Friday, December 15, 2006

Writing Tip: What's the Big Idea?

When you write nonfiction, your opening paragraph should include a thesis statement--what I call a "big idea sentence." It's the statement that tells readers, in a nutshell, what you're writing about. There are several good reasons to include a clear "big idea" in your first paragraph:

1. It will keep you on track. The best of us meanders in word and thought at times. A clear big idea is like markings on the pavement. It will keep you focused and writing in the right direction.

2. It will pull your readers in. If you've written an article on canning peaches the easy way, your opening paragraph had better make your subject matter clear. If you spend the first half a page warbling on the virtues of peaches in general, would-be canners will stop reading and the only audience you'll retain till the end will be a few diehard horticulturalists from the We Love Peaches Association.

3. It will give the body context. Have you ever experienced the uncomfortable feeling, while reading, that your brain was out in some airy-fairy no-man's land? Trackless wildernesses may be romantic, but they don't make good reading. Our brains need to feel anchored. An article or essay without a clear big idea sentence will leave readers feeling lost and slightly nervous--we're not sure what this is about, so we can't be at all certain that something scary might not jump out at us at any moment.

A big idea sentence isn't hard to come up with. Simply answer this question in one sentence: what is your article about?



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