A Great First Paragraph! Here’s How to Write It

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about how to write quickly, easily, and effectively on the job.

We started with The Strategic Business Writing Blueprint – your master plan for successful communication that provides the focus you must have to start writing quickly and easily, knowing what to say, and how to get the results you need.

The few minutes you spend developing your strategy before you write a word, provide the confidence that allows those words to flow easily, quickly, and comfortably. No more staring at a blank screen waiting for inspiration to strike!

So now it’s time to write that critical first paragraph – the place you make your point quickly, so the reader “gets it” at a glance, thereby proving to him or her that you are a knowledgeable, credible professional who knows what you are talking about. One additional, frequently-overlooked point: The first paragraph, properly written, may well be all most readers will read and remember. In today’s typically rushed and stressful business situation, with all its distractions, the first paragraph will most likely be the only paragraph in the entire communication that  readers will read with 100% attention. That is huge!  Here’s what you have to do:

  1. Use no more than five lines for your first paragraph. Absolutely no more than five lines. Fewer is O.K. if you can get all six of the critical information bits into five lines or fewer. For most readers five lines is the maximum that can be absorbed and understood quickly and easily – at a glance – and using no more than five lines will increase readership.
  1. Include all six of the critical bits: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.

The “Who” may also be thought of as the subject of the sentence, and the “What” is the action of the “Who,” e.g.,

Mary (who) drove (what) her car to the store (where) carefully (how) this morning (when) to get fresh bagels for breakfast .(why)

And that’s it – The First Paragraph Formula.

A Few Tips:

  1. Unless your style guide requires you to put these six elements in a specific order, you can start with any of them, and use them in any order you choose. This technique, called syntax, is hands-down the best way to make a dramatic change in your writing in 30 seconds or less! Try it.
  1. If you find it hard to get started, start with the “Why.” Tell your reader why he or she is getting this message. If action on the reader’s part will be required, it’s a good idea to use that as all, or part, of your “Why.”
  1. You can increase readership by using a “Why” that incorporates a benefit to your reader. In this case, you will definitely want to start with the “Why.”
  1. A good strong “Why” is (a) critical to helping the reader’s understanding, and (b) the place to start when you are writing to persuade.

Let’s Do It! Putting it All Together:

  1. If you have not already put together a Strategic Business Writing Blueprint for this piece, do it now.
  2. Do a quick review of your Blueprint to focus your thoughts on this piece of writing.
  3. Just start writing.
  4. Once you have the quick draft, do a quick review:

a. Is it complete?Does it have all six elements: who, what, when, where, why, how?

b. Is it concise? Go back and tighten it up. Be sure to retain the who, what, when, where, why, how.

c. Does it pass the Five Year Test? Five years from now, would someone who was not involved know what you were talking about?

d. Is it five lines or fewer?

e. Ask yourself: If I were the reader,

How would I feel?
What would I do?
What questions would I have?

f. If you are on the information side: Does the reader know what to do about…?

g. If you are on the persuasion side: Is the “what’s in it for me (the reader)” clear?

h. Could I present all of the necessary information in no more than five lines?

i. Now, make the necessary changes or corrections.

Your first paragraph is ready, and you will go on to finish the piece.  More about organization, formats, and great closes next time.

Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

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