The Fiction of a Beginning
Writing Tip 1
In this series of occasional posts for paying subscribers, I’ll be giving you a few tips for writers, gleaned from my experience as a magazine editor who has read a lot of submissions. These won’t be fully-fleshed out essays themselves, just brief notes and jottings. Obviously these are guidelines: occasionally, good writers may get away with breaking these rules.
Ninety per cent of the articles in my inbox would benefit if the first (and often second and third paragraphs) were deleted. A lot of writers try to gradually warm up to their subject, with many throat-clearings, perhaps hoping to establish rapport with readers before getting started. But this strategy is self-defeating and likely to annoy and frustrate the reader. One telltale sign that this might be happening: you find yourself writing “needless to say,” “as everyone knows” or “much ink has been spilled on the topic of x.”
So here are three ways not to begin a piece:
— Irrelevant details from your personal life, even if they include an explanation of why you became interested in your chosen topic. “I’ve always been a keen scuba diver and I first started reading about the problem of political polarisation in the US on breaks between dives on a rocking boat. It was a fabulous holiday and I saw many very interesting fish and even encountered an octopus for the first time—what a thrill! Now I’m back from a trip and I’ve got a slight sunburn so as I apply some calamine lotion to my thighs and pour myself a cup of coffee (I love my new coffee machine—it’s almost as effortless as making instant) I thought I would start writing an essay on this …” Too many articles begin this way.