Thursday, May 15, 2014

If your introduction is long, it had better be good

When you’re writing a piece of nonfiction – such as an article or a blog post – you should keep your introduction brief: less than 20 percent of the whole. Why? Because the reader wants to quickly get to the topic that your headline promises.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Yes. One major exception is entertainment value. If your introduction (1) is entertaining and (2) is relevant to the topic and (3) is not narcissistic, readers will be willing to put up with it for longer.

Theodore Dalrymple (pictured above) gave us a great example recently, in his book review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by the French economist Thomas Piketty (pictured below).

In the introduction, Mr. Dalrymple is self-deprecatory, cynical and witty. Here’s a sample:
“The success of others breeds resentment, especially success in a field in which one would like to succeed oneself. Whenever I read a wonderful passage of prose I experience pleasure, of course, but before long it is commingled with irritation and finally resentment. Why should this fellow be able to put something more elegantly, more wittily, more poetically, more concisely, than I ever could? What did he ever do to deserve his talent? Fortunate it is indeed for writers in English that Dickens, for example, was possessed of so many and such serious faults, for otherwise the self-evident and transcendent genius of some passages would paralyze the writers and sap their will to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard.”
He continues like this for 299 words, approximately 24 percent of the whole. But most readers will be pleased to be entertained for that long.

Later, in the main text, Mr. Dalrymple treats us to a wonderful morsel of concentrated cynicism: After explaining that the economics book is so hot that it’s out of stock everywhere, he writes,
“This is truly astonishing, for Thomas Piketty is no Dan Brown, purveying overtly superstitious twaddle in execrable prose to the post-religiously credulous.”
The Takeaway: Limit the length of your introduction to less than 20 percent of the whole, unless you have a specific, conscious reason why you should run longer. For example, you may wish to entertain your readers or you may need to give them context, definitions, or technical background.

See disclaimer.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! It's always hard to determine how long is too long for an introduction. The same applies for fiction as well, and often shows sometimes in the query letter where it will literally go on for three or four pages as the author tries to give every dramatic scene that appears in the book, and it's not necessary. You should only give the highlights. It's great advice and is very useful for any type of writer.