The first sentence you write can make or break your story. Last week, I discussed some of the problems with writing in school/university, and I mentioned that the first sentence needed to be short and to the point. It’s not as simple as it seems.
Why it matters
The chances are that whatever you’re writing is competing for something, for example, a job, a place at university, marks, or attention. The easier you make it on the reader the more likely you are to get what you want. This is especially true in business. Tell the person why you are writing and what you want. Start off with the fast, quick information, then broaden and build your argument. That first bit of information can make or break your writing.
So much information, so few words
If you are writing down to a limit, instead of trying to write up to benchmark, you’ll quickly find yourself grappling with what to include and what to exclude from your story, essay, letter to the editor, or workshop report. So, first things first: go back and ready your “headline” or “topic statement”.
Then sift through your information and brutally cut out everything that is not vital.
Panning for gold
Once you have flushed out the jewels in the piece, or the points you simply must keep, rank them. Try to describe each point with a single defining word. Cut those words down to 10 key words that you need to write the piece. If you’re writing a letter, it should be even fewer words. (See below for example)
Just the juice
Give your examiner only what they ask for, no more, no less. They won’t give you extra marks for boring them with a detour to show how clever you are. All they want to do is make sure that your writing ticks the boxes.
When writing a letter or a report, follow the same rule – no detours. Whoever is reading it is busy. They want you to give them the broad idea, and if they are interested, they will drill down for more information. So add the details later. Make sure you mark information clearly. We will discuss this next week.
Follow the style
You would be amazed at how often people write things without reading how others write them. This really can work against you, if you don’t know what is expected. Read other pieces of writing similar to yours. If you can, check out the top-ranking essays from the year before, or look at the way a magazine or newspaper has reported on the subject. Here’s a checklist of things to note:
1 Is it written in first, second or third person?
2 Is it written in past or present tense?
3 Does it use point form?
4 Does it use contractions?
5 What sort of segues (bridges) are used between points?
6 Does it have sub-headings or is it all one long piece?
7 Are the paragraphs short and to the point, or longer with more explanation?
Letter of complaint
If you are writing a letter of complaint – a favourite one for tests – ask yourself which words you would have to use. Let’s say it’s a letter to a landlord about a broken air conditioner. Well, you can’t write the letter without using the word “air conditioner”. You need to use the word “broken” or “out of order”. You want the air-conditioner fixed, so you would have to mention the word “fix”. You would have to explain what is wrong with the air conditioner and how long it has been broken, so that he can pass this information on to the person who will fix it.
Your letter would look something like this:
Dear Mr Smith,
I’m writing to ask you to arrange for someone to fix our air conditioner which has been out of order since Sunday. On Sunday, it suddenly began leaking water, quite heavily, inside the flat. We switched it off and cleaned it,
yet it did the same thing when we restarted it.
I would be grateful if you could arrange to have a technician come around and fix it. My helper is at home most days, so if you could let me know when the technician will be able to come, I will ensure she is at home.
Warm regards ...