Here is some nonfiction writing advice that I’d created years ago.
To unravel the twisting, turning history (of the boomerang), you’d have to travel back in time. You’d slip back to an age before there were airplanes, before there were cars, before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. You’d travel to a place where America wasn’t yet known, to a time long before William the Conqueror subdued England in 1066. You wouldn’t even recognize the world you’d enter, the primitive, murky horizons of ancient man.”
I deliberately crafted the opening of my book, ‘Bout Boomerangs: America’s Silent Sport, to have a broad and sweeping feel, since my goal was to tell the complete story of the flying stick that returns. I wanted to present boomerangs as an art and a science, and as a social, cultural and historical phenomenon. So I chose an opening containing myth-like language, to guide readers back to the days of the boomerang’s primordial soup.
The opening paragraph (or even line!) of any book or article is vital to its success and must dazzle readers. When crafting an opener for a magazine article, it’s important to keep three items in mind: the tone of the publication, the age of its readers and the scope, geographically speaking, of the audience. With those factors in mind, the writer can then select the most appropriate combination of anecdotes, quotes and narratives to encourage people to read the article.
Please remember that, while quality openers may or may not contain information that happened first (chronologically speaking), they must present an intriguing slant.
I’ve published several articles about boomerangs, both before and after the publication of ’Bout Boomerangs, and the meandering, all-encompassing opening of my book wouldn’t have worked for any of my magazine pieces.
(You can find more nonfiction writing advice if you want to write books in How to Write a Book Proposal: Nonfiction Example and Writing a Nonfiction Book: Keeping It Real. Now back to our regularly-scheduled program!)
“Betsylew Miale-Gix is fearless. She knows what she has to do and she just does it.”
One article, published in Women’s Sport + Fitness, was called “She Throws Like a Girl,” with a subtitle of “And in the sport of boomerang, that’s better than most of the guys.” The tone of Women’s Sport + Fitness was intense, with a tough, independent, can-do attitude glowering from every syllable. So I lifted two lines from my book research and that succinct opening fit the magazine perfectly. “Betsylew Miale-Gix is fearless. She knows what she has to do and she just does it.”
In the sport of boomerang throwing, women compete directly against the men, with no handicaps. And, the opener for Women’s Sport + Fitness is a quote from a top-level male participant, expressing his admiration for Miale-Gix’s competitive spirit – and success.
To give an example of contrasting tone, I wrote about Miale-Gix again, this time for the International Encyclopedia of Women and Sports, Macmillan Reference USA. The audacious opening from the fitness magazine, however, would not work in the encyclopedia; instead, I used a straightforward and factual tone, one that would have lulled readers of Women’s Sport + Fitness to sleep.
“Boomerang throwing is a recreational and competitive sport in which participants try to achieve specified effects in their throws: distance, tricks and extended time aloft.”
Then there’s the age of the audience. When I wrote “Boomerangs” for Boys Quest, I was tailoring the article towards preteen boys, for whom play is still vital. I wanted my opener to be clear and enticing, so I wrote, “If you’re looking for a terrific sport to play alone or with friends, try boomerang throwing.”
While that nurturing and inclusive opening line worked well for the 8- to 12-year-old set, that sentence would sound quite condescending to those attending college. So, when I published an article, “Boomerang on a Budget” in Works Magazine: Dedicated to Campus Life, I chose a cutting-edge opener, jammed with the latest boomerang slang.
“Toss a rang and hope it isn’t a blow by. English translation: Go ahead and throw your boomerang. Just don’t let it disappear into the sky.” I continued that opener for a few more sentences, adding, “Toss it in Ohio, the boomerang capital of the world. Yes, Ohio.”
I did that because Works Magazine was published and read on an Ohio campus, and one of the most successful techniques for can’t-put-down openers is to focus on where readers live. If this magazine had been distributed in North Dakota, say, that information about Ohio might have been tucked near the end of the article, or may never have appeared. For readers in Ohio, though, this information creates an instant sense of belonging.
Finding local connections can help you sell larger stories, which worked when I sold “Career in Flight” to Beacon Magazine, a regional publication. While I opened with a grand vista, I quickly shared the “local boy” angle, so readers would care about the story.
“Dazzling objects,” I wrote, “spiraled across the night sky. People stared in amazement as mysterious lights spun in a circle, magically stopping when the circle was complete. The event? A lighted boomerang demonstration during the 1994 Individual World Tournament, held in Hiratsuka, Japan. And, throwing that twinkling boomerang was Canton’s own Gary Broadbent.”
Using the fluid formula of tone, age and scope, you can create a multitude of articles from one main topic, just as I did with boomerangs. I still have so many other boomerang stories to tell, too, from the historical perspective to the artistic one, from the scientific point of view to the one that shares boomerang throwing as a legitimate sport played around the world.
Or, as Broadbent puts it, the activity that is the “most ferocious, bodacious, vivacious, gregarious, low to the ground, hard to bring down, bobbing and weaving, shaking and baking, stopping on the dime and leaving nine cents behind, number one, second to none sport in the world.”
Hmmm . . . another opening line?