This is the fifth part of our series on how to write a tech blog that reads well. If you wish to read previous entries or find out what will come up next, this is a table of contents that will be updated with links as the series progresses.
Article #1 – Fundamentals & Essential Practices
Article #2 – Structuring Your Blog & Presentation
Article #3 – Style
Article #4 – Common Pitfalls
Article #5 – Opening Your Blog
Article #6 – Closing Your Blog And Explaining Difficult Concepts
The opener of a blog is generally much more important and difficult to pull off than the blog’s conclusion. You may feel like you have a very clear idea on the topic you want to write about, only to sit down to get started and find yourself gazing blankly at an empty Word document.
To avoid that, let’s look at the most effective ways to open your blog. Bear in mind that it is not strictly necessary for openers to be powerful hooks that will lure the reader in, or ‘promises of value’, or anything like that – you’ve got the blog’s title and the subtitle for that. If the reader is already in the article and looking at the opener, that’s the time to put concerns about traffic at the back of your mind and focus more closely on matters of writing style.
So – how do we open an article?
Technical articles / Objective register
If you’re writing a technical article, or something else that requires a strictly objective register (see our article on writing style for a deeper dive into that topic), then opening your article becomes relatively simple. Pretty much all you have to do is state what your article will be about, as simply and as clearly as possible.
For example, let us imagine that you want to write an article that will teach people how to use Python’s libraries for Data Science. It’s as easy as this:
In this article we will introduce you to the main Python libraries that are necessary for Data Science. In particular, we will look at Scikit-learn and pandas, and we will explore the various ways these let you visualize and manipulate data. We will also look at their applications for machine learning.
Let us begin with…
…And you’re off writing.
Openers for objective register articles may vary in their phrasing, but usually they do little more than provide a mini-summary of the blog (or what academic writers call an abstract), allowing a reader to know what they’re in for. They are therefore by far the easiest openers to pull off.
If you are still struggling, however, here are some other sample sentence openers you can use:
The purpose of this article is to…
Today we will…
The topic of our blog will be…
This blog is intended for readers who want…
For today’s article, I have…
There is really no need to make technical articles any prettier or more complex than that. People don’t come to this sort of text for a chillout reading session while drinking coffee, they come to find specific information for something they are presently trying to do, and that is all you need to deliver.
Other articles / Subjective register
As we shift away from technical articles to other blogs, openers become more variable and more difficult to execute. Generalizations also become less applicable.
Nonetheless, let us look at a few valuable techniques that should be of aid to any writer.
a.) Establish Difference
Here’s a fun fact: in most cases, the way we start conversations and keep them going is by saying out loud that something is, looks, or feels different by comparison to a perceived norm.
This is why the weather, for example, is such a recurring conversation opener – saying ‘Pretty cold out there today, isn’t it?’ remarks on something feeling different than it usually is, and therefore offers people something to discuss.
Written articles do not follow the same rules as spoken conversation, but the principle of stating difference can be very useful when looking at how to open an article.
Indeed, a classic essay opener that is taught in high school operates on exactly that principle:
There has been a lot of debate surrounding [introduce your blog’s topic].
It doesn’t really matter how much debate there has been, what matters is that you are pointing out a difference relative to an implied normal (people not debating), and thus setting up the reader for the ‘conversation’ to continue. In fact, you can pull off what is formally the same opener by saying exactly the opposite:
There is no longer any debate on whether [introduce your blog’s topic].
As long as you are simply stating a difference, you can come up with an almost infinite supply of universal openers simply by keeping the terms sufficiently vague. Here are a few examples I just thought of off the top of my head:
Proficiency with PHP is becoming more and more valuable in tech.
Recently, professionals in Sylicon Valley have shown increased interest in embedded systems development.
People have been asking questions about the true potential of the Unity engine.
Naturally, rather than just making these things up, you want them to be accurate! If you are staring at an empty document and you don’t know how to start writing, an easy solution is to just type the topic you are writing about in Google News or Google Ngram Viewer. The results in those search bars are based on difference by default, i.e. on new events happening or on the frequency of word usage changing over time.
Once you have introduced your topic by stating a difference, you can then get the ball rolling in numerous ways. For example, you can expand on said difference (if it is relevant to your topic, of course):
There has been a lot of debate surrounding Facebook’s new privacy policies. People have expressed concerns about how much control they have over their personal data, which leads some to believe [etc.]
A very simple way of following up this sort of opener is with a question, which then allows you to go straight into your topic:
There has been a lot of debate surrounding Facebook’s new privacy policies. How much of this represents well-grounded, sensible concerns, and how much instead is just plain old alarmism?
Naturally, you should remember that all of the above is useful as a way to get started when you don’t know what to write. It’s not intended as a blueprint that you should always follow, and you definitely should look for other ways of opening your articles, especially those that sound most natural and organic to you and which work best with your voice.
b.) Anecdotal Openers
A powerful way of opening your blog is to relate the topic you are writing about to a personal experience you had. Let us look at how the Product Lead for our Data Science bootcamps Guillem Perdigó opened his article ‘Can A Data Scientist Do Good For The World’:
I have recently been hosting some Q&A sessions on the subject of Data Science. One of the attendants surprised me with a question that was so important – and so stimulating! – that I responded with a wall-of-text email. Indeed, so close to the heart did that question strike me, that I am going to dedicate this blog to answering it as fully and as aptly as I am able to.
This is what is called an anecdotal opener, and it works because it immediately grounds the reader in a concrete experience. Data Science is a complex, often abstract topic, and kicking off by immediately talking about that might put off a casual reader. Here, instead, we are first introduced to Guillem, to what he does, to how he feels, and we are also teased about the high stakes of the topic being discussed (‘a question that was so important’). The intro is nice and smooth.
Anecdotal openers also have the benefit that they are relatively easy to come up with – if you are writing about a topic, you probably have some experience with it, so you immediately have a starting point. It can even help in finding your voice.
However, there are two things you should bear in mind when writing an anecdotal opener.
Firstly, unless your personal experience is the central topic of the blog itself, this opener has to be brief. You are using something that happened to you as a way to ease a reader into another subject, not to dwell on your personal memories. One short paragraph is about as much as you can get away with before the reader loses interest.
Secondly, it has to have a tangible relation to the topic you are talking about. ‘I was walking my dog in the park yesterday, and as I threw a stick around for him to catch, I started thinking about how Data Scientists can do good for the world’ – this is not a good anecdotal opener, because who cares that you were walking your dog? What does it have to do with the ethics of Data Science?
Anecdotal openers can be your best (pen-)friends, but always keep them brief and to the point.
c.) Opening Blogs Which Tell A Story
Some of the more complex tech blogs you can write are those which tell somebody’s story, either your own or somebody else’s. Examples may include ‘How I learned to code in my 60s’, or ‘What it was like to work for Apple for 5 years’, or ‘My journey through and out of burnout’. It takes a strong sense of narrative to really make these blogs stand out.
They are also notoriously tricky when it comes to writing openers for them, not least because in this case creativity works better than following a format.
Nonetheless, one principle is worth bearing in mind: it is usually best to start from the particular and go to the general, rather than the other way round. What do I mean by this?
Consider how you would normally introduce, say, a new colleague to your team-members. You would probably start by describing their most general traits, like their background, and then move on to the specific reasons why they are here, like the project(s) they will be working on.
This is a natural instinct, but it doesn’t work as well in story-telling, and I would recommend that you do exactly the opposite – start by describing the protagonist of your blog (whether it is yourself or somebody else, or even an abstract entity like a programming language) in the middle of something extremely specific and concrete, without providing any context. Make that image as vivid as possible – specify when this is happening and describe the surroundings. Then move on to providing the general details that will contextualise what is going on.
This all probably sounds rather abstract, so let’s look at a concrete example. This is the opener of one of the best works of journalism I have ever read, Jon Mooallem’s ‘American Hippopotamus’:
Frederick Russell Burnham didn’t like public speaking, but he arrived at the Maryland Hotel, in Pasadena, California, on the night of September 19, 1910, determined to communicate a few clear and uncontroversial truths.
Burnham was 49 years old—a frontiersman and soldier of fortune who’d spent his life leaping into conflicts with American Indians and colonial wars in Africa. […]
See what Mooallem is doing? The first paragraph puts us somewhere highly specific and withholds much more information than it provides. This is how the reader is anchored to the story, and how they are hooked – the desire to read more stems from the desire to know where we are exactly and what is going on. With anchor and hook in place, Mooallem can then kick off a more general overview from his second paragraph onwards.
The transition from specifics to generalities is an excellent default opener for narrative blogs, although it takes some practice to do it well. I am going to close this section with another example, this one from my own Student Experience article about WBS CODING SCHOOL graduate Holden Madagame. Here are the first two lines, once again going from something concrete to a more general background:
As a dazzling Berlin spring danced around him, Holden Madagame sat in his small rented room and watched the year 2020 slowly tear his life to pieces. A professional opera singer from Michigan, he had seen all three of his upcoming singing gigs cancelled in the wake of the Covid-19 global pandemic.
d.) The ‘No Opener’ Trick
A common practice among experienced writers is to write the first draft of an article, then go back and literally just erase the entire first paragraph – sometimes even the first two or three paragraphs, no matter how long they took to write.
This can be an extremely valid decision. The opener is typically the hardest part of an article to write, as you have nothing yet to build on and no flow to keep you going. Thus, openers often just ramble or give inessential information, with the actual relevant material starting from the second paragraph onwards.
After having written the first draft, it’s a good idea to go back, and ask yourself what happens if you ditch the first paragraph wholesale. You’ll be surprised at how often the article reads much better and feels more direct if one starts reading from the second paragraph.
You may be wondering, ‘Then why should I write that first paragraph at all?’ The answer is, to get you going. Once again, openers are hard. If you write something that is silly and irrelevant, but that gets you started and leads you to writing about your core topic after a few twists and turns, then the silly paragraph was not a waste of time at all. Even if it doesn’t make it into the final draft of the article, it still did something good for you.
Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings. Sometimes the best opener is the one you get rid of.
That will be all for today. Next week we’ll look at the opposite problem – how to close your blog.