Importance of First Impressions
If you have ever been on a blind date, you understand the importance of first impressions. If you are a writer, you also understand their importance. In fact, first impressions work in remarkably similar ways in both circumstances.
On a blind date, a first impression is usually made at the same point in the date, but not at the point you might think. You may have heard about your date through a mutual friend, but your mutual friend does not create the first impression. You may even have seen a photograph of your date, but again, that’s not where the first impression is made. The first impression only comes when you finally meet your date face to face. Friends have a tendency to exaggerate the wonderful qualities of a blind date. Photographs can be touched up. It’s only when you go on the date itself that you can start getting to know the person.
A similar thing happens between the author and the reader of a book. The impression that will first stay with the reader comes in the opening paragraphs of the book itself, where the reader finally meets the author through the author’s own words. As important as they are, back cover blurbs do not create the first impression. Neither do covers or forewords. Blurbs, covers, and forewords are meant to intrigue the reader enough to take a chance—to accept the “blind date” so to speak. Blurbs, covers, and forewords are like your mutual friends showing you a photograph of someone and saying, “You really should get to know this person better.” That’s important—vitally important—but the first impression will come later.
When the first impression finally is made, it can have a significant and lasting impact. On a blind date it can color the entire evening. In fact, it can color your entire relationship from that point forward. For example, what impression would be created if, within the first five minutes after you met, your date started picking his or her nose? You would be disgusted, and rightfully so. And you probably would be disgusted the entire evening. Again, within the first five minutes after you met, what would your impression be if your date started speaking with a vocabulary that only a college professor could appreciate? The impression would be made, and it would last the evening, if not longer.
The same is true of the relationship between author and reader. The first impression comes within the first five pages or so of a book. Those pages are essential for the author to set the relationship that he hopes will last for the rest of the book. Obviously, it takes some finesse to create the proper impression, but if you are a new author, don’t worry. There’s nothing magic about creating first impressions in your writing. It’s rather simple, really. All you need to do is follow two rules.
The first rule is this: Show through what you write in the opening paragraphs, what you expect of the reader. Some authors, especially authors of nonfiction, make the mistake of beginning their book by talking directly to the reader, saying things like, “In this book, I will explain…,” or “Make sure you understand each chapter before going on, or you will become easily confused….” Doing so is a mistake. Instead, you should communicate your expectations in much the same way as you would communicate them on a blind date. No person on his or her first date would ever pull out a list of attributes that he or she is looking for in a mate. Instead, that person communicates what he or she is looking for through various subtle ways: eye contact, verbal hints, choices of where to go and what to do.
As an author, you have subtle tools at your disposal as well. The vocabulary you use is one of your tools. Make sure your introductory paragraphs are written at the same level as the rest of the book. Nothing can aggravate a reader more than to breeze through the opening paragraphs and struggle through the remaining chapters.
Sentence length is another tool. Short, simple sentences create a different impression than long, complex ones. Longer, more complex sentences will show that you have high expectations of the reader—you expect the reader to put forth some effort in reading the book.
Even your paragraph structure can give the reader a clue as to what you expect from him. A paragraph with an organized, logical flow that includes a thesis statement will indicate your desire to have the reader closely follow your line of reasoning. A more free-flowing, imaginative paragraph will entice the reader to suspend critical analysis in favor of allowing his own imagination to flow freely.
The second rule follows from the first. Just as you need to indicate what you expect of the reader, you also need to show the reader what he can expect from you. Give an indication of the tone of the book. If your book is serious, make sure the introduction is serious. If the book is meant to be humorous, make sure the reader laughs as least once by the end of the fifth page. If you expect the reader to suspend his disbelief and engage in fantasy with you for a time, let him know that right from the start. In the past, this was done with the simple convention of “Once upon a time…” but you can be subtler than that.
Your choice of verbs will show the reader what kind of writing he can expect. Strong verbs will indicate strong writing overall. Weak verbs, like the linking verb “to be,” surrounded by multiple adjectives will indicate weaker and more labored writing.
Make sure your opening paragraphs are written at a reading level that is consistent with the rest of the book. If you need to use vocabulary that is above your chosen reading level, be sure to explain it. If you find yourself creating sentences that are too complex for your reading level, break them up into two or more sentences. Make sure that by the end of the fifth page the reader has a good idea of your writing style and your writing level.
Certainly, more could be said about the opening paragraphs of your book, but for the most part, everything still boils down to two rules: Let your reader know what you expect from him and let your reader know what he can expect from you. Those two rules may sound too simple, but they are vitally important. Forget them and you will lose your reader before he ever gets to know you. Use them properly and you will be a long way toward developing a relationship with the reader that will carry him through the rest of the chapters and maybe even on into your next book.
By Norlan De Groot, ABP
and Trademark Use Policy.