Studies into speed dating, where people seeking a relationship meet multiple potential partners in a short amount of time, suggest that two people tend to “click” – or “not click” – within a matter of seconds. Why? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s her laugh or his eyes. Maybe he looks like the “one who got away” or she has a seductive walk – or perhaps they remind one another of other people in their lives that they love.
Whatever it is for a starry-eyed couple, studies show that these attractions often spark very quickly. And, newer research has shown that people then have about four or five minutes after that initial appeal to either solidify the attraction – or completely blow it.
The same is true with writing. You need to enchant your readers quickly to prevent them from clicking off the page and seeking out another blogger. Then, once you’ve accomplished that initial attraction, you’ve got only a few minutes to either satisfy the readers or cause them to wonder what they ever saw in you in the first place.
Writers face a unique challenge. They first need to learn the internal structure of a topic before they can write about it effectively. With the bio of a person, as just one example, this would typically go from birth to the present moment. With a how-to piece, this would include the steps involved in the process being described.
Unfortunately, what happens “first” is seldom what’s most interesting – so the writer then needs to restructure the research to grab the reader’s attention. How does that work?
Well, here’s an example from a biography that I wrote of a woman named Wilma Rudolph. Now, if I were to truly start at the beginning of her story, the first two sentences would read like this:
Example A: Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940 in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee to Edward and Blanche Rudolph; Edward had eleven children from a first marriage and Wilma was his ninth child out of what would be eleven children from his second marriage. Rudolph was born two months prematurely after a fall by her mother, weighing just four and a half pounds.
(Don’t you just love the name of Wilma Glodean??)
The problem with that beginning is that many readers will have no idea why they should care about Wilma – and so, most of them won’t. Even though I needed to know these facts about her, and even though I did include them in her bio, I needed to get my mind out of the chronological gutter and first offer up why the reader should stick with me.
So, I used these two opening sentences instead:
Example B: Wilma Rudolph was an American runner who became the first female in the United States to win three gold medals in one Olympics when she won gold for the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, and the 400-meter relay race. She faced and overcame incredible challenges in her life, including significant poverty, serious health problems, a bout with polio that put her in a leg brace for several years and caused doctors to question whether or not she would ever walk unassisted again, and racial discrimination.
Now will every reader be attracted to this story? Of course not. There is no universally appealing topic, article or opening line. But, for people interested in successful athletes, or in strong women, or in people who have overcome poverty or racial divide, example B would have a much stronger shot of pulling in readers than example A.
Let’s face it. The tones of some publications are pretty serious and so you need to follow suit. In those instances, how do you add some zing?
Well, here’s how I once solved that problem. I’d written an article about how to research material when writing a biography and this was my opening paragraph:
Biographical material ranges from brief encyclopedic snippets to book-length tomes. Sometimes the material is groundbreaking, revealing information about a person for the very first time; in other instances, the biographer is adding his or her unique spin on a frequently debated public figure. Regardless of specifics, a biography should, at a minimum, provide precise facts about another person’s life; ideally, it should also supply a sense of that person’s essence, and place his or her life in the context of the era in question.
Useful info? Sure. Sexy? Hah.
For the first step of my solution, I found a zesty public domain quote that might perk up the attention of readers, and I added that in italics before my opening paragraph. It read:
“Life is just one damned thing after another.”
—Elbert Hubbard, who died when the ship, Lusitania, sank in 1915
I had hoped that this was quirky enough information to grab readers’ attention – and that the mild cursing, mixed in as it was with the magazine’s academic-sounding text, would stand out (pick me! pick me!) – and I’ve gotten some feedback that it worked.
But, that raised another problem, in that this quote didn’t really fit into the overall piece – and that’s no good. I solved THAT problem by incorporating another quote, later in the piece. I then used that quote to craft a pleasing conclusion that hopefully kept increasing readers’ interest and, ultimately, provided them with a sense of fulfillment:
And let’s end with a devil’s advocate moment. It’s possible that you agreed with Hubbard’s quote that began this piece. After all, his words made fatalistic sense. But now consider Edna St. Vincent Millay’s opinion when she insisted, “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.”
It’s possible that both quotes will resonate – and so will differing viewpoints of your own subject. Your task, then, is to decide how much credence to give each personality trait of the complex human being that you’ve profiled. Once you can confidently integrate her life events – and her intriguing and sometimes confusing quirks – into a satisfying whole, then you’ve successfully completed your biography.
So, there you have it! What structural problems do you face in your writing? Please share in the comments below.