First Things Are First But Not First

It is not uncommon for a book editor to decide whether or not to read a manuscript based on the first 13 lines. This fact comes from Episode 10.16 of “Writing Excuses” – a great 15-minute weekly podcast on the art and craft of writing.

The immediate thought is “unfair!” How can you judge a whole story on the first 13 lines, first page, or even first chapter?! The hosts liken it, however, to hearing the first 30 seconds of a song. When you are flipping around the radio, skipping through Pandora, or checking out a recommendation on Spotify, how quickly are you able to make up your mind?

Within a few moments, you can usually accurately decide whether or not the musicians know what they are doing, whether or not you like the singer’s voice, and whether or not the song is of a style you prefer. Can 13 lines tell you whether or not the writer knows what they are doing, whether or not you like the writer’s “voice,” and whether or not it is the style of story you enjoy? Malcolm Gladwell certainly thinks they can…

The same is true in the realm of the church. Whether it is a sermon, a small group lesson, or even a blog post, people will check in or check out relatively quickly. The common advice is to come up with some shocking fact or some funny story that will grab people’s attention. This is good advice, but to be truly effective, we have to take it deeper than that. As the writers in the podcast discuss, with the beginning of the story you set the tone, make promises, and lay ground work.

If you always open up with a fact or funny story, but they don’t function within the larger context of the work, you are either making false promises, or you are essentially giving them two different pieces of work – your opening joke/story and then the actual sermon, lesson, or post. You congregation or audience is smart, and they will eventually learn to listen for the funny joke and then tune out.

This is why it may be a good idea write the first thing last–or at least not first. One of the hosts of the episode comments that the first paragraphs and sometimes even first chapters he writes rarely if ever make the final draft. Until you know where you are going, how you’re getting there, and what the overall tone and shape of the completed work will be, it is hard to craft an effective beginning. Besides, knowing things like tone and direction may even make it easier to know where to look when it comes time to find that great start.

Header image by Flickr user Niklas Freidwall. Used under Creative Commons License. Edited from Original.

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