Last time, I talked about first paragraphs that declared what the problem is that the article proposes to solve. This time, I’ll look at the more rare approach of proposing the solution.
Just as in the other approach, intrigue is useful. But as these introductions propose the solution, intrigue is much harder to achieve. Let’s look at how some authors, again, straight from MSDN online, attempt catching their readers’ attention.
Keep ‘Em Guessing
This example is a little intriguing because the author addresses a large body of information and waits until the end to tell us his proposed solution.
After a decade of 32-bit development, you might think that Microsoft Office was finished. Despite that, Microsoft is still finding new things to put in to the Office box. In Office 2003, there's a renewed emphasis on collaborative features, centering around the newly renamed Windows SharePoint Services.
This author gives us context for the problems he will later enumerate, and declares that a new product will cure what ails us.
Although this next example also doesn’t propose a solution in the first sentence, he makes a strong case for it by the time he names it in the final sentence.
Legend has it that some developers of business applications work in environments where all the computers run the same—and latest—version of all software. Here in the real world, though, it is rather common for Microsoft Office Access developers to create applications that must run on computers that do not have Microsoft Office Access 2003 installed, or are running older versions of Access. For those developers, Access 2003 Runtime is a necessity.
The first sentence in this one, as in the last example, is intriguing on several levels. We probably know from the title what the piece is about, but the somewhat whimsical approach leaves us curious about how the subject will unfold.
Here’s a history lesson approach.
Smart tags first appeared in Microsoft Office XP with a great deal of fanfare, as they represented an innovative new way to make the data in Microsoft Office documents more meaningful and actionable. How often have you found yourself typing in the name of a customer contact, an invoice number, a tracking number, or some other form of relevant information with meaning to you or your company? In the old world without smart tags, that information just sat in the document as static text. Smart tag technology makes it possible to link that relevant information to other resources that might provide you with additional information that is useful in creating a document, or better yet, it might bring that relevant information right back into your document.
It’s a very long first paragraph, and uses several approaches all mixed together. In the first sentence, he tells us the history of how the product has been used and why. In the second sentence, he addresses his readers directly by using the word “you” and by enumerating suitable places to have hit a mutual hitch. Finally, he tells us what his proposed solution is and why.
Each of his sentences, except the central one about the solution topic, are a bit long. It’s as though he uses paraphrasing to be sure his readers follow along. It would have been a much stronger paragraph if he’d stopped after the first sentence. Or, he could use the first sentence (history) with the last (solution justification) and get right on with the article. At the very least, he should lop off some of the extra bits and know that they’ll have plenty of time to unlop themselves in the rest of the text.
Announcements tell us that there is some new whistle or bell, either within an existing product or in a new product. The implication is that the new thing will solve problems we might not have known we had.
In this next example, the author tells us that flexible reporting is the solution and that we might look around for even more interesting uses than the obvious (two tenths of a point off for using the jargon “apps” instead of applications). Then, he tells us how to achieve that new-use goal. There’s no messing around with this one; he just gets straight to the point.
Flexible reporting capabilities are a requirement for most business applications and their integration into Web apps makes them more versatile than ever. With the recent release of SQL Server 2000 Reporting Services, you can easily add reporting from diverse data sources.
I like that we know exactly what the article is about and we can assume from his beginning that the rest of the article will be similarly matter-of-fact and enthusiastic.
This next announcement-style paragraph is very full of information.
[Third-party manufacturer’ name] has released its developer toolkit, [product name]. [Product name]
is a DLL for programmers using Visual Basic C++,
Clearly, this article is for a very specific audience—one who knows what all those tools, acronyms, and nouns mean. The danger with this kind of announcement is that no casual readers are encouraged to explore the article. That could be just dandy, if the author wants to limit the audience to experienced users of these tools. Limiting your audience is a good thing most of the time. If the author’s purpose was to introduce a new tool in a way that pulls neophytes in, though, he missed that mark.
This next announcement has a similarly narrow audience, but because the author defines most of the terms (either literally or by context), casual readers might also find themselves reading onward.
Microsoft has recently released Web Services Enhancements for Microsoft.NET (WSE) 2.0. WSE 2.0 provides extensions to the existing ASP.NET Web services framework (.asmx) as well as a standalone messaging framework that's completely transport independent. The WSE 2.0 Technology Preview release has been available on the MSDN Web site for some time but this new release contains several interesting additions and changes worth highlighting.
The only problem with this approach is that the last sentence implies that some changes to the product are NOT worth mentioning. That’s not the most flattering implication he could have come up with.
Another approach to providing the solution is to announce the topic in glowing terms while listing possible uses, like you might hear on the first day of a class. You provide an overview of the subject and justify the coverage that is to follow.
Genetic programming (GP) is one of the most useful, general-purpose problem-solving techniques available to developers. It has been used to solve a wide range of problems, such as symbolic regression, data mining, optimization, and emergent behavior in biological communities.
Because he doesn’t really define the solution technology other than saying it’s a general purpose technique, he makes the assumption that his audience already knows what it is. This paragraph presents itself like a straightforward beginning to a discussion, but the assumption that the audience already knows something about the subject narrows the audience considerably. In that way, the article begins like the introduction to a class, designed to be for a specific group of people.
This next opening, although initially a little too personal, is intriguing because it implies that the author’s solipsism is warranted because through Microsoft’s omniscience, his problems have been addressed and solved.
To be honest, it takes me time and constant vigilance to stay on top of how the collaboration-oriented technologies at Microsoft fit together. Microsoft adds new ones at a regular pace while dramatically improving others
This author hopes that the personal approach is enough to collect readers’ attention and draw them into the rest of the article, but he also justifies the rest of the content by pointing to his own experience. It’s a small amount of chest-thumping but doesn’t quite go too far because he manages to flatter Microsoft while he does it.
Finally, let’s look at an opening that misses the mark. This one does a lot of chest-thumping, pointing out how other articles are incomplete or bad and how he has donned his superman costume to come save the rest of us from ignorance and other disasters.
I wanted to use my first Advanced Basics column as an opportunity to strike out into new territory, to do something I haven't seen extolled much in the literature, so I've built a Windows Forms chat program that uses Web services to communicate with other peers. It's a bit of a sneaky implementation, though, because along the way I'll call Web services asynchronously, synchronize access to the UI, and explain how powerful the Shared keyword can be.
He does a good job of telling us what is in the article to come in the last sentence, but it’s so personally presented we have to suspect that it will read more like a journal entry than a technical article. If we work at it, we can figure out what the subject is and what his angle is, but he will probably lose the part of his audience that doesn’t care about him personally. I’m not sure who “other peers” might be, either.
The important thing about first paragraphs is that you invite your readers further into the article. In my opinion, the best way to do that is to be clear about the subject and your approach to it. You can present the problem first, as you saw in Part 1, or you can present the solution first, as in Part 2. Either way, you can reveal your attitude, your approach, and your subject in the first 50-100 words.