Writing the First Paragraph

by Susan McCloskey |

Many writers approach a blank page or screen with trepidation, even when they have mastered their material and created an outline to guide them through the draft. For them, paragraph one is an omen. If it comes easily, then the rest of the document may, too. If it doesn’t, the draft may turn into a steep uphill climb.

You can confidently draft paragraph one by recalling that its job is to prepare your reader for what lies ahead, at a minimum by telling her what you’re writing about and why you’re writing. Consider this opening of a letter from a lawyer to his client:

An S-corporation domiciled in New York can transact business in Connecticut provided it obtains a certificate of authority from the secretary of the state and abides by Connecticut’s laws and regulations. Enclosed are the forms to be filed to obtain the certificate.

We can deduce from this barebones opening both the what (the subject is the extent of an S-corporation’s ability to transact business) and the why (the writer is providing legal guidance and facilitating a company’s certification in Connecticut).

An opening paragraph can do more, of course, than provide the essential what and why. For instance, it can specify the conclusions you’ve reached through your research, preview the argument you’ll make, inform your reader about the document’s scope, or alert her that you expect a response. The paragraph below illustrates this approach:

You have asked me whether your S-corporation is free to transact business in states outside New York, where it is domiciled. Yes, it is, provided that it obtains a certificate of authority from the secretary of the state and abides by the state’s laws and regulations. In what follows, I will outline the procedures and requirements in Connecticut, where you expect to have clients. When you have reviewed this information, please call to let me know how you would like to proceed.

The difference between the two paragraphs indicates another purpose of paragraph one. It introduces not only the writer’s subject matter and purpose, but the writer himself. As with any other introduction, first impressions count. The writer of the first opening has adopted a formal, even remote, stance toward his reader. Notice how he goes out of his way in the second sentence to refer neither to himself as the encloser nor to his reader as the filer. The writer of the second is more engaging, using his pronouns to forge a connection between the I and the you. Recognizing that paragraph one establishes the relationship between writer and reader, a careful writer edits it again and again, tweaking it until it does its work perfectly.

So, the next time paragraph one seems difficult to write, draft it by writing sentences that answer these questions:

  • What am I writing about?
  • Why am I writing (e.g., to inform, persuade, create a record, propose a course of action)?
  • What sort of relationship with my reader do I want to establish?

Having answered the essential questions, go on to answer whichever additional questions pertain to the document you’re drafting:

  • What conclusions have I reached?
  • What argument will I present?
  • What do I plan to cover?
  • Do I expect the reader to do something in response?

Before you know it, the difficult opening paragraph will take shape before your eyes. You can then refine it until it provides an informative introduction to both your document and yourself.

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