Writing That First Sentence

I’m reading a brief but intriguing book: How to Write a Sentence – and How to Read One by Stanley Fish. The first chapter includes this excellent advice: “Just get the first sentence right, everything else will follow.”

Here’s Fish’s explanation:

If my first sentence were written with a full comprehension of all the twists and turns it introduced…following its lead would guide me to the right order of my arguments and examples. 

The advice originally came from one of Fish’s college professors. Fish added this comment: “He was right, of course.”

Ummm…no, he wasn’t. That’s not why your first sentence is so important. And that advice won’t help you write your first sentence. At that point in the writing process, many writers don’t even know which “arguments and examples” they’re going to use. 

But Fish is on to something important. I like to compare it to throwing a ball. The more energy you use to launch that ball, the farther it will go.

Sentences work the same way. If there’s a lot of energy packed into your first sentence, your writing won’t sputter later on. The energy will be there for you.

* * * * *

I have another point to make. I think Stanley Fish made a grammatical mistake when he wrote this: “If my first sentence were written with a full comprehension….”

Here’s my version: “If my first sentence was written with a full comprehension….”

I use were constructions only when I’m talking about something that couldn’t possibly be true: If I were younger, I would study law.

If something might be true, I use was: If your payment was late, you will have to pay a penalty.

And there’s one more thing: Fish used a comma to join two sentences. Wrong! He should have used a period or a semicolon instead:

Just get the first sentence right. Everything else will follow.

Just get the first sentence right; everything else will follow.

Heck, he could even have used a colon!

Just get the first sentence right: everything else will follow.

But it’s still good advice.

A baseball player throwing a ball


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