Opening Words That Wow!

Sunday, December 22, 2013
Have you ever found yourself staring at a blank page and wondering, “How in the world do I start?” This can pertain to newspaper or magazine articles, query letters, essays, blog posts, plays, non-fiction books or novels.

Writing the opening sentence (or sentences) can be very intimidating. If you’re querying a magazine editor who receives twenty or more queries a day, they could very easily delete your e-mail if they aren’t hooked in the opening. The same goes for agents you are contacting for possible representation. There, you have to first hook the agent in the query letter, and then, if they are interested in your project, you have to further hook them in the opening page of your book. No pressure, right?

Like many aspects of writing, opening words and pages can be very subjective. I signed up for an intensive workshop with a literary agent at a Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators conference this past fall and picked up a lot of great tips. During one exercise, the agent passed out a sheet that contained pieces of query letters she had received from various authors with “the hook” of each book that had been pitched. Our assignment was to circle each “hook” that we believed resulted in representation. For the most part, we were able to pick out the successful queries. There were a few that we were unsure about.

What was most obvious about the exercise was that there was no “right” way to present the hook of each book. Each author had tackled it in a different way (some started right out with a tagline of the book, others began with statistics, etc.) but we all agreed certain queries just stood out more than others. For me, I can tell during the writing and revision process what type of lead works and what doesn’t. But if I’m unsure, I hand off the piece to trusted friends or colleagues for feedback. Here are a few examples of different openings I’ve used over the years:

Magazine article lede:
He has golden hair and warm brown eyes. He loves to play in the backyard of his family home in Davidson but also appreciates a good nap, too. His best friend is a 10-year-old little girl named Eleanor Bolton, and he’d do anything for her.
--From "A Constant Companion: Davidson’s Eleanor Bolton fulfills her dream of owning a service dog," Lake Norman CURRENTS, October 2013.

Women’s fiction short story opening:
I always thought the ultimate betrayal between a man and woman would involve infidelity. I could not have been more wrong.
On the day I came home from work during my lunch hour (and when our daughter was safely tucked away at her preschool) I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d find. But I assumed it would have something to do with a scene straight out of a movie from the Lifetime channel. You know the kind I’m talking about — murmured voices behind the closed bedroom door, an unfinished bottle of wine and two glasses on the coffee table, a crumpled blouse on the floor that didn’t belong to me. Instead, it was what I found on the open laptop computer on the table that brought me to my knees.

Essay for a trade publication:
I’ve been asked the question, “how do I get my first clip?” throughout my freelance career countless times. These days, writers can go the content aggregate route and get clips published pretty quickly on those sites, but they are paid in pennies and many editors won’t consider those real clips. But when I tell other writers how I got my first clip after taking a few years off from writing to have my daughter, they look at me a little skeptically.
I offered to write something for free. And I did it more than once.

How do you figure out the best way to start out your writing projects? Share some of your favorite openings with us!

Renee Roberson is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who blogs at Renee’s Pages. Visit her website at


Sioux Roslawski said...

Renee--I would love to attend a workshop of pitches and queries.

Thanks for your post. The examples got me thinking.

Marcia Peterson said...

Great post, Renee! Love the real life examples.

Sometimes when I start an article, I try to think about would grab me; what would interest me in this topic? Hopefully that's what speaks to at least some other people too.

Margo Dill said...

I try to just start and not think about it too hard. Then when I'm done writing the whole thing--sometimes a different direction occurred than I originally thought, and so the beginning kind of writes itself (if we are lucky). I think articles, blog posts, and essays are easier for me. But book beginnings--I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, and I think studying other opening lines really helps too.

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