anything that promises inventive writing like that.

Number 12 tells us that it will provide tips about speaking beyond choice of content. In the magazine of an international speakers’ club, that is no great surprise, but it does an unremarkable job adequately.

What do you think? What opening phrases work for you? How do you choose them when you write?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Philip Taylor permalink
    April 3, 2013 14:50

    The first few words in a paragraph are indeed crucial to grab attention and because most people use a bit of speed-reading technique which means only the first and last few words get their full focus.
    So, after writing a piece I would recommend re-reading the start of every para. and sentence to remove any waffle words there.
    Even in your well-written Example 4, I would prefer the key word first: “Flying in the late 1920s was the love of all of America, in fact most of the world, …

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