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Sunday, June 5, 2011

W's, the five

One of my favorite strategies for opening any piece of writing is the seemingly conservative Five W's approach--the right-off-the-bat establishment of who, what, when, where, and why (and sometimes how).

this technique is so venerable and journalistic-y that many writers, wary of being labeled dry and flat, avoid opening with such overt exposition. in its place, they will often open with an anecdote or some other non-traditional "lead."

all well and good. who doesn't love a good hook? that said, there is something so intensely beautiful about an opening sentence that, right from the very start, clearly grounds the reader on all points of the expository compass. it's clarity at its purest. and perhaps this above all: there's a stark immediacy about such a sentence.

example, you say? let's look at Robert Ito's "An Occasional Hobo," a piece which ran in The Believer's June 2011 issue.

The piece opens thus:

In 1900, Josiah Flynt Willard, writer, amateur sociologist, and sometime hobo, published Notes of an Itinerant Policeman. In the book, he describes the often-unsavory world of fin de siècle American tramps: their begging strategies, their caste systems and codes, their hot tempers and underdeveloped intellects, their reasons for becoming tramps in the first place (number one: liquor).

great opener. and yet look at how reliant it is upon the 5W's.

When? "1900."

Who? "Josiah Flynt Willard, writer, amateur sociologist, and sometime hobo."

What? "published Notes of an Itinerant Policeman."
Where? [the where the book probes is] "the often-unsavory world of fin de siècle [fancy way of saying end of a century--usually, but not always, the 1800's] American tramps."

Why? [the why is not yet revealed, but, as readers, we know it will be developed as the article unfolds. hence, we have something to read for--namely, to discover why Willard wrote this book and (since writing about hobos presents all sorts of challenges) how he gained the needed access.]

give me a piece that opens with such immediacy and clarity, and i'm all in. i trust such a writer. i can commit to this person, the article, the prose. i feel in good, careful hands.

and that's what cogent openers can do. they orient the reader. and from this secure foothold, the article is free to fly (within reason, of course).

now it goes without saying (then why am i saying it?) that an opener which simply uses the 5W's for 5W's sake runs the risk of seeming Composition 101-y. is there anything worse? which is why i want to stress that i am NOT endorsing this technique as a ready-made device that works independent of a writer's particular style. what i am saying, however, is give it a go; see if this strategy works for a given piece--if only in the drafting stage (it's a great clarifying tool). maybe you only need to use three or four of the 5W's. or maybe you use two sentences, as Ito does, to unfurl them. there are no rules. none. make it work for you. play around and develop an organic feel for this technique. it will serve you and your audience well.

in my next post, i will return to Ito's piece. my focus will be on his diction (word choice) and the polishes a more careful editor might have suggested.

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