Just a short thought this week on writing.

The hardest thing I do every Sunday is write the first 100 words of my weekly blog post.  It sometimes takes me as long as an hour just to assemble the opening stanza.  I always want something that grabs attention and sets the mood, but also contains substantial thoughts that I can relate back to at the end of the entry.  It needs to be bold, yet crisp – and it needs to promise the reader that the next five minutes of reading will be time well spent.

I think you can learn a lot about a writer just by how they assemble their opening paragraphs.  I saw one example over the weekend that I thought was particularly good in Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.  My general opinion of Gladwell is that he produces populist hyperbole loosely based on real world facts.  However, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that he’s an absolutely beautiful writer.

This opening paragraph in particular caught my attention:

What a beautiful piece of writing.  Gladwell starts the first sentence in the heart of the action and the sentence if filled to the brim with information.  With only a few words the stage is set – someone – a young girl, is coming home from college to attend a celebration.  Then Gladwell quickly jumps to the most delicate and tactile detail: her honey-blond hair.  He then lets the reader recover from two long information packed sentences with a short sentence of background information: “Her name was Kimber”.  Gladwell then returns seamlessly to the story – picking up exactly where he left off after the first sentence.  The close of the first paragraph really hammers home the details of the scene and then relates back to the opening sentence – which also mentioned the girl’s father.

Eloquent, simple and clear.  What an incredibly beautiful paragraph.

Eloquent Beginnings
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  • Have you ever tried listening to yourself with a real-time audio output? I’ve got a Zoom H4n – portable recorder – and it’s really handy for two things: getting started, and identifying the narrative. (You can get the same thing for cheaper, I’m sure)

    It’s usually easier to talk than it is to write (more fluid, largely because of more practice). So you can talk – but also listen to yourself, and essentially iterate much faster on your idea (pausing to diagram and take notes).

    I use it whenever I have (a) an unwieldy narrative, or (b) when I don’t know how to get something started.

    Just talking aloud doesn’t help (you don’t get the feedback), and recording / replaying doesn’t help (feedback is too delayed – you’ve forgotten what you were thinking). And listening through your computer has a pause of a few hundred milliseconds, which is enough to distract you (have you heard of those speech jamming devices? Same effect).

    If you like Gladwell’s writing, you might want to read a couple books on storytelling. I recently read Improving Your Storytelling (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0874835305) and found it quite insightful. It’s targeted towards storytellers and not business, but a fair amount crosses over. One tip is to use the senses in your description (sight, sounds, etc) –> to show, rather than to tell.

    (That said, Gladwell’s writing kind of bugs me because your excerpt is full of overly-specific details, where precision confers the veneer of accuracy or truth).

    The nice thing about that excerpt is that it’s very easy (for me, at least) to visualize Gladwell sitting with a few friends and telling the story, in person, just like that (and I wager that he did just that, as he was researching the story).

    More on the business front, I recommend Lead with a Story – http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0814420303/ – which is a great collection of stories, and tips on how to create and use stories, successfully in business. A lot of fun to read.

  • Bren Eifler

    This post sparked a journey that led me to a company that writes speeches and stories for organizations. I think you’ll find their site to be most interesting: http://storyengine.com/what-do-we-do/ (be sure to check out the “Lights”, “Camera”, “Action” pages.)