Your Writing is Awful. What’s the best way to start a blog post?

dark and stormy night

Your writing is awful, yes, you. Granted, as one of my university colleagues in charge of a PhD cohort used to say, “Having one’s writing criticised is like having one’s baby called ugly”. Truth hurts. Are you going to do something about it or just coast along in your snuggly, warm comfort zone? How often do we step back and reflect as to how we can improve? Can we see the wood for the trees, or do we need someone to help us out? When was the last time we asked for and got honest feedback on our writing? How about focusing on one thing at a time, and perhaps, how we start off our writing. Maybe how we start off our introductions in our blogs.

What two things should your opening sentence do? 1) Grab the reader’s attention and, 2) make them want to keep reading.

Here are some pointers from some of my GCSE English text books aimed at students that I think we would all do well to keep in mind for personal reflection as blog writers.

1)      Some notes taken from the CGP’s GCSE AQA English ‘Complete Revision & Practice’ (2007)

“Use your opening to grab the reader’s attention”

“Your first sentence has to let the reader know what you’re writing about, but more importantly, make them want to read on. For example, for the ‘terrifying place’ answer on the previous page (where you may be asked to describe a terrifying place and you pick the idea of writing about Mona Lisa being trapped in a painting), your first sentence could be something like this: ‘My enigmatic smile is still as fresh as the day it was painted, politely concealing five hundred years of boredom and frustration.’”

Some reasons this approach is deemed to be effective are stated as:

  • “Immediately talking as if you’re the Mona Lisa is an unusual idea that might intrigue the reader” (i.e. use of the phrase, “My enigmatic smile…”)
  • “There’s some interesting vocabulary here to get the reader’s attention” (i.e. use of the words “enigmatic smile” and “as fresh as the day it was painted”)
  • “It’s clear how she feels about being trapped in a painting right from the beginning” (i.e. use of the words ‘boredom’ and ‘frustration’ to impute emotions)

“Be as creative as you can… The more thought you put into your writing, the better it will be, so don’t just go with the first thing that comes to mind – try to come up with a few possibilities so that you can choose the best one.”

Other general techniques that can be used in your opening lines to make your blog posts more varied and interesting include: emotive language (to provoke an emotional response, you losers), rhetorical questions (which persuade the reader by prodding and probing them to question something so they start to think along certain lines), irony and satire (to ridicule alternative arguments in a playful and entertaining way), facts and statistics (to add credibility to your argument and raise the reader’s attention to something they weren’t aware of – I can guarantee 76% of you will love this idea), counter-arguments (to respectfully acknowledge a dominant point of view while raising an alternative idea that you then elaborate on), the ‘rule or three’ (or triples, depending on how you like to refer to them, but basically a list of three things mentioned together to create impact), quoting authorities (again, quoting Einstein or Abraham Lincoln etc will always make your work more convincing, ahem), flattery (well, you *are* wonderful, after all, and a very valued and dear reader), repetition (it’s just wrong, wrong, wrong how some people start off their blog posts – but repetition can help you emphasise key points), generalisations (all blog readers are gullible after all… just joking, but sweeping generalisations can create a particular effect that you can go on to argue about or back up with more evidence further on, and will engage the reader in a conversational way while reading), personal anecdotes (telling you about the time I failed my first driving test, for instance, or making you cry by telling you a sad story to get you on side with the line of thought I want you to take after reading my blog – they also make for juicy and interesting reading sometimes…), and exaggerations (they just give your writing more oomph!).

Another approach might be to show understanding in an opening sentence: “You’re probably feeling a bit scared about starting your new post as an NQT this autumn…”

And, if you find one of these techniques become your favourite, please, please, please don’t fall into the trap of using that same technique every time you write your blog. Vary the way you introduce your writing or your readers will get bored, irritated, and switch off.

Of course, it does depend on the type of blog post you are writing. When I did a brief stint as a junior reporter at the Lincolnshire Echo many years ago I learned very quickly the difference between a page lead news peg introduction and a double spread feature article introduction. The former is more punchy, e.g.: “A LOCAL fireman raised £6000 today by carrying off 300 ladies for charity”… And the latter is more descriptive: “The flash of red trousers and the harsh brush of a flame resistant protective uniform hit me in my flushed face today as I was bounced with my heart in my mouth for 20 meters over Fireman Sam’s shoulder, while he raised spirits, eyebrows and a lot of money for a very worthy cause…”

2)      Collins Revision GCSE AQA English and English Language Essentials, 2009:

Other descriptive techniques can be deployed too, for example: alliteration (“Teachers are twitching with trepidation…”), assonance (“A teacher feature…), onomatopoeia (“The fizzing fireworks or classroom fury…”).

3)      CGP GCSE English Writing Skills: The Study Guide (2012)

“Badgers can dig holes twice as fast as a human can run… just kidding, but it did grab your attention. Make the beginning of your creative writing really gripping and memorable and you’ll get more marks”

“You could start with a strong opinion. ‘Watching ‘The Return of the Spring’ is better than watching paint dry – but only just.’ This makes the reader want to know why you think the film is so bad.”

“Start your stories in the middle of an action. If you have to write a story (or anecdote or memoir), keep the reader interested and make the story come to life. Start your writing in the middle of the action to really grip your reader.”

E.g. using the task “Write a story about a time when you wish you had acted differently”, a dull attempt might be: “Once, many years ago, when I was a lot younger, we were on holiday in Spain. There were all sorts of exciting things there, and we were having a really good time.” A much better attempt might be: “I couldn’t believe it. He was gone. “He must be here somewhere,” I thought to myself, as I went through the shed, desperately picking up boxes and throwing them aside. It was no use. Peter had run away and it was all my fault.” This starts in the middle of an action and makes you want to read on.

Another example of a good introduction might be: “Losing a million pounds was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t realise it at the time, of course. The day I made the choice that changed my life, I trudged away from the supermarket feeling like the unluckiest girl in the world. In reality, though, I’d had a very narrow escape.” You might say the first sentence is gripping, because it’s unexpected – normally losing money would make people unhappy. This makes the reader want to read on to find out why it doesn’t in this case.

The end. Conclusions will be discussed another time 🙂

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