In the musical 1776 there’s a classic scene in which Thomas Jefferson starts his solitary work of drafting the Declaration of Independence. Quill in hand, he scribbles down a line, looks at it, then crumples up the paper and throws it on the floor. He sits a moment, thinking, and then scribbles another line. Again, dissatisfied, he throws that on the floor. Then just as he’s about to make a third attempt, but before he even writes one word, he crumples up the paper and throws it down.
and speakers know that a great opening can capture attention and guide your audience into all that will come next. I gave some classic examples of great openings in a previous post here. But how do you craft one? How do you come up with a line that is powerful, substantive and shows your readers or listeners clearly where you are going? It’s hard.
Logically enough, most people start by trying to think up and then write down various openings. But, as Jefferson displays, that is almost always the wrong approach. Here’s a simple technique that is much more likely to end in a good result.
- First, just start writing. Don’t worry about the opening line. Begin wherever you want and get your thoughts down on paper. You may write several pages or even complete the whole draft–or a second or third draft.
- Second, look over what you’ve written with the sole purpose of finding the strongest sentence in the whole piece. If you have trouble, maybe ask a well-read friend or two to help.
- Third, once you’ve identified the sentence, make that your opening and rework the rest of the piece to fit that new beginning.
That’s actually what I did with this blog. I wrote it and then saw the story about Jefferson. While the first line itself isn’t four-star, the story is a much more interesting and attention-grabbing place to begin than any of the other statements I had written.
So when crafting an opening, look to your middle.