Don’t fall in love with the first line, it will break your heart

The other day I discussed writing with a group of high school students I’m currently working with. We discussed what to do with the words bunched up in our heads. “How do we get them [the words] out?” they asked. The room quiet, waiting for a response, I asked “How do ‘we’ get them out?”  

“What do we do with the first line?” they asked. “There is so much pressure, so much riding on the first line,” one student suggested. With nodding heads, there was this wave of anxiety across the room. “I get stuck on the first line,” said another student. “If I can’t seem to get past the first line, how am I going to fill the rest of the page?” he asked. I asked, “What if in the writing process, the first draft, the first line is only that—just a line? And what if that line wasn’t such a big deal.” There was silence for a moment.

After that discussion, it occurred to me, what if we didn’t fall so head over heels for our first lines? Why do we give that line so much power? Sure, once you’re looking at a well-crafted piece, you want that first line to grab your reader. But in the drafting process there’s time to figure that out. I’ve found that some writers, including the young writers I worked with the other day, put so much pressure on themselves to write that first amazing line the very first time they sit down to write. Trying to get that line perfect the very first time can actually sabotage the entire writing experience ending in little to no writing at all.

Let’s think about it: What if the “first line” in your “first draft” is only a line that happened to land first on the page?  What if while you’re crafting you imagine the first line doesn’t really matter? What if what matters is that next line and everything else pouring out after it? Would that make you take a few risks in that first line? Would that encourage you to just write and worry about the first line later?

Imagine, what if we actually wrote like writing is a process? When writing, we think we understand it as a process, but in practice, we sometimes think and write like every word has to be perfect the very first time. Deep down inside we know better, but when working on a deadline or a specific piece of writing, the pressure can swallow our thoughts, and slow or impede our progress altogether.

That first line of a first draft doesn’t have to stay there until the writing is done. It can hold a place at the table and wait for the other sparkling words to find their way. Or what if the first line were really the last line so that the foot of the writing turns upside down, inside out, and lands somewhere, anywhere else on the page? What if the first line never makes it to the next draft, left to fend for itself among the ink marks and eraser smudge? What if the cursor peels that line backwards and erases it from existence? It was once there, but now it isn’t, and can’t hold the other words hostage trying to hurry themselves to the page.

Let’s all take a deep breath and just write. It’s only a first line isn’t it? Write it down and see what happens next.

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Categories: Education, Inspiration, Writing

6 Comments on “Don’t fall in love with the first line, it will break your heart”

  1. February 20, 2014 at 9:24 am #

    Completely agree. I usually skip it and write it in later. My brother had an interesting approach. He told me he never writes stories, all he ever did was write amazing first lines from which to start a story. Some of them were amazing. What some people do in their spare time.

    • February 20, 2014 at 11:18 am #

      I like that idea! I actually sometimes write last lines and write my way towards that final poignant or triumphant last line. Although sometimes my last lines become interesting first lines, and good starts.

      Either way, I think it’s important to just write and not get stuck at the beginning (or the end). I tell students that all the time, don’t put so much weight on that first line. It takes practice.

  2. February 2, 2013 at 7:02 am #

    It’s so true – why does the first line get so much hype? I teach 5th graders, and we write several 5-paragraph essays and nonfiction pieces throughout the year. I structure my classes so we write the body of the paper first, then a day or two later we write the conclusion. We write the introduction paragraph on the last “drafting” day.

    My principal wanted to know why I do it this way – the topic came up during a post-evaluation chat in his office. I told him it was simply to avoid the brain-freeze, the paralyzing pressure any writer faces to get the beginning “right.” Even 11-year-olds stare at that blank page wondering, “how should I begin?”

    • February 2, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

      Yes Gwen! I love when educators think outside the box. We need more of that in Education. You’re guiding your 5th graders to get to the meat of the essay, get down the ideas, flush out the drafts. Those 5-paragraph essays in a few years will turn into 5-page papers (with thesis statements) and young writers need a way to get out their ideas without the anxiety and stress of how long a paper has to be or how to begin that said paper perfectly.

      The hope is that young writers will learn to make the belly of their writing full and flavorful. And while that first line is indeed a useful part of the writing, it should not impede the writing itself.

      I like your idea to help young writers get unstuck. I hope your administrator is opened-minded enough to allow you to keeping thinking creatively as an educator. We need more of that in the classroom!

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. February 1, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    Reminds me of Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” and her concept of sh*tty first drafts. And that’s all it has to be to get it down on the page.

    • February 1, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

      Yes! I love Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird”, a terrific resource. I’ve used it over the years in my teaching.

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