Why You Should Write Your First Chapter Last

Imagine that I sent you a lengthy article from a news site and asked you to summarize it in a paragraph. You would probably carefully read the article, accounting for its structure, sources, and, of course, its overall thesis or point. You draft a few sentences that summarize the main point, citing the article’s primary methods of employing evidence and credibility. It’s a pretty faithful summary. I give you a sticker.

Now  imagine I sent you a headline from a news article, sans the actual body of the text, and asked you for a summary. Chances are, you’d be unable to adequately craft a rundown of the article since you haven’t yet reviewed its evidence or even its main message or thesis. No sticker for you.

Writing long manuscripts–especially in the realm of nonfiction–is very similar. You might think that you have your entire draft planned out, and you’re raring to go on writing a knockout introduction that will suck your readers in. However, you run the risk of writing a meandering chapter that does little to really drive home the points you want to emphasize.

I notice many writers have a tendency to produce word vomit in the introductions of their manuscripts. It’s easy to get carried away here, as if you’ll “miss your chance” to include all the information your reader absolutely must know right off the bat. Here’s the thing: introductions should introduce a topic.

That’s not to say that you should conceal your thesis entirely. I’ve encountered a number of manuscripts in which the writer is afraid of “giving away” his or her main argument, making the reader question the purpose of the book in the first place. Now that I think about it, this “dancing around” the objective of a piece is arguably a much more common issue. As an author, you’re rightfully unsure about how to introduce your points. After all, you haven’t written it yet, so this top-down approach is more likely to incur rewrites than had you saved writing the beginning for later on.

When I was in graduate school, my adviser told me to always write my introductions last so as not to trap myself into following a path that my research or thesis didn’t ultimately end up taking. This saved me from having to go back and rewrite an entire twenty-page introduction when I realized that my research and analyses were steering me in a different direction than the one I had originally imagined, one that wound up much more complex. (The advice I’m giving here is advice I would often give students who struggled to get their papers started.)

If you might be better off saving writing the introduction for later, what should you focus on writing first? The answer to this question will depend on the writer, but my personal preference is to start with whatever section of the book is most interesting to me. I’m talking about the sections that you find yourself writing in your head while you’re in the shower or on the bus. In my experience, this helps stave off the (inevitable) loss of interest and passion I feel when I first start writing.

Thanks for reading. My hope is that this advice can apply to both professionals and Spongebob students.


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