The worst opening phrase in writing

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.

Here is an example of what appears to be an opening-line trend in “narrative non-fiction“:

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.

37 thoughts on “The worst opening phrase in writing

  1. On a sunny, mostly smogless, day in Southern California, I responded. Wait a minute, “smogless” is not a valid word in the dictionary? It certainly should be. It is unique here in the coastal desert.

    Yes, of course writers should be careful with the opening line. Max Shulman taught me that with this opening line from Sleep Till Noon (Geez, I hope that hyperlink worked)

    Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped through my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life.

  2. I can only think of one time in a novel when an opening line that commented on the weather was at all useful; that novel is George Orwell’s 1984:

    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949).

    Other than that, I agree with you, you can leave the “local color” out of it. It is pretentious and does nothing at all for the piece but show the writer’s lack of skill at his craft.
    Noelle

    • Thank you, Noelle. You have cited the exception that proves the rule.

      Often what happens is this: A good writer will write a trope that works well, other writers copy it, and lo, a generation later, it has become an empty cliche.

    • I’m not sure that is really an exception though. If other writers “copied” it they didn’t finish the job (or understand it). From my amateur perspective, it seems Orwell set up a typical bland cliche in order to quickly turn the tables (my lazy cliche/hey, it’s just a comment, right?) and make the memorable new, important information about the clocks “striking thirteen” stand out. Makes the reader almost double take, “ya… ya… cold day… clock strikes 13… wait what!?” He didn’t just write a new phrase setting the tone about, say, a mild March day and then other writers overused it.

      By the way, here is Matt Yglesias on “the exception that proves the rule”

    • Ha ha ha, I thought of 1984 instantly after reading this. I always thought it was a craptacular way of starting an awesome novel, though Dan Braganca has successfully revealed me for the philistine I am.

      It was included, much to my bemusement in some list of the best 100 opening lines in a novel. After studying the list, I think their greatest criterion for what determines a great opening line was that the novel that proceeds it is already famous and loved. “Call me Ishmael” was number one, but I’ve always been a sucker for their number two pick, Gravity’s Rainbow: “A screaming comes across the sky.” Hell yeah it does!

    • I’ve always thought Orwell’s opener an example of the very best. The opposition of a trivial description of the weather to the very peculiar notion of clocks striking thirteen suggests something is very wrong with the world to which we are about to be introduced. The coldness of the day establishes the bleakness of what comes, the brightness amplifies the coldness, and 13 presages horror.

      Few would not want to read the next sentence, but it would be done with a sense of foreboding.

      Remarkable that he managed to convey so many impressions with such economy of words, but Orwell was a stickler for pruning the verbiage right back to the essential. He knew what he was doing.

      As for the opener you’re discussing, I had already lost interest before it ended. It isn’t only the redundancy of month, weather and year, but the tedium of name, rank and non-specific location thrown in to frame the image of a man speaking. It is a dressed pig.

  3. “…….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’m confused. Are you implying that there should have been no mention of what sort of day it was, and when?

    Or are you implying that to mention what sort of day it was, and when, should only have been put in if it was arresting?

    If you imply the former, I suggest that the opening line, however prosaic, was to create a relaxing story-telling tone.

    If you imply the latter, are you not saying that an arresting opening line is OK, even if it isn’t germane to the article’s topic?

    • I’m saying that every detail in good writing must be deliberately chosen, and that means chosen OVER some other detail — in fact, over ALL other available details.

      Here, what purpose does the clear and mild March day serve? None. Why not open with the expression on the guy’s face, or a bead running down his forehead, or a shriek from somebody behind the stage, or whatever else might actually set us off in the right direction?

      And no, I do not believe that you create “relaxing story-telling tone” by opening with cliches. You create it by having an authentically relaxed story-telling tone.

  4. I like the opening sentence in the Economist this week in the Obituary for Michael Lassen:

    (Almost nothing is known of the men who built the great medieval cathedrals. A mason’s mark chiselled on a column…..)

    Now this gets my attention: The essence of a person’s life captured in detail in one story on one page and always unfolding to the last word. For these reasons it’s the first page I read.

    ps. Mr. Lassen (61) was a stained-glass artist who died from a fall in the cathedral while working.

    • Ah, then you’d get a kick out of Ann Wroe, who writes most of our Obits.

      Reading the magazine back-to-front, starting with the Obit, is apparently quite common among our readers.

    • Ann Wroe’s obituaries are a great example of how to get opening sentences right. (Or any other sentences, for that matter).Consider the beginning of a piece on Ian Hibell, a British cyclist: “In a man’s life there comes a time when he must get out of Brixham.”

      I am one of those loyal devotees of the obit page who read The Economist back-to-front.

  5. Often a particular line jars at our eyes and ears not on account of its substantive irrelevance but because it has no rhythm.

    For instance,

    On a cold and clear March day

    scans poorly, as opposed to:

    On a cold and clear September morning

    which scans great. If you substitute August for September, the whole rhythm goes down the drain and you’re left with nothing but the meaning of the words.

    • On a cold and clear September morning

      which scans great. If you substitute August for September, the whole rhythm goes down the drain and you’re left with nothing but the meaning of the words.

      What if you were in, say, Australia? Or Florida, where September is quite warm?

      Still, referencing the weather can set a mood.

      I awoke to a unseasonably cool, rainy morning in August.

      Context would be important, as has been mentioned. It would have to tie into the story in some way.

    • Ah yes, rhythm and cadence and melody. Yes, those have a place in writing. But that’s the highest level in mastery. First, choose the sensual details from the entire universe of possibilities that evoke what you want to evoke, then deliver them with the rhythm, melody and cadence that suits your purpose.

      Excuse me while I start singing your opening line….

  6. While I agree that a writer should generally avoid cliche whether old or new (though opon occasion it’s perfectly warranted), perhaps it also makes occasional sense to note (or create) a setting that contrasts to immediate content or action.

    Thus “On a cold and clear March day” might effectively roughly equal “On a normal, benign and nearly perfect day” when something quite un-normal, ambiguous or malevolent, etc. occurs.

    Of course I’d really hope there’s a better hook coming in the next clause of such an opening line. And I agree, Cyberquill, scansion is too often undervalued.

    • Whoa, Octopus Heart, you’ve just, willy nilly, supplied A GOOD OPENING LINE:

      “On a normal, benign and nearly perfect day….”

      Now that gets our attention!. How utterly different from, and superior to, “On a cold and clear March day.” Your line actually serves the purpose you describe.

      This is what I’m talking about.

    • This is definitely something that I never paid attention to but will notice all the time now.

      Let’s see if I can have a similar effect….

      Have you ever noticed how people’s ears move when they eat?

      Now, try not noticing that.

  7. @ Andreas – In your reply to Octopus Heart you said:

    “……’On a normal, benign and nearly perfect day….’

    Now that gets our attention!. How utterly different from, and superior to, ‘On a cold and clear March day.’ Your line actually serves the purpose you describe’……..”

    Because, as you said before, the sort of day it was, was irrelevant to the topic of the article, may I assume that I interpreted you correctly when I said in my earlier comment: “……are you not saying that an arresting opening line is OK, even if it isn’t germane to the article’s topic?…….”

    Since you pointed out that prosaic opening lines like the one which Emily Bazelon used in her NYT piece, are frequent 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……..”, why would copy editors in these prestigious publications allow such prosaic opening lines?

    Could it be that they think that the more prosaic the opening line is, the more relaxing the tone it creates?

    • Well, since you’re forcing me to parse my own opinion, here goes:

      I’m not proposing ANY new “rule” (as in: “you may only open with a phrase that is germane…”)

      A good writer can do anything he pleases, and will usually break rules.

      But the opening (and all other phrases) should be deliberate. Often this means germane: Start using your limited wordcount to move readers to where you want them to end up. Other times, it may be arresting but not germane (as when you set up a contrast).

      I realize, of course, that I’m now debating with the author of the “speed-bump theory”of writing (whereby writers build devices into their text to force readers to slow down). 😉 As you know, I don’t subscribe to that. So, have a relaxed tone, by all means. Prosaic or corny, no.

  8. I really appreciate posts like this Andreas, thank you. It’s always useful to be reminded of ways to be a better writer. We all fail, but eliminating unnecessary words may be the fastest way to improve one’s prose. Your example also reminds me of something Martin Amis wrote, “all writing is a campaign against cliché.” It is a struggle to stay off the worn ground of the soldiers ahead; please continue pointing out where not to tread.

  9. I have battled with myself for a long time over the opening line, no matter if it was a simple blog post, a poem or a short story, that first line was always the hardest…thanks for showing the way Andreas and others whose comments were very helpful…

  10. Your post has sensitized me to this issue and I have to share with you the following opening line from a newsletter I just received. Fasten your seat belt:

    “People say to you that one should live their life and never have any regrets, however, I have to admit that, while watching the Commonwealth Games in the past week, I do hold that one regret that I didn’t keep up athletics to the level that I perhaps could have in my younger days.”

  11. It’s a cold, wintry day, on Nov. 16, as this reporter approaches the looming edifice overlooking New York’s Central Park where Michael Douglas has lived on and off for the past 20 years. …

    Opening line from the latest edition of The Hollywood Reporter about Michael Douglas. I’m glad he’s doing better.

    Because I don’t remember any “cold, wintry” days so far this year, I checked the weather archives for New York City. On Nov. 16, the temperature in Central Park ranged between 52 °F min. and 59 °F max. I wonder how this reporter will open his stories in January when it gets really cold.

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