Monday, June 20, 2005

On Beginning Well

Employment counselors, parents and tailors have always espoused the wisdom encapsulated in the familiar saying that 'you only get one chance to make a first impression.' And writers know all about that, too. As I recently told my wonderful class of students at the Poets' and Writers' League of Greater Cleveland (more about which in coming days), some magazine writers have been known to spend half their time crafting the lead paragraph (or 'lede' in journalism speak) and the other half writing the rest of the piece. After all, if you don't begin well, if you don't induce a reader to stay with you from the outset, if each sentence and paragraph doesn't propel a reader on to the next, you might as well not bother.

Which is why for years I've tended to collect great lead paragraphs. You can find them everywhere, in any kind of writing. What these shimmering openers have in common is that they grab you by the lapels with their vivid images and crisp language. Sometimes they make you laugh, other times they leave you shaking your head at their elegance. But always they dare you to stop reading. In that grand tradition, is this lede from Joe Queenan's piece in the current Town & Country Magazine:
In the autumn of 1990, when my son turned four years old, he began to make specific, detailed inquiries regarding the possibility of obtaining an ATM card. I believe it was at this point that my wife, Francesca, a refined and elegant native of England's lovely Cotswolds, finally threw in the towel and realized she was parenting children who inevitably were going to grow up to be American and not English. Aggressive, acquisitive, demanding, precocious, entitlted. Tykes who not only demanded ATM cards but wondered what was causing the delay.


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