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Posted: Mon Nov 15, 2010 12:08 pm
by glorybee
Here’s my final lesson on “Great Beginnings”—if you haven’t read the previous two, they can be found here and here. This week’s lesson is for those of you who write non-fiction: devotionals, Bible studies, any of several types of essays, that sort of thing. At the very end, I’ll give a few suggestions for great beginnings for poets.

First, a list of a few things that you should avoid in your opening:

1. Starting with a dictionary definition. People don’t read dictionaries for a reason…they’re boring. Starting with a dictionary definition is clichéd, and usually unnecessary. If you’re going to be using a word or phrase that’s unfamiliar to your readers, tell them what it means by using it in context or otherwise explaining it in your own words, but stay away from Webster.

2. Starting with a quotation. Most people will see those few lines set aside from the body of your essay in italics and skip right over them to get to the good stuff. In the Writing Challenge, you’ve only got 750 words. You really don’t want to give 50 of them over to someone else, no matter how relevant the quote is. Use your own wonderful words to make your point.

3. Starting with a Scripture verse. I might be stepping on some toes here, but bear with me. As I said in #2, readers’ eyes often skip right over the ‘set aside’ text anyway—so they’ll be missing out on the Scripture that you want them to read. But if you incorporate the important Scriptures into your body of your writing, they’re more likely to be read.

4. Starting with abstraction. Readers may need to be eased into your more academic or abstract points. Give them a point of interest first, so that they’ll be able to connect your lesson with their own life. Similarly, starting with a question (“Have you ever wondered…” “What would you do if…” ) is overdone.

So—now that you have four things to avoid—how should you begin a piece of nonfiction? Well, a lot of the same things that work in fiction will work for your nonfiction pieces, too. If you read the links above, you’ve already seen some of them, but I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version here:

1. Use some really interesting word choices.

2. Start with a short sentence that packs a punch.

3. Introduce some conflict.

4. Start with an anecdote—either something that happened to you, or to someone you know (or know of)—or even a made-up scenario with a hypothetical person, to illustrate your main idea. Readers like to read about people.

5. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be dry and humorless—put a chuckle in the beginning.

6. Use strong imagery—something that appeals to one of the senses.

7. Provide an object lesson—an example of something that you’ve observed in the real world.

8. There’s no reason that a nonfiction entry can’t include some dialogue. Again, this gives your piece a human component.

9. Give your opening sentences a conversational tone, even a recognizable voice. Nonfiction writing does not have to be cold and distant. Make your writing sound like you.

Obviously, there are some types of non-fiction writing where you have to reign it in—formal, academic writing, or the writing that’s necessary for your job—for these, you’ll want to adhere to the appropriate style and voice. But if you’re writing to appeal to a large, general readership, you can afford to relax a bit.

HOMEWORK: (for nonfiction writers)

Copy and paste (or write) the first 100 words (no more than that, please) of a devotional, Bible study, or other non-fiction essay, incorporating a few of the suggestions above. If you wish, you can also give a brief description of the rest of the article.


Tell which of the above points are in that article, and why they work.

I’d love to hear from you nonfiction writers—what did you think of these ideas? Do you have others that you’d like to share on this thread?


On to poetry, then. This is harder, because there are so many different types of poetry. What works for free verse may not work for a rhymed and metered poem, and what works for a narrative poem may not work for a lyrical one. And poetry is probably the most subjective of the written arts.

So, this is just going to be “what works for me”—things that, when I was judging the Challenge, would have caused me to rate the criterion of does this piece have a good beginning highly.

1. Grab the reader right away with a great image

2. If it’s a structured poem, give it an unusual structure. Poems are easily recognized by the way they’re arranged on paper, and if I see a typical, 4-line structure, I’m less likely to be intrigued than if I see an arrangement that promises something new and different.

3. Word choice, word choice, word choice. Don’t use rice cake words when there are salsa words available.

4. Lots and LOTS of poetry themes, especially inspirational poetry themes, have been waaaaaaay overdone. If you’re going to write an inspirational poem, give it an interesting twist at the beginning, to make me want to keep reading.

5. If you’re rhyming, use a great rhyme or two in that first stanza. By ‘great rhyme’, I mean words that your reader may not have ever seen rhymed before.

And that’s about it, because I really want to hear from poets and readers of poetry. What makes you want to keep reading a poem? Or on the flip side—what makes you stop after the first few lines?

HOMEWORK (for poets)

Copy and paste (or write) the first 4-6 lines of a poem that incorporates one or two of the suggestions above.


Tell why that poem has a great beginning.


I’d love, love, love to hear from you—even if you don’t do either of the homework assignments, would you just post a comment? Let me know that you’ve read the lesson, and maybe that you’re doing the assignment on your own?

Seriously—if you’re reading this RIGHT NOW (yes, I’m talking to YOU), please just hit the ‘reply’ button. Just say ‘hi’. I’d even take an emoticon. I’m beggin’.

Posted: Mon Nov 15, 2010 4:16 pm
by swfdoc1

Homework to follow as able. (I'm on a midnight deadline.)

Posted: Mon Nov 15, 2010 5:32 pm
by nanny3times
OK. I'll jump in with the beginning of my entry for Face to Face Conversations, "The Round Table With The Square Pegs".
I tried to carry the title into the first sentence to quickly explain the word picture and, hopefully, hold the readers attention enough to read on.

This might be a good example of your advice to be careful about using scripture references, as noted by your comment on the closing notes I added with a second scripture. One of many learning experiences I've had with the Challenge. I value the good advice on each one.

"Another Monday night and I'm on my way to see my square pegs. Three young women who should be pursuing their best place in this world, yet are tucked away in a very small, all-but-forgotten, corner of it. We meet for a couple of hours on the second and fourth Monday evenings. My goal is to
let them know that they have not been forgotten and that the Lord loves
them and has a plan for their lives.

"I look forward to these roundtable discussions. I've only been a mentor in prison ministry for few weeks, but these precious souls have captured a big
piece of my heart. They made bad choices that, for some, were born out of
worse surroundings and cost them their freedom."

I hope this fits your request. My apologies for the weird spacing. I'm on an iPad.

Posted: Mon Nov 15, 2010 6:05 pm
by glorybee
nanny3times wrote:"Another Monday night and I'm on my way to see my square pegs. Three young women who should be pursuing their best place in this world, yet are tucked away in a very small, all-but-forgotten, corner of it. We meet for a couple of hours on the second and fourth Monday evenings. My goal is to let them know that they have not been forgotten and that the Lord loves them and has a plan for their lives.

"I look forward to these roundtable discussions. I've only been a mentor in prison ministry for few weeks, but these precious souls have captured a big piece of my heart. They made bad choices that, for some, were born out of worse surroundings and cost them their freedom."
Nancy, this is great! You've got some interesting 'salsa words', like tucked, pursuing, and roundtable.

Your first sentence is simple and short.

You introduced some conflict right away; the reader wants to find out several things. Who are these women? Where are they? (Answered in 2nd paragraph)

This definitely has the human factor.

It has a conversational tone, and your own voice is apparent.

I'd say you really nailed this one!

Thanks for mentioning the Scripture thing again. I know that you realize--and I hope everyone else does--that I'm not anti-Scripture! Far from it--I want the Scriptures to be read, and I think that's far more likely to happen if they're in the body of the text, not tacked on to the beginning or the end.

You get this week's gold star, for submitting your homework so quickly!

Posted: Mon Nov 15, 2010 7:34 pm
by CatLin
I'm working on my homework! Hope to be back soon.

Posted: Mon Nov 15, 2010 11:44 pm
by nanny3times
Awwwww....Thanks Jan. You made my day. I appreciate the positive learning points and will file them away for future reference.

I never would have had a thought about your being negative on scriptures, rather just pointing out how to make them more effective.

Thanks again and God Bless.

Posted: Wed Nov 17, 2010 2:16 pm
by swfdoc1
Well, my 2 favorite non-fiction openings are both longer than the 100 word limit. However, if anyone is interested in these longer pieces, you can find them hereand here. (For the first, you may have to have an Amazon account and be logged in. on “first pages” on the left and then scroll down until you get to the actual beginning of the book. For the second, scroll down to the Table of Contents and click on the link for Chapter I.) The first is the opening to volume 1 of William Manchester’s The Last Lion, his biography of Winston Churchill. The first two pages are incredible. As a whole they are so strong that they are impressive despite a third paragraph that, for my money, bogs down in the middle. Among many wonderful things demonstrated in this passage, we see how powerful it can be to break some of the rules of thumb on purpose. The second is the opening to an almost 65-year-old book on economic policy, Henry Hazlett’s, Economics in One Lesson. It proves that even academic subjects can have striking openings. In the first 2 + pages (the first sub-chapter), Hazlett makes two profound economic/policy insights understandable and convincing and shows a mastery of good writing techniques that apply to fiction and non-fiction alike.

I don’t expect Jan or anyone else to read or comment on these since they are beyond the 100 word limit, but I offer them for those who may be interested in longer passages, i.e., for those who may be trying to apply Jan’s advice outside of the Challenge.

As for a 100-word passage, I hope to be able to come back (since you are not being overwhelmed with homework) and post the opening to my essay called “Yellowstone or Aramaic?” in College Faith 2: 150 Christian Leaders and Educators Share Faith Stories From Their Student Days. Unfortunately, I can’t find the book! I hope I didn’t give my last copy away.

So for now, I’ll give a great opening for poetry. It is the first stanza of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” written after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination:

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Whitman starts with the metaphor that will extend throughout the poem. The images are visceral and heart breaking (especially to the original audience), he used meter and rhyme which was unusual for him (i.e., he mostly wrote free verse) and which would grab the attention of those who knew his prior work. His ever increasing indentation of lines 5, 6, 7, and 8 (which I couldn't show here) adds a visual aspect to the emotional message.

Posted: Thu Nov 18, 2010 10:53 am
by glorybee
Steve, thank you so much for chiming in on the poetry part of the lesson. I love that particular Whitman poem, and I'm so glad you posted the opening of it here, with your insightful comments. I hope that will inspire others to read the whole thing.

I hope you find your essay!

Posted: Thu Nov 18, 2010 11:36 am
by oursilverstrands
It's me again :D

Your instructions are not simply instructive, but also affirmative. As I read your post on non-fiction writing, I'm amazed at how intuitively, without design, some articles I wrote "passed your test." Undoubtedly, I've much to learn from this thread, even if I don't always do the homework.

Thank you SO much for sharing such valuable information pro bono. :loveyou



Posted: Thu Nov 18, 2010 2:00 pm
by swfdoc1
glorybee wrote:I hope you find your essay!
Here’s the opening to the essay:

“Yellowstone National Park burned during the summer of 1988. Fire consumed more that 1.5 million acres. Meanwhile, I sat at a table in a library 2,300 miles away, pondering it all. For eight years I had made my living as a forester. Then I enrolled at Regent University to study pubic policy and theology. So in May 1989, I was torn. The Park’s forests had begun a miraculous comeback, and as a forester I wanted to go see Yellowstone bounce back. But as a student I knew that the summer session would start in about a month and I needed to . . . ”

The essay then went on to lay out my need to complete an independent study in Aramaic before regular classes started; how God showed me to NOT go to Yellowstone (and that I obeyed Him); how the Lord laid an intense prayer burden on my heart while I studied; how that prayer burden triggered a strange sequence of events spanning 4 years, ultimately culminating in me becoming the president of the National Legal Foundation. The essay ended with “I sometimes joke, ‘I went from being a forester to being a lawyer via seminary. Doesn’t everybody?’ The choice between Yellowstone and Aramaic was about a lot more than how to spend a week that summer. It was about the first link in a chain of events that might never have happened.” Each “essayist” was instructed to pick a verse that illustrated their story to be placed at the end of the story. I picked Isaiah 55: 8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The opening avoided all 4 of the “do not” points. Of the do’s , I think it has the following points:
Point 2 (short: 9 words vs. average target length of 23-25 words; punchy: not so sure)
Point 3 (conflict between desire to go and need to stay)
Point 4 (it IS an anecdote)
Point 9 (I think so anyway).

It’s really nothing too spectacular, but it was good enough to be chosen for publication (about 50% of solicited submissions were published).

Posted: Thu Nov 18, 2010 2:08 pm
by glorybee
Steve, thanks for posting this!

I'd say that this snippet also has #6--strong imagery, the image of Yellowstone on fire.

This is really good, and the verse from Isaiah is one of my favorites.


Readers, I'd love to read more examples of great non-fiction beginnings. C'mon--be brave! See how encouraging I am? I won't be mean, I promise.

Posted: Thu Nov 18, 2010 7:08 pm
by CatLin
I'm back (finally). I tweaked the opening of an old challenge entry for my homework. I still don't think it's very good.


I had the perfect plan. The crib would go in that corner and my 4 year-old daughter’s bed along this wall. Miranda would love sharing a room with her new sister or brother when she wasn’t at her dad’s house. Instead of fancy decorating, I’d make do with what my groom and I had until that time came. Besides, I’d need to know if the wallpaper and curtains should sport baseballs or ballerinas.

Two years passed while I prayed and waited.

Posted: Thu Nov 18, 2010 7:17 pm
by CatLin
Oops, forgot to do part two of the homework!!

I didn't do any of the no-nos. ;)

I think I hit

2 - Short sentence.

3 - introduce conflict (I hope)

4 - Yes, this happened. :)

9 - Conversation tone (I think)


Posted: Thu Nov 18, 2010 9:11 pm
by pheeweed
Oh no! I started my page turner entry with a Bible verse. But if the reader just skips over it, I may be okay. After the verse I told a story about people I saw at the mall, doing something that illustrates my main point.

On to the homework. Here is the beginning of A Grief Observed by one of my favorite writers, C.S. Lewis.
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me.
Some of his words are interesting to me because of the time and place he lived. But some salsa words are fluttering, yawning, concussed.

Juxtaposing grief and fear packs a punch and introduces conflict.

The blanket is a strong image. I immediately remember when I felt like that.

One of the reasons I love Lewis is his conversational tone. It’s especially strong in this quote because it’s so personal.

I want to write like that.


Posted: Thu Nov 18, 2010 11:53 pm
by glorybee
Cat, this is excellent! And you also included a very strong image, which every woman who's ever wanted a child can relate to.

You need to stop 'not liking' your writing, girl.