“In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This is a great opening if you’re writing a biography of the Messiah. Not so great for a college admissions essay, or a Medium post about the joys of having three children, or an opinion column in the company newsletter. When you’re writing an essay, it’s OK to start with a few warm-up paragraphs. But remember to delete them.
As memoirist/essayist/novelist/editor Roxane Gay recently tweeted, a lot of writers start their pieces too broadly:
That is not necessarily the case. Oftentimes, these broad statements don't really say anything. And they aren't very interesting. What is a sharp, specific way you can bring the reader into your essay? What can you say that will make them want to read the next line, and the next?
— roxane gay (@rgay) August 26, 2019
Fix Your intro
Gay continues her thread with more essay-writing advice, but for now, let’s try a specific tactic for cleaning up any essay: Lop off the first paragraph, and probably the last three.
Sometimes you spend your first paragraph trying to justify the existence of your piece. If the piece is any good, it justifies its own existence. Kill it.
Sometimes the first paragraph is where you try to contextualise your specific topic. In that case, you can keep it, but move it down a few paragraphs. Open with a specific thing, then loop back to the general. I made this a habit in the last year or two in my own Lifehacker posts.
Sometimes you do the reverse: telling a personal anecdote as an intro to a larger topic. You should probably move this intro down as well. If that robs the personal story of its purpose, delete it.
Sometimes you spend the first paragraph making jokes. Or at least I do. Sprinkle the jokes into the rest of the piece — now you’ve got a mildly funny piece! — or kill them all. These are the darlings everyone tells you to kill. Which, by the way, is an unhelpful metaphor. Editing isn’t infanticide, it’s birth control.
Fix your conclusion
You can probably delete the last paragraph too. Hell, you can probably delete the last three.
If your last lines add no new information, cut them. Better to end abruptly than to ruin your piece like Bart Simpson’s “Libya is a land of contrasts.”
If your last lines massively expand the scope of your essay, cut them. An embarrassingly grand conclusion is a good sign: You build up all this race-car momentum, you’re whipping around corners, zooming down the straightaway. But you need to hit the brakes before you drive off a cliff.
I’ve driven a few Lifehacker posts off the cliff in the last few paragraphs. I give some specific piece of advice, I spell it out, I drive my point home, I provide the necessary caveats, and then I try to turn that specific advice into a life mantra. My bad coffee essay is good stuff, but I shouldn’t have stretched the lesson to include “buy crappy clothes” and “buy a crappy phone.”
That’s outside the scope of the piece! It weakens my point. If I had another chance, I would cut that paragraph. Go and do likewise.