And Now, an Incredible Opening Paragraph
What Makes Great Writing #015 - Featuring Andrea Stanley in the New York Times
Quick. Easy. Cheap.
That’s the temptation.
Tricks. Hacks. Shortcuts.
There’s an old marketing theory called The Five Levels of Marketing Awareness. Eugene Schwartz wrote it. At level one, the market is largely unaware of your offer, and you can stay simple:
“How to invest your money wisely.”
By the time you get to level five, the consumers are saturated. You need a sensational pitch.
“You won’t believe this investment trick that made one man in San Diego 15X his return in only four weeks.”
Many information markets now are in level five. Writing advice is no exception.
“Spend a year reading books” is hard consult to swallow when “use this template on LinkedIn 14 times per week” exists.
The lie is that mastery can be instantaneous.
The truth is closer to what Neil Gaiman said at his commencement speech to Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.
“You want everything to happen and you want it now, and things go wrong.”
Things go wrong like…
Your opening line is boring
Your transition between paragraphs is lazy
Your compelling close is more like a flaccid finish
Your concept is bad in the first place.
Ernest Hemingway said this once:
“For every 1 page of masterpiece, I write 99 pages of shit. I try to keep the shit in the wastebasket.”
In this newsletter, we often analyze a whole paragraph. Even that feels long.
A question worth asking yourself: “If I am not patient enough to read a paragraph, should I really plan to write one?”
With that in mind, consider these opening lines from Andrea Stanley’s “Stop Ruining Starry Nights.”
Read the whole paragraph first…
After over a decade of living in the city, I chose the plot of land, a flat patchwork of pine and oak at the base of the Catskill Mountains, for its terrible lighting. The area so dark, I could watch the champagne fizz of shooting stars from my bedroom window; catch a glimpse of the harvest moon while brushing my teeth. Every evening, the night pressed in against my windows in a way that felt visceral, like a velvet blanket tucking me in.
…and now let’s dive in:
”After over a decade of living in the city..."
Declarative sentences work well to suck people into your work. Leading with an adverb clause, like this, can achieve that as well.
Steven Pinker once pointed out that the adult reading brain does not process words one by one, but searches for meaning. That’s why it’s almost irresistible to buzz through 9 words to find the subject (“I”), and then discover what on earth the subject is doing.
Specifying "over a decade" instead of deploying the bland "a long time," helps contextualize. 10 years means a significant change.
”I chose the plot of land..."
Not "a" plot of land. "The" plot of land. This definite article is so meaningful! It's the difference between saying "Any place will do," and "Only this place will do.”
”…a flat patchwork of pine and oak..."
Say this sentence out loud (or listen to the audio version of this post). You'll hear the assonance in "flat patchwork," the alliteration of "patchwork and pine," and you may even catch the bonus alliteration at the end of "patchwork...oak."
”…at the base of the Catskill Mountains, for its terrible lighting."
Great writing never resists the opportunity for a surprising word choice. A lesser effort would have described the land's "bad" lighting. Or "low lighting." She could have described a "lack of streetlights."
She chose terrible. How wonderful.
”The area so dark, I could watch the champagne fizz of shooting stars from my bedroom window..."
Starring in this sentence are the adverbs and nouns with matching meter. "Champagne fizz." "Shooting stars." "Bedroom win(dow)" Our brain picks up on the alliteration through the "ch" and the "sh", while ignoring that extra syllable in "window" because it is unstressed.
It would be criminal to skim over "champagne" without mentioning its double meaning here. The fizz from the shooting stars is champagne colored; also: bubbly and explosive.
”… catch a glimpse of the harvest moon while brushing my teeth. Every evening, the night pressed in against my windows in a way that felt visceral, like a velvet blanket tucking me in."
Check out the "v's" shoving daggers in this last sentence. She starts us early: "eVery eVening." The personification of night (it can't really "press") does indeed feel "Visceral" here. In fact, it feels like a "VelVet" blanket, as she points out with a #simile.
The rest of Andrea’s article is tight and insightful. It’s likely you never get to the shocking statistics though, without this delicate introduction.
Much love as always <3
-Todd B from Tennessee
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