The First Line is the Hardest

Over the past couple of weeks my daughter and I have been catching up on some holiday movies, including “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” The film begins (as does the novel and the other film versions of the tale) with Gonzo speaking the line “Marley was dead, to begin with” – to which Rizzo the Rat responds, “It’s a good beginning. Creepy and kind of spooky!”

Rizzo’s right; that’s a pretty cool opening line! It is, as they say, a “grabber” — the type of line that, when one hears or reads it, one can’t help but continue on to see where things go from there.

Indeed, Charles Dickens had a way with the opener, didn’t he? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life,” and so forth. I don’t know how long it took him to come up with these words; maybe they just rolled right from his pen the first time around.

That’s pretty unlikely, though. If Dickens was like many writers, he probably found the first line of any written text is the hardest line to write.

An opening line is kind of like a person making a first impression on someone they’ve never met before. It sets the tone for everything that follows, and can either welcome the reader in, or shut them out completely. It can be the make or break point that decides whether that potential customer decides to read a particular thought leadership article or white paper or a reporter continues to read a pitch or press release. Indeed, the first line may very well be the most important line. No pressure, right?

Of course, that pressure is a big reason why the opening words of any piece of content tend to be the most difficult to write. They have to be unique and attention getting, all while somehow conveying the gist of the entire piece. It’s a lot to ask of a few words, and it’s probably a big reason why writer’s block became a thing.

How does one get beyond this hurdle? Well, if you’re me, you take several different approaches.

Finish the first line last

A first line doesn’t have to be the first line written. In fact, if we agree that the opening sentence is meant to encapsulate everything that follows, it might make sense to focus on the body of the content rather than struggling with the beginning. So, don’t even worry about trying to write the opening line first. Instead, start by writing the second, third, or even fourth paragraph. After the meat of the article, release, or pitch is written, you may get some ideas from the overall tone of the piece that can help you phrase a captivating opening.

Rework it

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written and rewritten the opening line or paragraph of an article or blog post. Heck, before I’m done here, I’m sure I will have rewritten the beginning of this particular post a few times. It’s the writer’s curse; one feels compelled to continue to go back and rework the text in the hope of achieving the ideal hook.

That’s perfectly OK. As stated above, the text that follows the introductory paragraph will often influence that paragraph. Indeed, the opening, middle, and close should all flow cohesively and tell a complete narrative. So, when you’re done writing the rest of the content, feel free to go back and revise your beginning as necessary. You’ll know when you’ve got it saying exactly what it needs to say.

Walk away for a bit

Even the best writers struggle with putting words on screen, especially when it comes to beginning their content. When that happens, the best solution is often to simply step away from the computer. Do something to clear your head. Perhaps that means working on something else, or talking to a colleague, or doing some exercise. Maybe it means putting it away until tomorrow if you have that luxury. More often than not, the simple action of getting away will give you some ideas of what to write.

Take a cue from fiction writers

Obviously business writing is not like fiction writing. I would submit that it’s actually harder, since many pieces of business content tend to focus on the same things (i.e., “the cloud,” “software,” “agility,” etc.). Unlike a story that you create on your own, it’s often harder to make business content stand out in a crowded field.

Still, that doesn’t mean that marketers cannot take some advice from the literati. Some of the tips in this Writer’s Digest article actually translate well to the writing of business-related content. Points two, three, and four – which focus on introducing facts in interesting ways – may be particularly relevant.

I’m not suggesting that you attempt to be the Charles Dickens of marketing, but rest assured that there exist ways to get creative, get the reader’s attention, and get the point across. It probably won’t be easy since, to paraphrase another famous wordsmith — Sheryl Crow — the first line is the hardest. But it can certainly be done.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, perhaps next time we’ll talk about the second hardest line to write – the last one.