B is for beginnings

Better business writing is simpler than you think, says Elen Lewis, editor of The Marketing Society. Craft your beginning and the rest will take care of itself.

The greatest short story ever written is just six words long by Earnest Hemingway. “Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.” The power of six words.

Opening lines are so important in business writing. Whether it’s the subject line in an email or the first sentence in a presentation, these words will grab or lose your reader’s attention in a moment.

One of my favourite examples of punchy headlines comes from Sir Harold Evans who wrote a book called, ‘Essential English for journalists, editors and writers’.

He wrote, “If I choose to head an article ‘An Inquiry into the Conditions of Mycean Civilisation in the Heroic Epoch, with Special Reference to the Economic and Domestic Functions of Women Before and After the Conjectural Date of the Argive Expedition against Troy’, – if I say, I choose for my article some snappy little title like that, I really have no right to complain if (when I send it to the Chicago Daily Scoop) they alter it to ‘How Helen Did the Housekeeping’. Or even better ‘How Helen Kept House’.

Consider some of the best opening lines in novels. From LP Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’, “The past is another country, they do things differently there.” Or Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’m taken by the power of the starting point in Ford Madox Ford’s ‘The Good Soldier’, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

One of the reasons these opening lines are powerful is because they’re telling us something new. It sticks. So how can we use these lessons in literature and apply them to writing in business? Here are five things that will help.

  1. Write your headline (your email subject line) last. This helps reduce writers’ block.
  2. Spend as much time on the beginning as you do writing the rest of your text. Craft the words carefully in the way Hemingway crafted his perfectly formed six word short story.
  3. Start writing wherever you feel most comfortable. Just get the words down. Start in the middle if you need to. Nothing can be done with a blank page.
  4. Put the most important information first and then provide the context.
  5. Avoid beginning with clichés like, ‘ as you know’, ‘I hope you are well’. Make it specific and relevant, include the details.

Put the most important information first.

Put the most important information first.

Always ask “what do I want my reader to do/know/think?”. The answer gives you your first line.

18. Never open with “As you know”. Lead with the news and then provide the context.

Spend as much time on your headline as you do on the rest of your text.

Earnest Hemingway said


Writing a subject line – this is all about headlines. How do you grab attention so it’s not binned before it’s read?

Opening lines are so important.

“The past is another country, they do things differently there.” The Go-Between, LP Hartley.

“All happy families are alike’ each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina, Tolstoy

This is the saddest story I have ever heard, The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking 13. 1984, George Orwell

“April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing”

The Wasteland, TS Eliot

  • Six word short stories – every word matters.

Ernest Hemingway. “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Have a break. Have a kitkat.

Go to work on an egg.

What’s the exercise? Write a six-word short story based on picture postcard? – Find some


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  • © 2014 Elen Lewis