In the beginning . . .

David Chartrand

David Chartrand

I tell my journalism students that all good writing begins the same way.

Three cups of strong coffee, sometimes four.

The next step is writing a strong opening line, a gripping, tension-building sentence that compels the reader to keep reading. Journalists refer to the first sentence of a story as the “lede.” Publishers use the more technical term, “first sentence.” Still others prefer, “The sentence you write after four cups of coffee.”

No matter what it’s called, a great opening line is critical. It guarantees the reader will move on to Sentence #2, which then will compel the reading of Sentence #3, and then Sentence #4, and so on. The exception to this rule are readers who prefer to skip Sentence #1 and wait for the movie version. Such people suffer attention deficit disorder caused by excessive consumption of coffee.

A book need not be interesting or even readable in order to be considered a classic or important work of literature. Sometimes the author need only a catchy first word. This worked for James Joyce, whose opening line in “Ulysses” starts with the word “Stately.” The fact that everything after “stately” appears to be gibberish is beside the point. I remind my students that it took Joyce four years to write “Ulysses” and it takes most readers five years to reach Sentence #17. Continue reading

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