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“Your story needs a ball-tearing first paragraph or no one is going to read it”

“Your story needs a ball-tearing first paragraph or no one is going to read it”

The first time I heard this quote from my crusty old former Fleet Street editor, I was a shocked cadet journalist in the 1980s.

I worshiped my editor’s sharp wit and ability to invoke shock or sympathy in a simple twist of phrase, and although he drank and smoked his way into an early grave long ago, his wisdom is as relevant today as it was back then.

All stories, especially blogs need ball-tearing first paragraphs. Question is, how do you write them?

1. Keep your first paragraph to 30 words or less

Newspapers are all written according to their own style guidelines. A style guide controls how something is to be written and results in everything reading as if it’s been written by the same author.

Most newspaper style guides dictate that your first paragraph should be less than 30 words. Some prefer an even tighter 25 words or less. This is great advice.

In summary the first paragraph should encapsulate a mini summary or the main thrust of your entire story.

For example,

Women do not leave work to have babies. Rather, women have babies so they can leave workforce discrimination.

This story, based on research by Professor Isabel Metz from Melbourne Business School, goes on to debunk a common misconception surrounding the lack of women in the hallowed halls of executive management. Its findings unravel a complex web of factors that often leave women feeling as if they were “hitting their heads against a brick wall” and were unwelcome in (or “squeezed out” of) their organisations.

If it’s possible to reduce a multi-year study across several participating multi-national corporations to 18 words or less, it’s possible to reduce anything. Secret is to get straight to the nub of the matter. You will then find the next few supporting paragraphs will write themselves.

2. Support your first paragraph

After you’ve written your first paragraph check that each sentence in the following paragraphs supports your original point. When in doubt, chop it out.

For example:

The lifeblood of a Chinese company is guanxi connections.

(This is the point)

Penetrating layers of guanxi is like peeling an onion: first come connections between people from the same province: then the same clan: finally family.

(This is a supporting statement)

It does not matter whether the businessman operates in Australia or China he will always operate through guanxi.

(another supporting statement)

But these networks do not enforce conformity.

(This statement is questionable and should be cut).

3. Start with a quote

There are several tried and true types of first paragraphs. You could start with a quote, as this story has done.

4. Start with a shocking statistic

You could use a shocking statistic. The thing about shocking statistics is that you have to be quoting a trusted source, that you name or link to, and you must use actual numbers to illustrate your point.

“B2B marketers using blogs generate 67% more leads.”

“The pentagon has twice as many bathrooms as are necessary.”

“Eating disorders are not just a female phenomena. More than 20% of anorexia and bulimia sufferers, and 40% of binge eaters, are men.”

“Surviving a plane crash is almost impossible. Nope. Of the 53,487 people involved in plane crashes in the US from 1983 to 2000, 51,207 survived. That’s nearly a 96% survival rate.”

5. Start with an analogy

You could use an analogy. An analogy compares two different things with the purpose of giving more meaning to one. Using an analogy to develop a paragraph is a simple way to make topics more engaging, by likening topic A to topic B. The analogy expresses the point powerfully and imaginatively.

The following paragraph illustrates this point.

No man is a hero to his valet: the close and obedient servant sees all the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of his master. So it is with the financial servant and its industrial master. Weaknesses in industry and in its political, legal, and social surroundings are observed by the financial system in their finest detail. Worst of all, finance is less discreet than the valet. It passes on its master’s frailties for all to see.

The point, stated in the last line, is introduced by the analogies of the personal servant to financial servant, and the master to industrial master.

6. Start with a question or a series of questions

Asking a question in the first paragraph grabs the reader’s attention and sets up your point. By answering it immediately you quickly engage them.

For example:

The Fed’s latest rate cut was discretion in spades. Yet economists mostly cheered. Don’t they believe their own theory?

It would be odd not to, because the theory is very plausible….

Here is another example:

So will good writing eventually be taught in schools instead of the bastardised version they teach now? I doubt it. Like technology, the barriers we face in introducing new curricula has less to do with legislation and more with educating our teachers.

Sometimes a series of pointed rhetorical questions can assert a point better than declarative statements.

How did things break down? What public ethics reign in a land whose police can kill 111 inmates in a raid on a security prison—and none go to jail? Where the head of the tax department has to resign for daring to levy duty on the 17 tons of booty brought back by the country’s soccer players with the newly won World Cup? And where a state governor can walk into a restaurant, shoot his rival, walk away to applause, and win a Senate seat by a landslide? The public ethics in this country are a sad joke.

7. Be unexpected

You can inject action into your first paragraph by presenting a point of view, then slamming the direction of your argument into reverse with an alternative point of view.

For example:

I like to think of my family as normal. My oldest daughter holds down a responsible job and my youngest son is mad on football.

(Here I present a point of view that I think my family is normal and I provide strong foundations for thinking this).

This view has some alluring points but it is wrong.

(Here I slam the argument into reverse.)

8. Be controversial

There’s a reason we’re all advised at some point in our lives never to discuss sex, politics or religion with strangers.

Yet everyone loves a bit of controversy. It puts the cat amongst the pigeons and stimulates discussion. But research shows, too much or inappropriate controversy can also generate discomfort.

It’s a double-edged sword for a first paragraph. If you want to invoke emotion, which is a huge factor in generating readable first paragraphs, then introduce some controversy. But take care or your audience may not get past the first 30 words.

Here’s an example of a controversial story published last week.

A renewed push to wind back Victoria’s abortion laws has been rejected by the Andrews government, which says the matter has already been settled by State Parliament. Written by Farrah Tomazin for The Age, Oct 12.

9. Invoke emotion

Any great story invokes emotion – good, bad, happy, sad. It doesn’t really matter what the emotion is. When it’s invoked the story instantly becomes more memorable. Invoking emotion in 30 words or less is a tough call, but it’s worth the dividends.

You can cheat by using emotive words such as terrorist, martyr, fear, conquer or cancer. For example if you are speaking about change management, you could say,

“We have a problem in our organisation…”

but it would invoke more emotion to state,

“We have a terrorist within our ranks.…”

I personally like to use humour to invoke emotion. It doesn’t have to be high brow. In fact my sense of humour is about the corniest around but it still works. One of my most popular #PlainEnglish blogs was:

If you have three supporting sentences of equal weight (none more important than others), try linking them with ‘also’ and ‘and’ in the pattern shown here. (X is …, X is also….. And X is….) This has to be one of my favourite writing techniques.

  • Make a point
  • Support it.
  • Add a second supporting statement, using ‘also’.
  • Add a third and final supporting statement using ‘and’

For example: Aunty Lauraine is beautiful. Aunty Lauraine is also intelligent. And Aunty Lauraine is your favourite aunty.

These ideas are far from exhaustive. There are many other ways to write ball-tearingly great first paragraphs.

What techniques do you use? Please share them in the comments below.

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