It is dark and stormy tonight as I write. Rain has fallen heavily for hours. The wind is howling. A cool draft in my apartment has driven me under a blanket. It’s a perfect opportunity to recall one of the most famous openings in literature:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
So starts the 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, written by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton1. Although the novel sold well, this opening line is generally considered by modernists to be the worst ever written. Bulwer-Lytton had style, but it’s not our kind of style. This famous passage is memorialized by the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a tongue in cheek competition sponsored by San Jose State University. In this contest, “wretched” writers attempt to outdo Bulwer-Lytton’s classic opener. A friend characterizes it as “bad writers trying to be bad in the worst way.”
Charles M. Schultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, had Snoopy start a great American novel with:
It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed.
Then, I suppose, a cow jumped over the moon.
Writing a good introduction is vitally important to any written work, be it an academic paper, newspaper article, work of fiction or blog post. Especially a blog post. Today’s readers have honed their reflexes to click away from web-based prose if its value isn’t immediately self-evident. A badly written introduction turns prose into a worthless collection of words that will never be read, no matter how substantial the message.
Students (at any level) are notoriously poor writers of term papers and other written assignments. The body of the paper may (or may not) be ok, but the introduction and conclusion typically aren’t. Poor student writing makes a teacher’s grading a laborious, painful and unwelcome process. As an accounting professor, I much prefer to focus on what (and how) a student thinks. Bad writing confuses and frustrates me. How can I evaluate a student’s thoughts if I can’t understand what is written?
This worries me, for this semester I’m teaching a class on blog writing (the formal name of the course is Social Media, Blogging and Business). I am hopeful that my students can write meaningful blog posts, worthy of an audience. But readers will never come unless they are hooked with a good introduction. What follows is my advice for writing an introduction for a blog post.
An introduction must always accomplish the following:
- Catch and hold the reader’s interest. Odds are that readers won’t stay past the first paragraph unless the blog writer’s style and clarity of thought grabs them, compelling them to read on.
- Inform the reader about the post’s subject. Attracting readers requires substance … and style.
When informing the reader about the blog post’s subject, three items must be clearly communicated:
- The issue (or problem) that is being written about.
- Why issue/problem matters.
- The writer’s conclusion.
Catching and holding the reader’s interest is the more difficult. The docstoc.com offers some helpful suggestions about how to accomplish this (read it here). Please read on for my summary of their suggestions:
- Begin with an anecdote or short story that leads directly and inevitably to your statement of the blog post’s subject. The story should be both interesting and short.
- Startle your readers with an exciting word or phrase that leads directly to your subject statement.
- Use an interesting quotation that leads into your subject statement. Be sure to quote the source.
- Recount the historical developments and trends that have resulted in the important issue you are writing about.
- Start with a rhetorical question.
Writing a good introduction takes time and effort. I consider it to be the most important part of the blog writing process. I usually start with the introduction. The body of the post must follow from the lead of the introduction.
I hope these suggestions help. Good luck.
1 Bulwer-Lytton was a popular author who grew rich from sales of his novels. He is remembered for being the first to use these phrases: “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, and “the pen is mightier than the sword.”