Good writing captures the imagination of the readers, grabs and holds their attention, compelling them to keep reading. It creates interest, makes them care about the story, the people, the problem. Its impact is so deep they simply don’t have the option of putting down the book, the article, or the essay. They must keep reading. They have to find out what happens next. They want to know the outcome. They are hooked.
The same is true of any form of communication: television commercials, sitcoms, and movies; micro fiction, short stories, and novels; essays and narrative nonfiction; poetry and songs; speeches and sermons. When done well, it latches onto something inside the mind or the soul of the hearer, viewer, or reader.
This happened to me the first time I read Longfellow’s Evangeline. My wife had recommended it, so I picked it up at a used bookstore and sat down on the sofa to read on my day off. From the opening page, I was hooked.
THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman? List to a Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy.
Business communications consultant Milo Frank says “The attention span of the average individual is 30 seconds. Let me give you an example. Look around the room and concentrate on a lamp. You’ll find your mind goes to something else within 30 seconds. If the lamp could move or talk, or go on and off by itself, it would recapture your attention for another 30 seconds. But without motion or change, it cannot hold you.” This is why in his chapter titled “The Lead and the Ending,” William Zinsser writes:
The most importance sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he is hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the “lead.”
If this is true, writers who want their stuff to be read will use a variety of means to hook and maintain the reader’s attention throughout the work, not only at the beginning. Because the mind can only focus for thirty seconds, every word, every sentence, and every paragraph has to effectively reengage your readers, reconnecting them to the story for another thirty seconds. There has to be movement, change, something of interest. Even in non-fiction.