This is the part of the article that is supposed to catch the reader’s eye. All my work in typing this will be wasted if you don’t bother to click that ‘read more’ button . This is the kind of beginning that I’m supposed to tell you to avoid in the text of my ridiculously long article (I apologize in advance for my ramblings). It’s my first entry in the On Writing Well series, and the following entries will be better organized, I hope. On Writing Well is a book by William Zinsser and although I may not have the experience to teach others how to write well (given my own struggles), he does. Zinsser mainly focuses on how to write articles, so I’m incorporating advice from this fantastic book into relevant points for a wider medium for young writers out here (including myself).
This is the most crucial part of your work. For novels, articles, magazine guides, any piece of writing at all, the title is what decides who will bother to read it or not. The title should scream ‘read me!’. There are no absolute rules in writing, that’s impossible. However, a short title is good for novels and short stories, it gives it an enigmatic look, especially if the words are unusual or eerie. Keep in mind there are many books with long names that have done stupendously well, and if you think that’s what suits your story, go for it.
Since there are no hard and fast rules in writing (this article is merely a guide), choosing your own style, tempo and titles are difficult. The main question you should ask yourself before choosing a title is, ‘what does my reader want to see?’. This will help you narrow down the choices.
For example, since YOU are reading this now, what is it that made you want to open this article and check it out? Maybe you felt that you wanted tips on how to write better, which is what made you click on it. This is just another writing guide among hundreds out there, but why did you open this one? This is how you step into your reader’s shoes.
Taking the example of writing online further, let’s consider a writing platform. When a reader is scrolling through the particular platform, huge quantities of links pop up. They are probably not even reading the titles closely, just skimming through the lists. Here’s where a good title and book cover come into play. If your title catches your reader’s attention, they will pause scrolling and take a better look at your link. This is where the cover is useful. After reading the title, the very next thing they will look at is the cover, which has to be perfect, for the reader to actually bother to start reading the extra text displayed by the media. Sometimes even, the cover is what will catch the reader and they will look at the title next (more on cover art later on in #2).
The same story at a bookstore. Maybe your book is wedged between several others in a shelf, and only the spine is showing, so that your only card is your title. A strong title that either gives away the context completely to grab the reader’s eye, or that’s just enigmatic enough for the reader to want to look at the blurb at the back is what you need. If you are flipping through a newspaper, the bold heading of the articles are what you skim through. One of them stands out, and you pause to take a better look.
Since the title is such an important decision, all the time in the world can be taken to come up with one. A good idea is not to name your work before you finish it, so you can think of something relevant to the book. Or, it may be the other way around, the title is what keeps you inspired to go on writing, and help keep the plot on focus.
[Aside: One of the best feelings in the world, to me, is when I’m reading a book with an abstract curious sort of title and suddenly, it hits me exactly why the author had chosen that title in particular and what it means to the book. It gives me a warm feeling of being on the same page as the author and I feel quite clever at having found it out.]
2. Beginning – the hook
There is nothing more important than the heading/title of your work. However, beginnings are almost as important. Even if your heading makes the reader want to start reading your article, the first line may not interest them as much. If your first line does not make the reader itch to read the second line, your article still fails. Same goes for the second line, and third line, so on, till the paragraph ends and the reader is hooked.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a story for a book of short stories, a novel for your publisher, an entry in a school magazine, a fanfiction online, a novella for a writing competition, the beginning can make or break your whole piece.
The key to a good hook is to keep in mind the audience you are writing for. Are you going to send an entry to your school newspaper? What are teenagers interested in? Start your article by catching the attention of the neurotic teenager. Put yourself in the shoes of your readers. If you were a teenager, how could this particular piece of writing catch your attention? Writing online is tricky. Depending on the media you are using, there maybe a description (like the blurb of a book) displayed to the browser, or the very first few lines of your text. I shall discuss the former in 3. but if the first part of your story is what your readers see immediately, there has to be enough substance in it to stop the reader from scrolling on and bother to read this small bit of writing displayed to them.
Zinsser goes into detail about the typical article beginnings he’s read and how empty and tiresome they are, having been used and used and used repeatedly. There is no getting around it, if your beginning is flat, or meaningless, it won’t matter about the rest of the work you put in. The beginning is something you should spend a lot of time polishing.
There are many ways to start your story, here are some:
Many writers are often disillusioned with this. Commonly, a dialogue where someone’s name is called and something shocking occurs, is what most writers start with, thinking that it will hook the reader into wanting to know what was so shocking. No. This is an overused concept. The reader will be bored by your preamble. If you plunged right into describing, the reader will sit up straight, trying to grasp what happened. If you are starting with dialogue, your beginning should not be a languid one. It should be riveting, loud and tempting.
Starting with something like ‘Bam! The study door flew open and an angry looking Mr. Feller marched out’ or ‘Hiss. Lizzy couldn’t figure out where the strange noise was coming from.’ gives the writer an oddly premature air. Onomatopoeia is better in the middle of someone’s stream of consciousness, as an interruption of a speech or monologue, anything, just not the beginning. It takes an extremely well experienced writer to pull this off, and if you feel you’re not up to it, take a safer road. If, however, you are writing for a children’s book, all kinds of onomatopoeia are welcome, the more the better.
This method works particularly well if the writing is in third person. It’s a little tougher to pull off in first person, but not impossible. Starting with a contemptuous character dissection, or perhaps the incoming of an important event are well tried and tested ways to start your story. This is probably the most widely used form, as you can write almost anything under this category. Chasing a cat down the street, climbing a tree, any important action that is crucial to your plot will work well with this. Beginnings should be a hint on what the rest of the book will be about, so keep it relevant.
Starting with an abstract description of something seemingly ordinary will arouse the reader’s curiosity as anything out of the ordinary does. The description of a character polishing their shoes, the arrangement of flowers in a vase, the way the kitchen seemed gleaming oddly. Usually a description of nature is tricky since nature is something writers love to write pages about, but the reader tires of it easily. If it involves nature, make it brief, interesting and happening.
These are four large categories on starting your story, but always keep in mind what the reader wants from you. What you yourself want from the reader. There are many ways to begin a story, but it all depends on what you are writing about. Your hook should be good and solid, and above all keep its promise. You don’t want to give false impression of your story in the beginning, this just kills readers.
If you are writing for a competition, or a newspaper or something, this is not relevant to you. But to most of us, this forms the third of the golden trio: the title, cover and description.
If you are writing online, and your platform displays your description instead of the first lines of you story, you have to work on that description. Similarly, in a bookstore, if a person is interested in a book after seeing its title and cover, they will automatically turn it over to read the back, hoping for more information on what you will offer in your story. Unless you have a picky publisher who doesn’t let you write your own blurbs or something, you’re the one in charge of giving that information to your readers.
Details on your book can given away in two forms usually: the quote, or a summary. When I pick up a book at a bookstore, there is nothing more disappointing that seeing the back plastered with one-liners from famous newspapers saying how amazing the book is, I want information about the it, and I don’t get it from a block of the author’s biography, or the newspaper reports.
Luckily, if you are writing online, you have more control over this. What appears in the description is what make the reader keep scrolling or click on your work. You can either put in a quote from your text, which will make the reader curious about what is happening, or you can give a plot description, stopping at a crucial part that will interest your audience enough to crack open the covers or click the link.
Descriptions are also important because they are what sets your book apart from the rest of the bunch. If your published book is in a store, it will be grouped with narratives of a similar genre. If you have published it online, it will come up with tags that many other publications share. Your description is what will tell your reader why they should read your book, rather than the very similar looking one right below yours.