The First Sentence: For CEOs and Others

Verlyn Klinkenborg is on the editorial board of the New York Times, and a writer of memoirs and meditations. I am holding in my hand a small book entitled, Several Short Sentences About Writing, by Klinkenborg. Am I the only reader who finds it amusing that an author with such a long name writes on this topic? What is his point?

Well, for one thing, he believes that writing short sentences requires more discipline and painful editing than writing long, sloppy sentences with extraneous words and modifiers that are redundant (he would probably chop this sentence to smithereens).

Start Writing a Story

The architecture of writing is built on the blocks of one sentence after another that are propulsive – that are going somewhere outwardly or inwardly, and often the writer may not even know the destination. In fact, knowing where a piece of writing is going can turn it into day-old rice.

Where to begin a piece of writing? Let’s say that you are a CEO of a company and you want to write a book about your journey from bagging groceries at the local Stop and Shop, to the president of a billion dollar corporation with many parts and pieces. Do you begin at the checkout counter, where you are making minimum wage after school; earn a scholarship to Harvard University and its Business School; and follow a trajectory that is propelled by ambition and hard work? Or do you start in the Boardroom where you are confronted by a problem that threatens to take the company down? How do you get out of this mess? Or do you start by bringing your reader on board your sailboat along the coast of Martha’s Vineyard on a perfect blue day and while holding the tiller you liken steering your craft to running a company through smooth waters or gale force winds and twenty foot waves.

In all three examples you are attempting to engage the reader and spark the reader’s imagination so that she will willingly turn the page. What should be obvious is that there is no right answer. The truth is that whatever engages you, is where you should start, and as you write you may find that your first sentence ends up somewhere else in your book, or is jettisoned in favor of something better.

Advice from the Experts

What does Klinkenborg tell us about beginnings:

“Look for a sentence that interests you….
Don’t look too hard.
Just try out some sentences.”
He likens this process to auditioning. And he goes on to ask, “What makes a sentence interesting?”
“The possibility it creates for another sentence.”

So this first sentence has within it the seeds of the next sentence, and the one after that. What you are looking for in the first sentence is possibilities – something that strikes your imagination and makes you want to write what happens next. I am reminded of Studs Turkel, who has a favorite question when he is interviewing someone, “And then what happened?” You can ask yourself the same question as you begin to write.

One other observation about starting a piece of writing – you don’t need to be locked into chronology – what editors and critics call the “tick tock” of time passing. You may want to jump around and allow your writing to be associative. Let’s say, you are in the Boardroom trying to solve that problem, and you remember a time when you relied upon something that your father told you about how he handled a problem at his paint factory during World War Two. So you bring him to mind and to that story and weave it into the present.

Begin, and begin again. As Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All writing is rewriting.” And he certainly knew how to write a short, spare, powerful, promising sentence from beginning to end.