Maggie Smith , the acclaimed star of Downton Abbey on PBS, won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1970 for her role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the same year I started my career in journalism at the Pico Rivera News in southern California. The editor, Bill Schlapper was like a college professor giving instruction and guidance to his fledgling reporters. When writing a story, Bill said I should choose the topic, and carry its theme throughout - not to become distracted with emotion and extemporaneous happenings outside of what I was writing about.
Bill was an early mentor whose counsel served me well in the feature articles I wrote for the Pico Rivera News, and later when I took at job at the Herald-American/Call Enterprise. Along with the basic writing rule of journalism - what, who, when, where and why, Bill often alluded to the four writing modes and their different roles, how each had a specific purpose. Expository, Descriptive, Narrative, and Persuasive. The one time editor of the Pico Rivera News would be pleased to know textbooks today still list those modes.
Expository writing communicates knowledge. It provides and explains information; it may also give general directions or step by step instructions on any activity.
Descriptive writing can make a person, place or thing come to life.
Narrative writing tells a story, either real or fictional, and holds the reader's attention by presenting interesting characters in a carefully ordered series of events.
Persuasive writing presents an opinion. Its goal is to make readers feel or think a certain way.
With each type, there are several questions particular to the modes of writing a writer should ask of him or her self. One in common for all, "Is the opening paragraph interesting, does the first sentence get the reader's attention?" For me, that opening sentence is always the most difficult to write. Where to start ? How to begin? I think back to those many years ago, long before personal computers and word processing when I sat behind a Royal typewriter to do a story for the newspaper. Always close to deadline, it would take me the longest timeto compose that first sentence. I would eventually get up from my chair, pace the floor back and forth until something came to mind. A habit I continue to this day when working on an article for magazine or blog post.
According to one internet writing site, to write brilliant first sentences, writers should pick up favorite books and read the first sentence carefully and think about what makes them so effective. It is often judged the best opening sentence is short and snappy, and sets the tone of the story.
For example, read the first sentence of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark's novel published in 1961, later adapted to stage play , then movie :
The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine school, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.
It's not boys talking to girls that draws the reader in , but a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, that describes the scene, and makes us wonder about these particular boys and girls, and what happens next? It shows how a well written first sentence helps motivate the reader to read on.