Writing

Why You Should (Probably) Delete Your First Paragraph

Always remember — they won’t miss what isn’t there

Illustration by the author

When I can’t quite figure out how to start a piece of writing—from a Medium post to a feature story to an important email to a set of presentation notes— I write my way into it. Somewhere around paragraph two or three or four, I’ll usually find the path, the pacing, the way forward.

Then, I read over the draft, and I almost always delete that first 50 or 200 or 300 or 500 words. I consider that section the sacrificial intro.

As an editor, I often ask writers to cut their first few paragraphs, because they frequently seem, well, searching — or “throat clearing” as editors often put it. That first section often feels more important for the writer’s process than the reader’s understanding. “I think we can start further in” is one of my most common notes. I almost always think the writer can better tell the story — and better serve the reader — by cutting the first paragraph of a story. And often the second or third.

The beginning shouldn’t feel preparatory. The reader wants to be transported. The reader wants to be on the plane, not in the car on the way to the airport. The reader may want to be beamed up to wherever the plane is headed.

When you write, assume the reader is impatient.

Fortunately, you, as a writer, are all-powerful. You can take the reader wherever you want at any time. You can start the story however you want and end it however you want and do whatever you want between those points. So why not start in the most interesting place? If you need to go backward, and provide context, go backward — but only after you’ve earned the reader’s trust by making things as interesting as possible at the very beginning.

For example, consider the first two paragraphs of this story. Do they make the story better? Maybe? Could I have started this piece with what is currently the third paragraph? Yes!

When you read over something you’ve written, look for a second beginning. It’s almost always there. Consider sacrificing the paragraphs leading up to it. Your reader will feel thrust into the world of your story.

This easy, if sometimes distressing, editing move represents a larger point of writing and editing, one that should encourage you to always look for ways to delete and condense and start further in: The reader won’t miss what isn’t there.

Author, Works Well With Others: Crucial Skills in Business No One Ever Teaches You // writing weekly about creativity, work, and human behavior, in a useful way

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