The fourth judging criterion for the Writing Challenge is did the entry start well?
I’ve compiled the best stuff here from several previous posts on this topic.
1. Pick a great title. Although titles aren’t specifically judged, your title is the judges’ first impression.
a. Use interesting words.
b. Don’t give away your ending with your title, especially if it’s supposed to be a surprise.
c. Don’t use clichés or familiar phrases, and don’t use a phrase that is already a title for a book, song, or movie.
d. Under no circumstances should your title be the same as the topic—actually, avoid putting any form of the topic word in your title.
2. The beginning of your entry should hook the reader.
a. If your story has a setting other than here and now
, let the reader know within the first paragraph.
Which of these two passages do you think does this best?It was November of 1861, and 89-year-old Wilma Clemson was feeling very cold. It was going to be a long winter in Vermont.
ORWilma Clemson struggled to light the kerosene lamp, her knobbed fingers trembling, aching with cold. Her threadbare quilt would not be sufficient this winter.
The passages have nearly the same number of words, but the second one is better. You might argue that the first one gives more information: The month and year, the specific location, Wilma’s age. However, that sort of specific information is rarely vital to the storyline. If it is, it can be incorporated in some more interesting way.
The second passage, however, shows the reader that Wilma is old (her fingers are ‘knobbed’), that the story is set some time in the past (the kerosene lamp), and somewhere where the winters are quite cold. In addition, the reader is given a hint about Wilma’s circumstances: she’s probably not a wealthy woman (the ‘threadbare’ quilt).
b. Consider using short first sentences—7 or 8 words or less.
c. Make the reader think “huh”? If your first sentence is puzzling or intriguing, the reader is likely to keep going.
d. Introduce the conflict in the first sentence or two.
e. Make sure your first sentences use interesting, non-rice cake words.
e. My personal opinion (backed up by publishers)—don’t begin with dialog. For the reader, it’s like walking in on the middle of a conversation.
f. Introduce a character—preferably by name. Show your readers something about that character.
g. IF your story is set in some exotic setting, clue your readers in. You don’t have to give the city, state, and postal code—but if the MC is in Madagascar, or Saturn, or Lapland, it’d be great if you’d show us a bit of scenery.
Here’s the caveat: writing is an art, not a science, and all of these rules can be broken by good writers
. Some people like to be cagier about their setting, or to use pronouns all the way through, for literary effect. That’s fine. As with most of what I’ve included in these lessons—once you’ve mastered the rules
, feel free to break them!
A few tips about starting out a nonfiction piece, with some things to avoid:
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.
2. Starting with a quotation or with Scripture
. You can read my reasoning here.viewtopic.php?f=67&t=37754
3. 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.
you begin a piece of nonfiction? Well, a lot of the same things that work in fiction will work for your nonfiction pieces, too.
1. Use interesting words.
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 even a made-up scenario--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.
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. 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.
It’s harder to give hints for beginning poetry, 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.
So this will cover things that when I was judging the Challenge would have caused me to rate this criterion highly.
1. Grab the reader with a great image.
2. 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. Don’t use rice cake words when there are salsa words available.
4. Lots and LOTS of 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--words that your reader may not have ever seen rhymed before. HOMEWORK: Pick one of these to do...
1. Look back through your Writing Challenge entries and find one that you think has a particularly good beginning. Pick one or more of the points made in this lesson, and tell how your selection matches with those points. OR...
2. Write a sentence or two that you think would make a great beginning for a story (or nonfiction article, or poem). Pick one or more of the points made in this lesson, and tell how your selection matches with those points.Next week: CLICHES