First impressions are everything – it’s a widely acknowledged theory. The potency of a first impression is nearly unrivaled, and in person the initial introduction yields immediate judgments of a person’s character, intelligence and overall worth.
A first impression in writing is just as important. We may not give it much credit, yet the ability to start an article strong will leave a fantastic first impression on a potential employer or blog editor if you’re hunting for the next big break (or counting on someone finding you).
But can the first words of an article really be enough to land you the job? Why does the lead paragraph speak so much louder than the rest? To understand, let’s ponder a common scenario for those of us writers wishing to wet our feet in the industry, whether it be web content, journalism or big-time blogging.
Here’s how it generally works
- You’re looking for employment or guest-posting opportunities to build your portfolio, so you send some applications and writing samples out to the most attractive publications.
- The employer/editor on the other end receives your expression of interest and gives your writing a quick look.
- They like what they see and give you serious consideration following the initial glance, or plop you on a pile with hundreds of other half-baked writing samples.
Now break this process down and analyze the obvious.
Prospective employers, blog editors and the like do a lot of reading and have a lot on their plates. To translate: they’re very busy people, and they know great writing when they see it. They’re the sort of people who spend days sifting through an onslaught of email to pick the good out from the bad, so if you’re going to impress them, your writing needs to make a statement quickly.
I’ve handled the aforementioned responsibilities in past positions, so I’ve developed an appreciation for quick judgments to separate the gold from the crap. Writing that doesn’t enthrall you in the first 50 or so words generally isn’t worth your time. And when evaluating applications, any editor who’s worth his salt will weigh writing samples above all else.
So how can I improve my lead writing?
Make it relevant and cut the fluff. “But I like fluff!”, you say. “But it’s delicious!”, you may claim. But I’m not talking about the sticky, nostalgic marshmallow goodness you’re most familiar with. I’m talking about word fluff: those unnecessary statements that really don’t need to be part of your writing. Cut the redundancies and irrelevant language to tighten up your lead paragraph and give people the most pertinent introduction possible.
Don’t let your opening paragraph drag on. Short leads are often the most effective, whether you’re writing a piece of reportage or crafting a blog post for web audiences. Readers have gotten so used to slow, lengthy introductory statements that they’d rather skip to the second paragraph. Give them a reason not to.
Get clever. There are many ways to transform an otherwise mundane introductory statement into a clever one that draws your reader in. Use wordplay. Alliterate. Create puns or make it humorous (albeit tasteful – this may depend on what you’re writing about). Put your rhetorical genius to work and craft leads that turn heads.
Use figures or statistics. This goes hand-in-hand with relevancy, but one smart way to grab your audience’s attention is by addressing the numbers or hard facts in your lead. This method is essentially a homage to the inverted pyramid writing style, in which the most important information is provided at the beginning of the article.
Don’t overdo it. Some writers have a tendency to think that big, obscure vocabulary will make their copy more cultured and reflect on their intelligence (especially when writing to impress an employer). But realize that it’s very much to the contrary, and when complicated vocabulary is used in blatant excess, your reader catches on to the ploy. Keep potentially confusing terms out of your lead; it’s there to introduce your story in a concise and highly effective fashion, not to strut your comprehension of exotic synonyms.
Coupling strong lead-crafting abilities with your existing gift for great writing will vastly improve your chances of landing the next big opportunity. Now get out there and write some ridiculously good-looking leads to impress those skeptical editors and channel some positive callbacks!