Fear of the First Line

Now and again, Blue­print mag­a­zine pub­lishes one of my monthly columns on their web­site. This is the Novem­ber column.

ONCE I KNOW what topic I want to (or have to) write about, the most crit­i­cal deci­sion becomes inevitable: how to begin? No evening class in Cre­ative Writ­ing, no jour­nal­ism course fails to men­tion how impor­tant the first sen­tence is for the impres­sion a text makes upon the unpre­pared reader. Nor­bert Miller, a Ger­man lit­er­ary his­to­rian, pub­lished a col­lec­tion of essays about what he called this ‘rad­i­cal deci­sion’. The first sen­tence com­presses the infi­nite space for reflec­tion into a finite object, set­tling on one ver­sion out of a mul­ti­tude of vari­a­tions and pos­si­ble strategies.

Con­sider these alter­na­tives: ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ and ‘One morn­ing, as Gre­gor Samsa was wak­ing up from anx­ious dreams, he dis­cov­ered that in his bed he had been changed into a mon­strous ver­minous bug.’

The first exam­ple is by the Vic­to­rian nov­el­ist Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who thus began his Paul Clif­ford. The sec­ond is, of course, from Franz Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis. After a begin­ning like this, you know Kafka’s novel is not going to be light read­ing, while Bulwer-Lytton’s turn of phrase does not bode well if you’re look­ing for world lit­er­a­ture. Its author gave his name to the Bulwer-Lytton Fic­tion Con­test, which chal­lenges entrants to com­pose bad open­ing sen­tences to imag­i­nary nov­els. The 2011 win­ner, Pro­fes­sor Sue Fon­drie from Oshkosh, Wis­con­sin, wrote: ‘Cheryl’s mind turned like the vane­sof a wind-powered tur­bine, chop­ping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a grow­ing pile of for­got­ten memories’.

If you spend any time read­ing press releases, this style of writ­ing won’t sur­prise you, even though the top­ics may be less per­sonal. Mix­ing as many unre­lated metaphors as pos­si­ble into one state­ment seems to be con­sid­ered a high art in those cir­cles. Many trades have devel­oped their own style of tem­plated writ­ing. You can actu­ally find bull­shit gen­er­a­tors online that pro­vide ready-made state­ments, such as this from artybollocks.com: ‘My work explores the rela­tion­ship between acquired synes­the­sia and emo­tional mem­o­ries. With influ­ences as diverse as Niet­zsche and Roy Licht­en­stein, new syn­er­gies are crafted from both.’

If that isn’t good (or bad) enough for your pur­pose, there are alter­na­tives: ‘My work explores the rela­tion­ship between the tyranny of age­ing and skate­board ethics. With influ­ences as diverse as Kierkegaard and John Lennon, new com­bi­na­tions are gen­er­ated from both sim­ple and com­plex mean­ings.’
Increas­ing lev­els of com­plex­ity, cliche and incom­pre­hen­si­bil­ity are on offer. I am sure that there are bull­shit gen­er­a­tors for archi­tects and design­ers some­where. I haven’t both­ered to look for them yet for fear of being infected.

Before one even gets to the first sen­tence, though, poten­tial read­ers have to pass another obsta­cle: the title of the book. While the Bulwer-Lytton Fic­tion Con­test encour­ages peo­ple to write orig­i­nal lines just for the con­test, the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Odd­est Title of the Year, com­monly known as the Dia­gram Prize, is a humor­ous lit­er­ary award that has been made annu­ally since 2000. The win­ner is decided by a pub­lic vote on the Bookseller’s web­site. The very first award in 1978 went to a pub­li­ca­tion by the Uni­ver­sity of Tokyo Press about med­ical stud­ies using lab­o­ra­tory mice with inhib­ited immune sys­tems, accord­ingly but some­what sur­pris­ingly titled Pro­ceed­ings of the Sec­ond Inter­na­tional Work­shop on Nude Mice.

The 2000 win­ner delighted with High Per­for­mance Stiff­ened Struc­tures, pub­lished by the Insti­tu­tion of Mechan­i­cal Engi­neers. Then there’s High­lights in the His­tory of Con­crete, by CC Stan­ley, pub­lished by the British Cement Asso­ci­a­tion. It stormed the Odd­est Title in 1994.

What is almost as dif­fi­cult as start­ing a text is fin­ish­ing it. At the end, you are sup­posed to offer some clo­sure, like answer­ing the rhetor­i­cal ques­tion posed in the first para­graph; reveal­ing an unex­pected answer to a prob­lem that your arti­cle had dis­cov­ered, or at least wrap­ping up your ram­blings with a phrase that would make pun­ters happy about just hav­ing grown older by 10 min­utes read­ing it with­out imme­di­ate dan­ger to their health. There could even be a con­clu­sion that would add last­ing ben­e­fit to all that intel­lec­tual activity.

This time, I got to my 800 words or so rather cheaply: a quar­ter are quotes. To get max­i­mum ben­e­fit from read­ing this, you should look online for bull­shit detec­tors and humor­ous lit­er­ary awards. If noth­ing else, it’ll help against the dreaded Fear of the First Line: you can always do better.


  1. if i may con­tribute, i usu­ally start by the end (ie the goal, aka the con­clu­sion, clear in mind); and i start by the title: the title is all! ;-) all the best, und tot ziens für alles


  2. It’s my New Year’s res­o­lu­tion to write more. It seems that all this pres­sure to write an amaz­ing work has sti­fled me from writ­ing at all. There is another phi­los­o­phy which seems to be rather preva­lent on the inter­net — writ­ing poorly.
    Is there any merit to writ­ing just for the sake of get­ting it out of your head with the hopes of get­ting bet­ter as you go?
    My prob­lem is that I know good writ­ing when I see it — and my writ­ing is not it. The con­se­quence is that I don’t write.
    There must be some bal­ance here, no? Maybe the infor­mal­ity of a blog is just such a balance.

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