Indulge me, please, in a gripe about bad writing that I just want to put out there so that I can stop suffering from it.
It concerns the most important line, sentence and phrase in any text: the first one.
The opening is where you make contact with your reader. This is when you win or lose him, this is when every word (including the empty-noise words like the and a) matters most.
On a clear and mild March day in 1993, the Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry spoke at a rally…
On a clear and mild March day? Well, thank god we got that in there. This story, surely, would have been entirely different if said Mr Terry had spoken on an overcast or scorching April day.
One cloudy afternoon last fall….
On a rainy Sunday morning last summer….
I see these phrases in the New Yorker, in The Atlantic, in The New York Times Magazine and every other place that fancies itself as doing “long-form” writing. (Not The Economist, in other words.)
It is the new
Once upon a time
The difference is that Once upon a time was honest about its purpose: Here starts a good story.
On a clear and mild March day, by contrast, is pretentious. It says: I will now give you color, because I’m such a good writer.
Until, within a few paragraphs, we are forced to discover that neither the clarity and mildness of the day nor its position on the calendar had the slightest friggin’ thing to do with anything at all. What a waste of words.