Here’s my final lesson on “Great Beginnings”—if you haven’t read the previous two, they can be found here
. This week’s lesson is for those of you who write non-fiction: devotionals, Bible studies, any of several types of essays, that sort of thing. At the very end, I’ll give a few suggestions for great beginnings for poets.
First, a list of a few things that you should avoid in your opening:
1. Starting with a dictionary definition
. People don’t read dictionaries for a reason…they’re boring. Starting with a dictionary definition is clichéd, and usually unnecessary. If you’re going to be using a word or phrase that’s unfamiliar to your readers, tell them what it means by using it in context or otherwise explaining it in your own words, but stay away from Webster.
2. Starting with a quotation
. Most people will see those few lines set aside from the body of your essay in italics and skip right over them to get to the good stuff. In the Writing Challenge, you’ve only got 750 words. You really don’t want to give 50 of them over to someone else, no matter how relevant the quote is. Use your own
wonderful words to make your point.
3. Starting with a Scripture verse
. I might be stepping on some toes here, but bear with me. As I said in #2, readers’ eyes often skip right over the ‘set aside’ text anyway—so they’ll be missing out on the Scripture that you want them to read. But if you incorporate the important Scriptures into your body of your writing, they’re more likely to be read.
4. Starting with abstraction
. Readers may need to be eased into your more academic or abstract points. Give them a point of interest first, so that they’ll be able to connect your lesson with their own life. Similarly, starting with a question (“Have you ever wondered…” “What would you do if…” ) is overdone.
So—now that you have four things to avoid—how should
you begin a piece of nonfiction? Well, a lot of the same things that work in fiction will work for your nonfiction pieces, too. If you read the links above, you’ve already seen some of them, but I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version here:
1. Use some really interesting word choices.
2. Start with a short sentence that packs a punch.
3. Introduce some conflict.
4. Start with an anecdote—either something that happened to you, or to someone you know (or know of)—or even a made-up scenario with a hypothetical person, to illustrate your main idea. Readers like to read about people
5. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be dry and humorless—put a chuckle in the beginning.
6. Use strong imagery—something that appeals to one of the senses.
7. Provide an object lesson—an example of something that you’ve observed in the real world.
8. There’s no reason that a nonfiction entry can’t include some dialogue. Again, this gives your piece a human component.
9. Give your opening sentences a conversational tone, even a recognizable voice. Nonfiction writing does not have to be cold and distant. Make your writing sound like you
Obviously, there are some types of non-fiction writing where you have to reign it in—formal, academic writing, or the writing that’s necessary for your job—for these, you’ll want to adhere to the appropriate style and voice. But if you’re writing to appeal to a large, general readership, you can afford to relax a bit.
HOMEWORK: (for nonfiction writers)
Copy and paste (or write) the first 100 words (no more than that, please) of a devotional, Bible study, or other non-fiction essay, incorporating a few of the suggestions above. If you wish, you can also give a brief description of the rest of the article.
Tell which of the above points are in that article, and why they work.
I’d love to hear from you nonfiction writers—what did you think of these ideas? Do you have others that you’d like to share on this thread?
On to poetry, then. This is harder, because there are so many different types of poetry. What works for free verse may not work for a rhymed and metered poem, and what works for a narrative poem may not work for a lyrical one. And poetry is probably the most subjective of the written arts.
So, this is just going to be “what works for me”—things that, when I was judging the Challenge, would have caused me to rate the criterion of does this piece have a good beginning
1. Grab the reader right away with a great image
2. If it’s a structured poem, give it an unusual
structure. Poems are easily recognized by the way they’re arranged on paper, and if I see a typical, 4-line structure, I’m less likely to be intrigued than if I see an arrangement that promises something new and different.
3. Word choice, word choice, word choice. Don’t use rice cake words when there are salsa words available.
4. Lots and LOTS of poetry themes, especially inspirational poetry themes, have been waaaaaaay overdone. If you’re going to write an inspirational poem, give it an interesting twist at the beginning, to make me want to keep reading.
5. If you’re rhyming, use a great rhyme or two in that first stanza. By ‘great rhyme’, I mean words that your reader may not have ever seen rhymed before.
And that’s about it, because I really want to hear from poets and readers of poetry. What makes you want to keep reading a poem? Or on the flip side—what makes you stop after the first few lines?
HOMEWORK (for poets)
Copy and paste (or write) the first 4-6 lines of a poem that incorporates one or two of the suggestions above.
Tell why that poem has a great beginning.
I’d love, love, love to hear from you—even if you don’t do either of the homework assignments, would you just post a comment? Let me know that you’ve read the lesson, and maybe that you’re doing the assignment on your own?
Seriously—if you’re reading this RIGHT NOW (yes, I’m talking to YOU), please just hit the ‘reply’ button. Just say ‘hi’. I’d even take an emoticon. I’m beggin’.