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Great writing is no accident. Ask great writers what it takes.

Intriguing First Sentences Catch the Eye, Great Stories Capture the Brain

Catching a reader’s eye and holding their attention is the challenge faced by any writer, on any subject, at any time. Our greatest writers have struggled with the same challenge and have suggestions worth following.

Conveniently, The New York Times collected some of the best suggestions from well-known novelists and essayists in a column called Writers on Writing, which is still available in two volumes on the Times’ website.

The advice from talented writers is down-to-earth and applicable to anyone who uses words to explain, advocate or entertain. The advice is similar to what many writing coaches suggest. The similarity centers on how to appeal to readers. Here’s a sampler of great writer wisdom:

The First Sentence Is the Hook
Readers tend not to read the second, third and fourth sentences if the first sentence doesn’t capture their attention. It’s the hook for a news story, a short story or a long story.

Writers need to outline their story, master their facts and understand their characters, but first they need to concentrate on how to invite readers into their story. Who could resist Charles Dickens’ captivating invitation in A Tale of Two Cities?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Or George Orwell’s eerie first line in 1984.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Or Ernest Hemingway’s understated first line in The Old Man and the Sea.

“The old man was dreaming about the lions.”

Those lines in all likelihood didn’t just pop into their authors’ heads. They were well considered, heavily chiseled and possibly a source of sleepless nights before finished. Their brilliance made them enticing. Not reading on would be as rude as rejecting your own birthday cake.

Many writers who aren’t famous novelists have less time to contemplate a compelling first line for their story. They aren’t writing for all time, just to meet a deadline. Despite the circumstances, focusing on the first line is essential for readability. What’s the point of writing more if people stop reading at the beginning.

Editing Is a Writer’s Education
When you start writing, you tend to resent editing and editors. When you decide to start writing well, you should hug your editor every chance you get. He or she is giving you a free education. Hemingway is an excellent example of a writer who spent much of his time rewriting his work.

Good editing detects more than typos, awkward phrases and disjointed thoughts. A good editor can point out weak arguments, extraneous details and missing elements. A good editor also can help you sharpen your first sentence, or suggest a better one that may be is buried somewhere in your copy. More than once, an editor of my work has suggested making my final sentence my first sentence.

Editors also model good writing habits – like editing and, when necessary, rewriting. Nobody writes with divine inspiration. Us mere mortals scribble, write in waves and wake up at midnight with a new angle. There is nothing wrong with a swiftly composed first draft. There is everything wrong with viewing it as a finished work. Editing, especially self-editing, is part of the writing process, a necessary part to wind up with quality content.

It’s All About the Story
Author Scott Turow writes fiction and nonfiction books with a legal theme. It comes naturally to him since he’s a lawyer. One of his good-writing lessons came in a courtroom with the epiphany that attorneys win jury trials by telling a better story than their opposing counsel.

“The trial lawyer who lost the audience also inevitably lost the case,” Turow explains. “Engaging the jury was indispensable, and again and again I received the same advice about how to do it: Tell them a good story.… Thus I suddenly saw my answer to the literary conundrum of expressing the unique for a universal audience: Tell them a good story.”

Telling a good story requires recognizing a good story. It’s amazing when you think how long it has taken someone to write the improbable success story of Air Jordan shoes. Kudos to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck for discovering it and turning it into a soon-to-released movie (even though Affleck doesn’t look anything like Phil Knight).

Over the years, I’ve conducted many media training sessions with business leaders, government officials, spokespersons and MBA students. One of my assignments is to tell a short three-minute story. Trainees usually have only 30 minutes to come up with a story, and it’s revealing how many come up with extremely engaging stories. One man talked about his battle with cancer. A young woman described how she tripped on her wedding gown. Other stories dealt with small acts of heroism, love stories about pets and aspirations come true. This shows all of us are capable of discovering a good story – if we look.

As any great writer would tell you, stories resonate because stories are familiar paths to learning, understanding, appreciating and laughing. We grew up listening to stories, and we never grow out of the habit. Increase your odds of being read by wrapping your thoughts in a story.