Sunday, August 15, 2010

One of the quickest and easiest ways to improve your writing is to kill your first paragraph. It's probably crap anyway.

But no, you say. That's where I put my beautiful introduction with its clever phrasing and creative words.

Nope. Just kill it. You'll thank yourself later.

As part of my day job, I edit lots of copy by freelance writers. At least 70 percent of the time, their first paragraph or two isn't worth keeping. Heck, when I write articles (or blog posts, for that matter) my first paragraphs usually aren't worth keeping. Nine times out of 10, you get to the meat of what's happening in the second or third paragraph.

It's still important to write those opening sentences anyway. It's your brain's way of getting out all of the introductory crap so you can focus on what's important in the second paragraph.

For instance. My previous blog post was basically about my love of office supplies and some cute notebooks I'd found. But I didn't get to the point until the second paragraph. The first is a complete throwaway:
I don't know about your neck of the woods, but here school has already started. In practical terms this means nothing to me since I'm neither in school nor have a child in school. And because I'm staying home for a few weeks with Mr. W, I don't even have to brave school traffic on my way to work in the morning.
Reading it now, I realize the post would have read much stronger without it. The second paragraph gets to the point more quickly:
But like most self-respecting writers, I have a great affinity for office supplies. Pens and notebooks in particular. And now, even though I'm not going back to school and even though I do most of my writing on the ol' laptop, I feel like I deserve some lovely new pens... 
I know there's a place and time for flowery language and clever phrases and whatnot. But I tend to take a journalistic approach to fiction writing - get to the action, now! Just for fun, take a look at a piece of your writing (not after you've just written it; wait a day or two) and see what it would look like if you 86'd your first paragraph. Especially if it describes the weather, the scenery, the heroine looking at herself in a mirror or any of those other cliches the editor blogs tell us not to do.

I'm trying to do this more often with my own writing (though obviously it's not as often as I should, given my previous blog post), whether it's my novel-in-progress or an article for my day job or a post for this blog. I'm starting to realize the first paragraph rule is probably going to apply to the entire first scene of my novel...but I'll break out the red pen on that one later.


writtenwyrdd said...

So true. I generally find the point is made well into the first page. Sometimes several pages. But you need to get your mind settled into the story somehow, and writing a bit of drivel is part of the process.

John Atkinson said...

The first paragraph in a novel is like the first step on a long journey. I have rewritten the first paragraph 20 times and I'm still not happy. I have a tendency to dump too much information too soon.

randine said...

You're so right! Great advise. Thanks.

Joy said...

Good advice. Time and again, I find that the introductory paragraph is just warm up before the going gets good.

authorsoundsbetterthanwriter said...

Yeah you're right. I not only had to delete my first paragraph I had to delete the whole prologue. It was flowery, completely unecessary and very painful to let go. I still mourn it's absence in my spare time.