Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

How to make me stop reading

yawn4SO YOU MEAN to tell me that this is an example of what not to do?

Yes. Indeed, doubly so. Please don’t start your article with a quote or a question, because chances are good that I am not going to read any further.

Why not? Let’s address the opening quote first. There’s a problem here with style and structure. Designers usually hate articles that begin with a quote, because of course you’re supposed to open it with a “. But for many publications whose design incorporates a dropped/enlarged capital letter or opening, that creates a visual challenge.

You could have an equally large “ before the oversized letter, but that looks really clunky. Keeping it the same font size as the body text means it might be overlooked or dismissed as a mistake. So you’re left with omitting the opening quotation mark, and simply including the ” at the end.

This means that the reader gets to the end of your opening sentence or two and suddenly realizes, Hang on; someone is speaking here. Their brain has to do a bit of juggling to accommodate this new information, which interrupts the smooth reading flow a little. Not something you want to do when you are still trying to win their attention in those vital first few moments.

Italicizing the opening quote may go some way toward signaling that these are the words of someone else, but it’s still not certain until you get to that closing quotation mark, with its awkwardness.

Backing into the Story

More importantly, opening with someone else’s words backs into the article. It gives information that the reader then has to put into some context when they only later discover the person behind the statement and its setting. It makes them work too hard. You may think it creates suspense, or curiosity, but it’s more likely to create frustration. It’s like giving them jigsaw puzzle pieces without the lid with the picture on it.

Worse, the opening quote can be a bit lazy. It’s a way of making things seem more important, more dramatic than perhaps they truly are.

“Oh my God, I just can’t believe it!” Joanne screamed.

That seems gripping, right? But do the words really have the same impact when you go on to read and learn they were spoken by:

  • A mother kneeling beside the body of her child, struck by a passing car.
  • A teenager checking a friend’s latest posting on Instagram.
  • A woman discovering she forgot to include the sugar in her prize-winning recipe.

Without proper context and weight, quotes can be stretched beyond their actual reality. They offer more than they actually deliver, and you don’t want your reader to feel duped. They are more likely to lose interest than to want to read on.

Asking Questions

So what about questions? Glad you asked. Just don’t do it right away.

Why not? Because questions are often the last resort of someone who can’t think of any other way to get started. It appears to be a great method for engaging with the reader, right? After all, you are addressing them directly.

Trouble is, a poorly crafted question will typically elicit one of three responses.

  • I don’t know. And you just made me feel dumb.
  • You’re asking me? Aren’t you supposed to be telling me?
  • Duh. Everyone knows the answer is ______.

Either which way, you have not really drawn me in.

Many times, the question just gets in the way of a better opening.

What would you do if awakened by to the sound of an intruder downstairs in your home—like Emmeline Casper in her Chicago townhouse last summer?

Forget the question, and drop me right into Emmeline’s situation! I can ask myself the question as I am pulled into her account.

Are either of these absolute no-nos? Not quite. The exception does prove the rule, but it’s got to be done really well to grab my attention.

Know what I mean?

Photo credit: erix! via Foter.com/CC BY

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