Learning how to write an opening sentence is part science part art.
So, there’s a lot to be said about it.
An opening sentence has to be simple, really simple. And it has to be short, really short.
But it also needs to be captivating.
Trying to write an opening sentence can make you feel anxious because it carries a lot of weight.
As Stephen King explains:
An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story.
It should say:
Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.
~Stephen King, Author
Novelist Stephen King admits to spending months even years writing opening sentences. But we’re business owners, we’re busy, and we don’t have that much time.
So what can we do?
To write an opening sentence that’s compelling, there are techniques you can use. But first, let’s look at what makes an opening sentence compelling, and then I’ll show you a couple of examples.
The Power and Passion of the Opening Sentence
The job of the opening sentence is to get the reader to read the second sentence. Sounds simple enough, right? But there’s more to it than that.
An engaging opening sentence grabs your attention and pulls you into the writer’s world. It introduces the writer’s voice and sets the tone for what’s to follow
The First Sentence is a Handshake
~Joe Fassler, the Atlantic
Let me explain.
The purpose of the first sentence is to get the reader to read the second sentence. And the job of the second sentence is to lead the reader on to the third sentence. It’s this vital progression —the first leading to the second, the second leading to the third, and so on— which bind together to form the rhythm of your blog post’s opening paragraph. The idea is to make it so engaging, that they hook the reader in.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
The most famous lines ever written were opening sentences
For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.
~attributed to Ernest Hemingway
In a Blog Post
You wake up. You roll over. You check your phone. You open your email.
9 Best Knowledge Base Software Options for Startups and Small Businesses
We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert,
when the drugs began to take hold.
~ Hunter S. Thompson,
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
I had the craziest dream last night; I was dancing the white swan.
~ Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin &
Andres Heinz, Black Swan
Can you see what these opening sentences have in common?
They’re interesting. They’re unique. They’re short, and they make you want to keep reading. Legendary copywriter, Joe Sugarman explains:
Your first sentence should be very compelling by virtue of its short length and ease of reading. No long multisyllabic words. Keep it short, sweet and almost incomplete so that the reader has to read the next sentence.
~ Joseph Sugarman, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook
8 Ways to Write an Opening Sentence that Hooks your Reader in
Let me take this opportunity to introduce you to William Zinsser.
William Zinsser is a writer, teacher and editor. The New York times credited his classic guide to non-fiction writing as a “bible for a generation of writers looking for clues to clean, compelling prose.”
In this book, On Writing Well, Zinsser discusses the opening sentence and the sentences that follow:
Your lead must capture your reader immediately and force him to keep reading. It must cajole him with freshness, or novelty or paradox, or humour or surprise, or with an unusual idea or interesting fact or a question. Anything will do, as long as it nudges his curiosity and tugs at his sleeves.
In the above quote, Zinsser mentions eight ways to write an opening sentence. They are:
- Cajole with freshness
- Unusual Idea
- Interesting Fact
Let’s explore them, shall we?
1. Cajole with freshness
(Cajole is an uncommonly used word. I had to look it up and here’s the definition: To flatter someone in an attempt to persuade them.)
So what better place to find fresh, cajoling inspiration than a blog post from a dating app?
“What’s Your Idea of a Perfect First Date?”
This works as an opening sentence for a variety of reasons:
- It’s a question.
- Questions encourage the reader to pause and think about and answer.
- It’s personal and it’s fresh. It’s probably something you’re not often asked to think about (even though you probably have!).
- Anyone of dating age can relate to it. Therefore, it taps into a broad target audience.
- It makes the reader curious and eager to keep on reading because it has the potential of being a fun read.
Where there’s novelty, there’s originality and where there’s originality, there’s personality.
Novelty can be quirky or funny, even outrageous. It leads you in. Sometimes it shocks you, then it makes you wonder, and before you realise it you’re hooked.
Here’s a perfect example:
You know me as James Chartrand of Men with Pens, a regular Copyblogger contributor for just shy of two years.
And yet, I am a woman.
This is not a joke or an angle or an analogy — I’m literally a woman.
This is my story.
Blog Post: Why James Chartrand wears women’s underpants
A startling statement, fact or statistic, that may or may not be accurate, is an enthralling way to start a blog article. The more outrageous the statement, the more it drives the reader to keep reading because they’re dying to find out if it’s true. They’re also a great way to start a conversation.
There’s the paradox:
All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.
~ George Orwell
Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.
There’s the (may or may not be true) statement:
My mother didn’t try to stab my father until I was six.
~ Alan Alda
Never Have Your Dog Stuffed
There’s an opera house on the U.S.–Canada border where the stage is in one country and half the audience is in the other.
~ Buzz Feed, Blog Post: 42 Incredibly Weird Facts
And there’s the statistic:
In a 2011 study by Logitech, the computer accessory and remote controls manufacturer, revealed that there’s a 50 percent chance that your lost remote control is stuck between your sofa cushions. Meanwhile, 4 percent of lost remotes are found in the fridge or freezer, and 2 percent turn up somewhere outdoors or in the car.
Blog Post: Live Science: 8 Weird Statistics about Life
If you’re surprised by a statistic, chances are your reader will be too. Therefore, if you have one that’s related to your topic, be sure to put it in your opening paragraph.
Telling a funny story is a wonderful way to open a blog post, particularly if the reader can relate to it. People love to be entertained, and what better way to do it than by telling an entertaining or hilarious story?
That time infamous singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson landed a stolen helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn to sell him a song.
Cole Schafer, www.honeycopy.com
I don’t know how other men feel about their wives walking out on them, but I helped mine pack.
Grab your reader with something unexpected and you harness his attention to the story you’re telling. At least for that moment.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
~ Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
His children are falling from the sky.
6. Unsual Idea
Unusual ideas are generally founded on personal opinions. So opening your blog post by stating a strong opinion on a popular topic can be an effective way to engage your reader.
An unusual idea creates intrigue for what’s to follow and questions whether your reader might agree or disagree —which is a fabulous way to start a robust conversation. But, be mindful that if you choose this opening, don’t sit on the fence. Thought leadership needs to go deep.
Personally, I’ve never liked the term “thought leadership”.
~ Brian Clarke, Copyblogger
I’ve often wondered what goes into a hot dog.
The moment one learns English, complications set in.
I love this last sentence. It’s short, it’s simple, and it’s wry. It also has a substantial degree of subtext. Yes, learning English is complicated, but you get the sense that there will be another layer to this.
7. Interesting Fact or Statement
It takes seven years for your body to digest a piece of gum.
Cracking your knuckles will give you arthritis.
On average, you swallow eight spiders a year in your sleep.
People love facts because they back up what they already believe to be true. Facts stimulate conversation, are often shared, and can be controversial – we only have to look at the current discussions around Covid vaccinations to see how polarising people’s beliefs are.
Because facts drive conversation, they’re an excellent way to start a blog post. But not all facts are true. So, starting with an often believed but totally untrue fact—particularly if it relates to your industry— allows you to set the record straight by backing it up with evidence.
Questions can be a powerful way of starting a blog post, particularly if it’s a question that your reader may already be thinking, and one that resonates with how they feel. They’re also a good way of beginning a story.
Have you ever had one of those days when nothing goes right?
Does your moody teenager rule the house?
How do you respond when a stranger calls you a bitch?
Are your readers doing what you want them to do?
Did you know that 9 out of 10 of your blog readers don’t get past the first line of your posts?
So now you get the idea, let’s sum it up.
5 Tips on How to Write an Opening Sentence to Grab Attention
1. Make it punchy
Boom! Get in there. Mix up your style by trying different openings. See where it leads you.
2. Keep it short
Readers are lazy and busy. You have less than 5 seconds to grab their attention, so try to keep your first sentence under 10 words.
The shorter your first (and first few after that) sentence is, the punchier it will be, and the more likely your readers are to keep reading.
You’ve been here before.
3. Give it its own line
Put it on its own line —a one-sentence paragraph. This creates a visual impact that ensures it’s simple enough to seed its way into the reader’s brain.
4. Show Empathy
Connect with your reader by showing them you understand their thoughts and feelings. What can you say that will make them break out into a grin or leap up and punch the air? If you’ve felt it in your business journey, chances are they’re feeling it too. Spell it out.
5. Show Personality
Think about your favourite books, blog posts and writers. What is it that makes you keep going back to them? I guarantee that their personality is a significant factor.
Personality is not something that can be forced. You’re either hilariously funny and quick with a joke or not. But there is something about you that people love and relate to. What is it? Are you empathetic, do you like to shock, or do you tell it like it is? Whatever it is, try and inject some of that into the first sentence—while remaining true to who you are, of course.
There is no magic to writing an opening sentence
An opening sentence might come to you straight away. On the other hand, it may be the thing you write last— after your post has been written. Then again, it may be “a little like catching moonbeams in a jar” (Stephen King). The most important thing is to not to overthink it. Despite what Mr King says, it’s not magic. Try to get something down in the first draft, then work on it in the editing.
Spending a little time on the opening line can pay off. But if it makes you break out into a cold sweat, try this tactic: Think about your reader. What keeps them up at night? Imagine having a conversation with her. What would you say first? Often, the best approach is a simple question.