Engaging readers in your article or email means providing a clear sense of direction at the beginning.
In addition to being interesting, the opening sentences of an article, blog post, or even email need to be honest. Whatever you set the reader up for, you need to deliver on that promise, or readers feel betrayed. Here is what sometimes happens instead (from a national newspaper):
Everyone knows that Herman Melville wrote a masterpiece called Moby Dick.
Languishing in obscurity is another Melville novel that was savaged when it came out but has received kinder treatment from contemporary critics. It’s called “Pierre, or the Ambiguities.”
Well, there’s nothing ambiguous about the bold new journalism initiative of another Pierre, Pierre Omidyar. The eBay founder plans to spend a staggering sum of money, $250 million, on his evolving news start-up. He’s already attracting top-tier journalists, including Glenn Greenwald of Edward Snowden saga fame.
Omidyar wants to launch a news organization …
Such writing lacks coherence, because the paragraphs don’t logically connect. The first sentence leads readers to believe they will read about Moby Dick, but the second paragraph suggests that the article is really about another Melville novel, and readers quickly learn it’s not about that novel either. Using the name Pierre to create a tenuous and irrelevant link between the novel and the founder of eBay, the writer says in the third graph that the entrepreneur plans to open a news organization. A “bait and switch” strategy won’t work with readers. Confused about the main point of the article, they give up and leave.
When writers try too hard to be creative, they sometimes veer too far off course and tax a reader’s patience. The writer above should have kept the focus on Omidyar and his start-up by using an unusual or impressive detail about his interest in journalism to create a more intriguing opening.
A similar issue occurs in blog posts. Writers sometimes meander through six or seven sentences, or a few paragraphs, before revealing any hint of what the article is about. Consider this, from a LinkedIn group:
As the endurance athlete I consider myself to be, I like to face the elements and power my bike through rain and cold. A few months ago, my friend Janet and I were in a training ride. That particular morning we decided to bike 100 miles through the hills from Redwood city to the coast and back. For those who aren’t familiar with this part of the country, there are some pretty good hills around here, that this places is referred as biking heaven. The day was pretty cold and it was raining, the biking conditions seemed bleak.
The post was actually about the power of trust, but it was three long paragraphs before the topic was mentioned.
Good writing needs to be focused. We all like to think that readers are riveted to the screen, captivated by the wisdom we are imparting. Think again.