On Opening Essays, Conference Talks, and Jam Jars

How to open pieces of narrative non-fiction writing, conference talks, and sticky jars

Assumed Audience

People trying to get better at narrative, non-fiction, opinionated writing like essays, blog posts, and conference talks. Most of this advice won't necessarily apply to fiction writing, academic writing, or technical documentation writing... but it might help.

Opening Essays and Other Pieces of Narrative Writing

Most of the

opinion pieces I read online do not grip me in the first sentence. People often start pieces somewhere sensible, but boring. Like the chronological start of a story.

The beginning is almost never the most compelling or important part. It's just the bit you thought of first, based on your subjective chronology.

Or far worse, people begin at The Beginning Of Time. Invoking

is an overplayed way to convince us your topic is cosmically important.

Another bad way to start a piece of writing is with a statement of what you're going to write about, followed by a definition.

“Bad” is obviously subjective and contextual here. I find up-front outlines and definitions dull for

writing. But they're standard practice for technical documentation and academic papers. Signposting what you're going to write about is good, but starting with an exhaustive list of definitions is extremely boring.

To be clear, I make these mistakes too. I am a mediocre opener trying to become a good opener. Opening well isn't just about snapping up someone's attention and keeping them reading for a few lines. You can't write good openings without having good ideas, good arguments, good structure, and good storytelling skills. Everything hangs off that starting point, so it's worth learning how to nail it.

Tense, Paradoxical, and Problematic Openings

In trying to become a better opener, I've collected explicit advice from a few books on writing: Stephen Pinker's , John McPhee's , and Joseph Williams' . Alongside implicit advice from studying lots of classic essayists like , , , and .

If you dislike the way these authors write, it's best to check out now.

Pinker, McPhee, and Williams each lay out different sets of principles for compelling openings, which I'll get into in a moment, but for me they all boil down to this: Openings need tension – paradoxes, unanswered questions, and unresolved action.

Good openings propose problems, pose questions, drop you into an unfinished story, or point at fundamental tensions within a topic. Ideally within the first paragraph or two.

Here's a good example of this from the opening of David Graeber's book where he sets up a clear paradox: our technological advances should have led to fewer working hours, but they haven't. Strange.

Here's another one from David Foster Wallace that asks a series of rhetorical questions to which the presumed answers is “of course not!” And also, “how in the world is something as dull as lexicography filled with drama?” An unexpected contrast.

I'm certainly not against a slightly slower narrative opening that sets the scene before making the puzzle or conundrum clear, but you can't take too long to get there. Here's a more drawn out one from Rebecca Solnit that gives you some scenic details before pointing out the curiosity; priviledged tech workers in San Fransisco fail to understand why locals hate them.

Putting the word FUCK in all caps in your opening is a valid way to get people's attention, but you'll need to back it up with a good story.

Let's have another Rebecca Solnit one because she's so damn good at this. Here's an opening for a piece on how we shouldn't think about fixing climate climate as a swift, immediate task, but instead a slow, gradual, persistent challenge.

Finding Tension, Paradoxes and Problems

Fiction writers have it easy. When they hear that stories should start “in the middle of the action,” they can make it so. They can open with the main character's feet dangling off the edge of a cliff with a fiery pit below (or something less heavy-handed and melodramatic).

Creating tension in non-fiction work is trickier because your story is (hopefully) constrained by reality. You are not at liberty to invent suspicious murders, salacious extramarital affairs, or newly-discovered-magical-powers to create tension and mystery. You have to deal with the plain, unexotic facts of the world.

Your challenge is finding the compelling problem in your topic, and clearly presenting it up front. That problem might be deeply buried under a bunch of boring facts and informational details. It might be hard to figure out what it is, and hard to describe once you've found it.

Your job becomes much harder if you pick topics with no tension, problems, or puzzles within them. To paraphrase Williams, it is more of a failure to pose an uninteresting problem, than to poorly articulate an interesting one.

Your interest in the topic is your best directional clue for finding the tension or interesting paradox. Your urge to write about the thing hopefully comes from a place of curiosity. You have unanswered questions about it. It feels important or consequential for unexplained reasons. You think you've seen things in it other people haven't. Pay attention to that interest.

Joseph Williams has some good advice for finding and clearly stating these paradoxes and problems. In Part I of “”, he lays out a slightly formulaic, but useful way of thinking about problems.

Problems are a destabilising condition that has a cost for a community of readers that needs a solution. Destabilising condition is just a fancy word for “change” here – a change in the status quo. Put another way, a problem is an expected turn of events, that has undesireable consequences, for an audience who will care about it, that we want to explore solutions to.

The change here could be a new technological or cultural development like carbon sequestration, web components, critical race theory, or crowd funding. Or it could be a single event like someone making an influential speech or stepping down as a leader.

The change doesn't have to be bad and the consequences aren't necessarily negative. It's simply that the state of the world has shifted, and there are knock-on effects that your community (a.k.a. your readers or

) should care about and explore solutions or responses to. These are changes they need to react to in some way, even if we don't yet have a clear solution.

Here's an examples from Williams:

It's a good exercise to read openings in essays or news articles and try to identify these. They don't always appear in order, and they're usually spread over the first few paragraphs. Here's another example from a New York Times opinion piece:

These examples are clearly a bit simplified and boring. Williams is speaking to a community of academic writers in his book. They're trying to present scientific and research problems in plain, objective language, which isn't necessarily what we want to do with narrative writing like blogging or personal essays.

We have a little more liberty to put interesting padding around the change, consequences, and solution, such as telling an opening anecdote, or drawing readers in with characters, rich details, and sensory descriptions.

Consequential Problems

Our first idea of the “problem” is often not consequential enough and we have to dig deeper to find more compelling underlying problems. Williams suggests we try to state our problem and then ask a series of so what?'s to get at the underlying problem. Let's try it.

Whether I can support that final problem with solid evidence and argue for it convincingly is my job for the rest of the writing piece, but at least I've begun with a compelling problem.

For your writing to be worth reading, you need to be exploring something of consequence for someone. You have to have some kind of problem that matters. Even if it's a personal problem like a medical issue, career challenge, or difficult technical bug, you're hopefully writing about it to help others encountering a similar situation.

Time, Place, Character, and Dramatic Action

Once you know you have a consequential problem for a community and some sense of a solution, you get to play with narrative details. This is the fun storytelling part.

There's an opening style I've seen a lot in publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic that effectively places us in a real time and place, with real characters we want to follow along with. It goes like this:

On {date} in {place}, {character} did {strange / compelling / dramatic thing}.

The strange, compelling, or dramatic thing has to be extreme enough that we now want to know much more about the character and how they came to be doing this thing in this time and place.

Here are some good examples of it:

It's a little formulaic, but it works well. It's pulling us into the scene with rich sensory descriptions and specific details that point at the core problems or tensions the writing will explore.

Here's a more creative way of dropping the reader into the rich details of a scene without relying the time / place / character / action framework:

David Foster Wallace is very good at rhythmic lists like this. It made me love lists.

Starting in the Middle

I said before the chronological beginning is rarely the most compelling or important part of a story. If your story has a narrative over time (and almost all do, even if it's about why you like a hot ), you might need to start telling it in the middle, then jump back to the beginning later on to fill readers in.

John McPhee is the master of structuring narrative writing. If you're unfamiliar with his work, start with his , or consider his Pulitzer Prize winning on the geological history of the United States. Anyway, the guy knows how to make rocks consistently fascinating for 660 pages.

In his writing guide , the chapter on structure is filled with wonderful diagrams like this:

These are the shapes of stories. When McPhee writes, after first immersing himself in his raw material (field notes, interview transcripts, official documents) for weeks, he then draws a structure for the work. The structure lays out the major themes and scenes he'll work through, in the order that will make them most compelling and coherent.

Developing a structure requires navigating the tension between chronology and theme. Chronology is what we default to, but themes that repeatedly appear want to pull themselves together into a single place. The themes that really matter should be in your opening. Even if the moment that best defines them happens right before the end of the timeline.

Opening Conference Talks

Most of the rules for opening pieces of writing apply to opening conference talks, but they require more traditional signposting of what you're going to cover.

Live conference talk audiences are trapped in a way reading audiences are not. They can't close the tab on your presentation. So I try to quickly give them more explanation of where my story is going and why it's worth their valuable attention.

I've been trapped in plenty of audiences where we're 5 minutes into an anecdote about the speaker's childhood, and the whole room is desperately trying to figure out what The Point is. This is cruel and frustrating.

You should make The Point clear as soon as possible. Somewhere in the first minute I make sure to say:

  • This talk is about X: a compelling problem with consequences for this audience, for which I have some suggested solutions
  • We're going to talk about A, B, C, and D, in that order

Here are two of the opening slides from my


This outline isn't especially detailed, but now the audience has a map of where we're going. They understand the structure of my argument and can tell what I am and am not going to cover.

Opening Jam Jars

To open a jam jar, you should run it under a very hot tap. Resort to the kettle if your tap is lukewarm. The heat makes the metal lid expand faster than the glass, which creates space between the lid and the jar.

Then place a tea towel over lid, firmly grip the top, and twist. Repeat until you run out of grip strength, and then recruit someone else to help. They will effortlessly pop it off for you. Do not skip the last step.

Some people advise banging the jar lid on the counter-top to loosen it, but I once smashed a pickle jar this way, showering myself in vingear, soggy dill, and tiny glass shards. I now believe it's not worth the risk.

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