[If you missed the first post in my series on self-editing, click here]
[If you missed the second post in my series on self-editing, click here]
[If you missed the third post in my series on self-editing, click here]
[If you missed the fourth post in my series on self-editing, click here]
Self-editing begins with your first draft.
In the past 4 posts, we’ve talked a lot about how to make the “meat” of your piece better, more professional, and more apt to be published and read. But how about those all-important beginnings and endings? They can make or break your article, book, or story.
Top-heavy beginnings: a definite no-no
How do you create an outstanding opening that will not only be read but will whet your readers’ appetite to finish your story or book all the way to the end?
Here are some options:
Start with a story
For a nonfiction article, one great way to begin is with a story. This will grab your readers’ attention right away. (Check out this post, this post, and this post to get an idea of what I mean.) Remember to:
- Keep it relevant to the subject and theme of the article.
- Keep it brief.
Your story can be either personal or not about you but related to your subject. Common sense should guide you on this one. (Pop quiz: which type of story would be appropriate for an article about how to use a sewing machine, and which type for an article on the life of Abraham Lincoln?)
In a story or a full-length book, you can also begin with action. All fiction experts tell us to introduce the crisis or main theme on the first few pages (or first few paragraphs if you’re writing a short story). And yes, you can use action even in nonfiction.
In a thriller, the “thrill” needs to happen ASAP. Although Michael Chabon is now on my permanent hit list (and by the way, the word hit starts with an s), his brilliant murder mystery, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, begins with the discovery of the body. Way to go, Michael. Now go jump in a lake.
Dialogue is another winning way to open a story or book. Who doesn’t remember the first line of Little Women? (Millennials: It’s “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” mumbled Jo, lying on the rug.) And notice how many Sherlock Holmes stories begin with dialogue.
Nonfction writers: Why not begin your biography of Abraham Lincoln with a conversation between him and his mother about whether he should walk in the snow to return the book he borrowed or wait until tomorrow?
You can also imitate Charles Dickens by opening with a line that will go into the annals of literature. (See A Tale of Two Cities.)
Bottom line: grab those readers right from the beginning, and you’ll have a greater chance of holding on to them.
Nonfiction: that dreaded first 1/3
I’ve mentioned in other posts that much nonfiction and academic writing is divided into thirds: the first third tells readers what the author will be discussing, the second third discusses it, and the final third tells us what the author just discussed. Don’t do this.
Since this section is all about beginnings, let’s talk about the first third.
Nonfiction writers don’t have to announce what they’re going to address; they can simply dig right in. Often, a good chapter name or subhead will be all the “announcement” readers need. However, don’t make it so clever and abstruse that no one will be able to guess the subject of the discourse.
2. Save the first for last
Writing the introduction to anything is difficult, and that is why I recommend saving it for last. Unless you have a fantastic opening already in mind, leave the beginning and write the body of the piece first. You can come back to it later. The contents of the body will give you an idea for the opening.
3. What to do if all else fails
If you must have some sort of introduction – say, you’re writing an academic piece – then say it as briefly as you can. Your readers will thank you.
Which opening sentence would you rather read:
- In the Freudian source that we will explore below, we will see the possibility that differences between men and women were thought to be a matter of different responsibilities and roles.
- The following Freudian source will suggest that the differences between men and women were thought to be a matter of different responsibilities and roles.
- The following source will illustrate Freud’s thesis that the differences between men and women are a matter of different responsibilities and roles.
Bottom-heavy conclusions: another no-no
Like top-heavy beginnings, bottom-heavy conclusions bog down your writing and assume your reader needs a little extra help. If you’re worried your reader won’t “get” what you have to say, you need to rework your piece, not spoon-feed them at the end. And to be honest, summaries sometimes make the audience feel patronized.
- In summary, 1952 was a good year for the American Stock Exchange. Delete this and make your thesis Show how 1952 proved to be a good year to invest.
- As you can see, Molly was in trouble. Hopefully, you’ve already described the trouble Molly is in, and therefore can delete this sentence.
- As I have written above, the musical Les Misérables was historically correct, while Evita did not remain true to history. I have proven this through X, Y, and Z, citing sources such as A and B to back up my thesis. Why do you need all this if you’ve already said it “above”? And don’t you have footnotes?
- The above story shows her faith in the face of tribulations. If you’ve done a good job describing and Showing this – and even Telling a bit – you won’t need to give your readers a summary sentence to make sure they “got” it.
- And they lived happily ever after. Just kidding.
With nonfiction, closure is essential. With fiction you can be flexible, but chose your endings thoughtfully and don’t use cliff hangers gratuitously.
Although personally I’m a closure type of person, not all fiction authors want to tie up loose ends when they get to the finish line. If you choose the “open” route, make sure you’ve thought it out well. Don’t leave readers hanging merely because you were too lazy to write a proper conclusion.
Often, how you close a fiction piece will depend on which point of view you’re using. In first person, an ambivalent conclusion is more human, but certainly you can have full closure if you want. Ditto with third person limited.
If you choose the open-ended route, are you doing so in order to stimulate your reader’s imagination? To allow for individual moralizing? To let your reader draw his or her own conclusions? To leave an opening for a sequel? All these reasons are legitimate, but as the author, know your motivation ahead of time.
If you write in third person omniscient, it’s probably better to end with everything resolved, as that’s more logical for the All-Knowing Entity. Just be sure you don’t start to moralize. Let your Show techniques do the moralizing for you.
Consider the following “closed” conclusions. Which would you rather read?
- She took the gold band from her fourth finger, placed it on the tombstone, and went to join Jonathan in the car.
- She studied the tombstone. He’s not coming back, she finally internalized, and I need to move on. Glancing down at her wedding ring, she knew it was time. She carefully took the gold band off her finger, placed it on the tombstone, and turned around. Jonathan was waiting for her in the car. Wiping her tears, she summoned a smile and began to walk toward her future.
Well, this has been fun! I hope you’ve enjoyed my self-editing series as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it (like, a lot). More important, I sincerely hope you have gotten a lot of actionable advice from each post. Let me know in the Comments what you liked best, and which piece(s) of advice you’re going to incorporate into your writing.
Heads up: if you’re interested in being part of my self-editing beta course, please join the waiting list here. There’s no obligation to buy. Those who take the course will help shape what will be my flagship “alpha” course, which will be much more expensive.