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By Alex Walker

The Trick to Writing Fun, Engaging Article Intros

By Alex Walker
Diamonds: Kim Alaniz

Diamonds: Kim Alaniz

Writing article introductions is seriously hard.

The truth is, most of us start with the middle section of our story in our mind. We want to explain how to do ‘x’, or why we think ‘y’ is a great idea. Writing this part is generally easy, because we know exactly what we want to achieve.

Writing the conclusion isn’t too difficult once we’ve written the middle. We sum up what we’ve just written and perhaps add a personal insight or reflection. (* Footnote on writing conclusions below).

Dr Chatty — By Alastair Thompson

First lines are hard — Photo: Alastair Thompson

Article intro paragraphs are difficult for the same reason that opening lines are difficult at parties, bars and park benches. We all know how to have a conversation, but finding a smooth way to start a conversation with a stranger feels like a really high-stakes game. That’s probably explains why chat-up technique books sell tens of millions every year.

So, I guess I’m here to give you some clever chat-up lines for your readers.

So, What’s the Key to a Great Intro?

Diamonds. Or more specifically a single diamond–rather than two or three–to build your intro around. A diamond — by my definition—is a single, shining jewel designed to grab the reader's attention. It’s usually not part of your core idea, but it helps make sense of it.

For me, there are four types of diamonds you can look to use (but there may be others). I’ll run you through each one:

1 . The Clever Quote

Quote sites like Brainyquote.com are one of the fastest ways to unearth a diamond. For instance, if you’re writing about logo design, search for quotes from Saul Bass or Andy Warhol. Chances are, they said something witty, insightful and memorable at some point. Even movie quotes via IMDB can be a really fun way to kick off a dry, more technical article.

But also try to avoid the obvious option. For instance, rather than another article on ‘creativity’ quoting Steve Jobs or Einstein, try searching for ‘problem solving’ and maybe go with a quote from Apollo 13.

I don’t care about what anything was DESIGNED to do, I care about what it CAN do.

Gene Kranz — Apollo 13 (1995)

Writing a few paragraphs about what that quote means to you, and how it relates to your main theme should lead you effortlessly into the body of your piece.

2. The Intriguing Image

We all understand the power of a great image — try to find a compelling image that is at a slight tangent to your main subject.

The Rosetta Stone in context. Photo: insunlight

The Rosetta Stone in context. Photo: insunlight

For instance, if you’re writing about ‘digital encryption’, rather than finding a picture of ‘matrix-like’ code, you might find a great image of the Rosetta Stone — the tablet that allowed us to finally de-code egyptian hieroglyphics.

Always avoid cliche images (sunsets, puppies, beaches, motivational poster images) unless you’re clever enough to subvert or invert the meaning.

I tend to start with Flickr’s search with ‘commercial use’ set in the filtering. Pixabay.com is handy too.

3 . The Startling Statistic

A 2-second delay in load time during a transaction results in abandonment rates of up to 87% .Source: Radware

Numbers can speak loudly and quickly. If you can find a credible study that supports your main idea, your intro almost writes itself. Always credit and link the source (if possible), and check the date of the study — out-of-date statistics smell bad.

Typically you may only need 2 or 3 paragraphs to support a powerful number.

4. The Compelling Chart

Mobile traffic accounts for half of all ecommerce. Tammy Everts. Radware Blog

Mobile traffic accounts for half of all ecommerce. Tammy Everts. Radware Blog

‘The Compelling Chart’ is like the hip designer brother of the ‘The Startling Statistic’, using color and shape in the place of a pure numerical story.

It will typically be harder to find a relevant chart/graph to support your main idea, but if you get lucky, it’s a killer first punch.

If you have access to relevant statistics, it may even be worth making you own chart to support your ideas.

That’s all there is to it?

(Note that I didn’t use ‘Conclusion’ for that final subheading? *)

Diamond encrusted fingernails

With Diamonds, less is more. (source)

Yes, that’s it. Write up your body idea first, then write your conclusion, and THEN spend 15 minutes hunting for your diamond – the memorable, interesting gem that will draw your readers into your real message.

And finally, if you happen to unearth two, three or more diamonds for your intro, don’t be tempted to jam them all in there.

Pick your best one, and shelve the rest for another day. 

With diamonds, less is almost always more.

  • * Footnote tip: When starting your article, it’s useful to label your last subheading ‘Conclusion’ in your first draft. But always try to re-title that section with something less stiff in your final draft — perhaps ‘What I learned’ or ‘The Wash-up’ or ‘Is it worth it?’.
  • Aleksander Koko

    Always fun to read your articles. Even though I’m not a designer :) . I’m regretting for writing so much Conclusion on my Sitepoint articles

    • Thanks Aleksander. A lot of the stuff above are things I’ve done in my writing (and public speaking too) without really understanding it as a repeatable approach. Only recently I was talking to another author about how to improve and article and it became clearer.

      So I guess you’re always learning. :)

      The ‘conclusion’ thing is an easy one to implement in future at least. Believe me, I always start with ‘Conclusion’ on the page. ;)

  • Nice ideas – I’m always up for blog tips, and getting people to keep reading your article starts with an intro that pops, Thanks Alex :)

    • Thanks Keely! I’ve seen your posts on similar topics. Nice work.

  • sliemm

    Nice article mate. I would argue, however, that the introductory quote is the last resort of an author who’s run out of ideas! I reckon it’s an easy option. I will confess I’ve used it myself in times of desperation.

    • Definitely a last resort, but believe me, I’ve had some solid articles with some of the most stilted, awkward, empty intros you could imagine over the last few years. Along the lines of:

      “Topic X has been an important skill for many years. Being good at Topic X is very useful in your web design…”

      I’ll have them hang an intro on a relatively stock quote any day – as long as it’s not “a picture tells a thousand words”.. ;)

  • Taylor Green

    Also probably you can help me think of how to make my biography more than just an average piece of biographical writing.

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