Whether you are writing a book, an essay, an important email or a resume, you’ll get the best results if you write the introduction last.
That might sound like an upside-down way to do things, but it will make your writing faster and more effective. Here’s why.
- The introduction will work better. It’s the job of an introduction to set the scene for what will follow. You’ll have a clearer and more detailed idea what that is once you’ve written the rest.
- It reduces editing trauma. If you’ve invested time and energy writing a beautiful introduction, it can get hard to abandon it when it becomes clear it’s not the right introduction for what you’ve written. By not writing it yet (or at least, not polishing it yet), you reduce the risk of clinging to something that would be better deleted. This is particularly true for novels.
- It helps overcome writer’s block. Often, getting started is hard. Starting in the middle can help you sidestep that resistance. Just start with the first thing that comes into your head, and work out from there, both backwards and forwards.
The problem with Introductions
So many people seem to think of the introduction as little more than a written handshake. But it’s much more than that. A properly written introduction does some heavy lifting.
When I was writing essays and academic papers waaay back at university, I discovered that an introduction had to provide a kind of roadmap for what was to come in the rest of the paper.
And being a naturally spontaneous teenager (translation: left all my assignments to the last minute!) I was forced to find ways to make the most of every minute left before the deadline, as the clock ticked relentlessly on…
I discovered that the fastest and most effective way to write an introduction was to wait until the entire paper was assembled. (That way I could get to bed at 3am, instead of 4 or 5am. 😉 )
Later, I discovered that this principle works for almost anything that needs an introduction. An introduction is fitter and stronger if it’s written last.
So, you’d think that all this experience would have been very useful in recent years, when I started writing my first novel, wouldn’t you?
Er, no. *blushes*
I had this idea in my head for how my novel should begin. I spent a lot of time on that opening scene. Then by the time my manuscript was 10,000 words, I realised that opening scene didn’t fit any more, and I reworked it. The same thing happened at 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 words… you get the picture!
And still, like the innocent little newbie novelist that I am, I kept on polishing and recutting those luminous jewels that opened my novel, as the novel grew in length. I mean, everything I read said that the opening to a novel is crucial, right? So I had to keep on working and working on it, right?
By the time the whole novel was down on paper, it became clear that the opening I’d endlessly reworked and rebuilt and patched together — my Frankenchapter — was pretty much worthless. The vast majority of that purple prose had to go in the bin. (Or, more accurately, into the Deleted Scenes folder in Scrivener. Makes it much easier to discard things when I know they’re still there somewhere!)
If I’d stopped fiddling endlessly with that opening chapter I would have:
- Probably finished the novel a year sooner. 😉
- Having finished the novel, had a much better idea what the first chapter needed to be, and written a better opening, faster.
When to write introductions for different forms of writing
If you don’t grab them with your beginning, you don’t get a chance to grab them later. Even the opening line has to sizzle, not just the chapter.
- That’s far too much pressure to be facing when you’re confronted with the horror of the First Blank Page. Give yourself a break and say, “This is just a beginning Beginning. I’ll come back to it later and make it sizzle. Much later.” Or even begin in the middle.
- The introduction to a novel doesn’t say, “We’re going to cover this, this and this,” the way a non-fiction book might. But it still has to point forward to something significant about the story that’s beginning. (I discovered that one the hard way, when the consultant who reviewed my ms pointed it out to me — very gently, bless her.)
- It’s easier to know what that Something Significant should be if you’ve actually written the whole book. Even writers who outline and plan every scene to the tiniest intake of breath often find that things change along the way, and a book becomes something unexpected and new, or its emphasis and themes change.
- Being hung up on the opening chapter can actually stop you reshaping the novel and making it better. You feel like it has to match the opening, and therefore can’t go off in this interesting new direction. No, the opening matches the novel, not the other way around.
- Dr Kim Wilkins, lecturer at the University of Queensland, goes even further: “My advice is to finish the book, then scrap the first chapter all together and write it again without looking at the original.” (Her article giving advice to writers on the Queensland Writers Centre blog is full of good tips and it’s only short — worth popping over there for a read.) I don’t know if I’m brave enough to do that, but it probably would have been a good idea. Far better than trying to tear the bruised and battered pieces of my Frankenchapter from my damp, clinging little hands!
The introduction to a non-fiction book needs to entice the reader further by outlining which of their problems will be solved if they continue reading.
- Even though you are almost certainly writing to a plan in non-fiction, waiting until you’ve written all those other chapters will make them more alive for you, so you’ll write a more engaging introduction if you write it last.
- Even consider holding off until you have time to sit down and read your completed first draft right through in one sitting. Then write that introduction very fast, while the book is still filling your head. It will come together so much more easily!
- The process of writing may, as with fiction, change where you end up taking the book. And so the introduction that fits best will be written at the end.
- Bonus tip: If you are writing popular non-fiction, don’t give your introduction the label “Introduction”. Almost no one reads introductions in popular non-fiction. (Sad, but true.) Give it a much more alluring name, something to do with what is about to happen and where you are taking them.
You might think your memoir needs to begin: I was born in [this place] on [this date]. Um, please don’t do that. (Unless of course you were born in some extraordinary place at a crucial moment in history, and it has shaped your whole life. There’s always an exception!)
- The introduction to a memoir can actually be one of the hardest ones to write. That’s because it’s your life, and you are so unavoidably close to it that it can be hard to see exactly what about your life is fascinating to other people. It’s often not what you think it is!
- By allowing yourself to write the whole book first, and teasing out those themes that make your story powerful, you’ll have a much clearer picture of where and how the book needs to begin.
- Even in memoir, the opening chapter needs to point forward to significant things that will be told in this story. Sometimes it’s only in the process of writing that you learn for yourself which aspects of your story are actually the most significant ones. It’s like a kind of therapy, but cheaper. 😉 You get to know yourself better. And then you can write a corker of an introduction.
Academic essays and papers
I’ve already mentioned that the introduction for academic writing performs a specific task. You’ve probably been given some guidelines for exactly how that must be done, which varies between educational institutions. This is a workflow that I found useful:
- I’d write the body of the paper.
- Next, I’d write the conclusion, which said something along the lines of, “This paper talked about this and this, and examined them in regard to this and this, and produced these results on the basis of which the following recommendations or conclusions can be made.”
- Lastly, I would write the introduction using the conclusion for inspiration, but talking in future tense (“this paper will examine such and such”), and leaving out the results or recommendations/conclusions. I didn’t just copy and paste and do a quick hatchet job — I actually wrote on a blank page, but with the conclusion sitting in front of me. And I’d do it immediately after writing the conclusion, while it was all still fresh in my mind. (Always worked for me, let me know if it works for you. 😉 )
Business writing, including emails/letters, submissions and resumes
The introduction to most forms of business writing has to convince a busy person why they should bother reading any further, when the phone is ringing and there are 3,497 emails in their Inbox.
And, in case they DON’T read any further, it needs to give them a potted summary of what you wish to communicate.
Easy, huh? 😉
- Other kinds of introductions generally hint at what’s to come in the rest of the document, or try to entice a reader to read on. It’s usually best not to leave anything to the imagination in writing an introduction for a business context. If they’ve got time, they’ll read the rest. If they haven’t, make sure you’ve communicated.
- Most effective is a pithy introduction stating (in measurable terms) why you are the best person or company for the job or contract, or outlining the problem that needs to be solved and what they/you are going to do about it.
- This is easier to do if you have already written the rest of the document. You’ll be more aware of what really matters. You’ll be focused and better able to condense it. The introduction will flow more easily from your mind if you write it last.
- In the case of a resume or tender, by working through the requirements in the job ad or call document, you’ve now become much more aware of what really matters to this potential employer/client. By writing the introduction last, you can provide a targeted description of yourself or your company, shaped to the other party’s requirements.
- And if you were cross as you began writing because the email or letter is about resolving a conflict situation, you may have got that out of your system in the process of writing, so that you can write a civil introduction! (and then go through and remove the snark from the rest of the document 😉 )
What do you think? Do you write your introductions first or last? Do you agree or disagree with me? What have you learned from your own experience of writing introductions? Let’s talk, in the comments below. 🙂