On Writing: Getting the Reader to Read the Second Sentence

 By Mike Feinsilber

The purpose of the first sentence is to compel the reader to read the second sentence. Knowing that makes it harder to write sentence one.

Books about writing don’t help much: “The way to start writing is to start writing,” they say. Or: “Write down anything, just to get started. You can always get rid of it in revising.”

Maybe you can learn something by reading some first sentences. If nothing else, that might call attention to books whose second sentences you might want to read.

These first sentences are from books in my home library. This is not a collection of famous first sentences.  Just an attempt to see how some writers started.

“Then there was the bad weather.” —A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.

“James Hurt says that Lincoln used ‘the ordinary coin of funeral oratory’ at Gettysburg.” —Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America by Garry Wills.

“They had been on the road for six days, a clan of five bouncing along in a tired wagon, when Bam White woke to some bad news.” —The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan.

“I wish Giovanni would kiss me.” —Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

“About ten years ago a school in Connecticut held ‘a day devoted to the arts,’ and I was asked if I would come and talk about writing as a vocation.” —On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

“There is a strange ambivalence to the season.” —Second Cutting: Letters from the Country by Richard M. Ketchum.

“On May 18, 1860, the day when the Republican Party would nominate its candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln was up early.” —Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

“In the official annals of the government of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, Rudolph Zukal was Enemy of the People number 265.” —The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism by Tina Rosenberg.

“Now that it’s fashionable to reveal intimate details of married life, I can state publicly that my wife, Alice, has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day.” —Alice, Let’s Eat by Calvin Trillin.*

“The last government in the Western world to possess all of the attributes of aristocracy in working condition took office in England in June of 1895.” —The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War: 1890-1914 by Barbara W. Tuchman.

“The past is forever with me and I remember it all.” —Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng.

“In the mid-1990s, the city of Baltimore was attacked by an epidemic of syphilis.” —The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

“For a time after the first pieces of Route 495 were laid down across central Massachusetts, in the middle 1960s, the main hazard to drivers was deer.” —The Soul of a Good Machine by Tracy Kidder.

“‘We all ended up going into the service about the same time—the whole crowd.” —Working Class War: American Combat Soldier and Vietnam by Christian G. Appy.

“Whenever I’m in New York and I have a little time on my hands, I grab a backpack and some maps and a compass and maybe some lunch and I hike through Times Square and up the stairs of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where I catch a bus to the Meadowlands.” —The Meadowlands by Robert Sullivan.

“Mercado’s Federal army, after its dramatic and terrible retreat four hundred miles across the desert when Chihuahua was abandoned, late three months at Ojinagao on the Rio Grande.” —The Collected Works of John Reed by John Reed.

“My parents’ paths first crossed in a museum on 23rd Street in New York.” —Personal History by Katharine Graham.

“It was a funeral to which they all came.” —A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam by Neil Sheehan.

“His wife wasn’t drinking milk with her cocktails in the hope her stomach might hurt a little less—not then.” —The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War by Paul Hendrickson.

“The acrobatic city editor of fiction always has the adjective ‘hard-boiled’ before his title; it seems as inevitable as ‘waiting’ automobile, ‘nearby’ drugstore and ‘hurrying’ pedestrian.” —City Editor by Stanley Walker.

“The American left, like all modern political movements, began with printed words.” —American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation by Michael Kazin.

What conclusions can be drawn? The way to start writing is to start writing. Write down anything, just to get started. You can always get rid of it in revising. Those writers about writing know what they’re talking about.
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. 


  1. In his book On Writing Well, William Zinsser goes on from that first sentence about writing as a vocation to describe what then happened at the school in Connecticut. Zinsser was paired on a panel with a surgeon who recently had begun to write and had sold some stories to national magazines.

    The surgeon said writing was fun. He said he would come home from an arduous day at the hospital and start writing. The words just flowed. It was easy.

    Zinsser said writing wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun. It was hard and lonely, and the words seldom just flowed.

    The surgeon was asked if it was important to rewrite. Absolutely not. Let it all hang out and whatever form the sentences take will reflect the writer at his most natural.

    Zinsser said that rewriting is the essence of writing. “I pointed out that professional writers rewrite their sentences repeatedly and then rewrite what they have rewritten. I mentioned that E.B. White and James Thurber rewrote their pieces eight or nine times.”

    A student asked, “What do you do on days when it isn’t going well?” The surgeon said he just stopped writing and put the work aside for a day when it would go better.

    Zinsser said the professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it. He said writing is a craft, not an art, and the writer who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself. He is also going broke.

  2. What a neat column. Thank you.

Speak Your Mind