Updated July 2023
Even people who make their bones writing every single day can get stymied when it comes to beginning a piece. I think some of that is because we all know the start of any story is the make-or-break point for engagement. If we don't hook you at the top it's really unlikely to get to the end.
3 ways to start a piece of writing
Here are the three tactics I use myself and with my writing coaching clients to start any piece of content:
1. High-speed, low-drag approach: Don’t worry about the beginning, just start writing -- anywhere you feel the mojo. That could be section 2 or subheads to guide the reader. Or just tell yourself, "This is not my perfect beginning". (I like to sing that to the tune of Talking Heads' Once in a Lifetime). A beginning may come to you or you can simply summarize the piece and use that as the lede.
2. Journalistic approach: I learned this process years ago in a session with veteran journalist and writing coach Chip Scanlon. I still use it because it's just that good.
- Slug: Jot down 3 6-word distillations of the story (could become your headline/title).
- Story: Write 1 sentence that conveys the most important thing you want the reader to know.
- News: Craft another sentence or two explaining what’s new, different or surprising.
- So?: Construct a sentence or two answering the question “why should I (the reader?) care" and explaining why the content is relevant and valuable to them.
- Lede: Bring your sentences together into paragraph form, et voilà, you have your beginning.
Sometimes I do one set (slug, story, news, so, lede), but if I'm really stymied or I have time, I create multiple sets and choose the best one. For a more in-depth look at this process, check out my slide deck on starting a piece of writing. It was created for high school journalists but applies to anyone who writes anything.
3. Analytical approach: Take a look at 3 or 4 exemplary pieces of writing similar to what you're producing (i.e., sales reports, how-to articles, webinar recaps, etc.). Notice the traits they have in common and if there's a style you like. Then apply these insights to your own beginning. When I have the time, I write several openings based on this research to find the one that works best. Read more about how to use models to level up your writing.
The really cool thing is, you can use any of these approaches anytime -- whether you're struggling or not -- to create a stronger and more effective opening to anything you're working on. Good luck!