The 2nd Most Important Element in Copywriting

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This simple word of advice makes good copywriters legendary.

With it, you’re going to increase sales. Without it, you’re finished.

It’s deceptively plain, and easily ignored.

We already know if nobody makes it past your headline, nobody reads your content or sales page. This makes the headline the most important element of your persuasive copy.

What’s the 2nd most important element?

You’ve already read it …

The first sentence

Every ad, article, sales page, or blog post you write must begin with one hell of an opening sentence.

That sentence must speak directly to the needs and desires of your audience and your content must deliver on its promise.

Journalists call it the lede, the first sentence (or paragraph) is meant to bring the reader into the piece, to make it irresistible, to get the article read.

Joe Sugarman teaches that the first sentence of your copy should be short. So short, and so compelling, that it’s almost easier to read than not.

I am definitely in the brevity school, but each project calls for its own thoughtful assessment.

What sticks, and why?

What are the most quoted passages in fiction? It’s almost always the first sentence of the book …

It was a pleasure to burn.
~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
~ William Gibson, Neuromancer

Lolita. Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.
~ Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Where now? Who now? When now?
~ Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.
~ Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

These lines are immortal, because they are (arguably, in the context of their respective stories) great lines.

But they are also unforgettable because they are … first lines. Why? Is it the way we’re built? Is it the way we remember? I don’t know, and I don’t really care.

It doesn’t matter why, as long as you recognize that it’s true.

The first sentence of your copy should be unforgettably relevant, useful, truthful, and tempting, because the first line is usually what sticks in the mind of the reader — for better or worse.

But that’s not the most important function of the first sentence …

What’s the point?

This isn’t about being tricky, deceptive, or even creative.

Like all great copywriting (and storytelling), the only goal of the first sentence is to make the reader want to read the second sentence.

And the second sentence should effortlessly lead the reader to the third. And so on.

So much of what we do depends on the single line.

And in the case of the first sentence… if you lose your reader there, you lose everything.

What are some of the best first sentences you’ve seen around lately?

About the Author: Robert Bruce is Copyblogger Media’s Chief Copywriter and Resident Recluse.

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Comments

  1. Great points so easily missed. Your saying grab them early.

  2. I like the lines you quoted. Immortal indeed.

  3. And of course… To be or not to be.

    • That’s not the opening line of Hamlet. Though it’s the opening line of his soliloquy in the 3rd Act.

      The opening line of Hamlet is “Who’s there.” Not very provocative.

      I definitely overlook my opening line more often than I should. Now I won’t.

  4. From Lee Child’s, “The Hard Way.”

    Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever. Not that the waiter was slow. Just that the move was slick. So slick, Reacher had no idea what he was watching. It was just an urban scene, repeated everywhere in the world a billion times a day: A guy unlocked a car and got in and drove away. That was all.
    But that was enough.

    I love this first line. It immediately draws you in. And then it ties in with a great first paragraph. You can’t put this book down after that.

  5. Or “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” ~ Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice).

    The first statement of this post is another great example. It certainly drew me in.

  6. I love this idea of building the interest like this. Got all Shakespearian about it

  7. Yes the first line pulled me in and made me want to contiue.

  8. My favourite book opening is
    “Elsie left her husband because she was afraid of him. She returned six months later for the same reason.” I defy anyone to resist reading on…..
    Iris Murdoch. The Bell

  9. Best damn thang I’ve read lately is: “Why? Is it the way we’re built? Is it the way we remember? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter why, as long as you recognize that it’s true.”

    If more people would just quit trying t find something to argue with in a “lesson, tip, tactic or technique” and just go test and try, they’d be much farther along the path to success and would have fewer “comments” out there on blogs.

    Oh, wait ;-)

  10. Got to be Fear and Loathing (the only reason I know where Barstow is):
    “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

  11. Hehehe brilliant! The first line is always the best line:
    “Marley was dead: to begin with.” A Christmas Carol.
    “‘When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning or in rain?’” Macbeth.
    ” In glancing over my notes of the many investigations of my friend Mr Sherlock Holmes, I’m struck by just how extraordinary his cases have been.” Sherlock Holmes: The Speckled Band
    “What Irish man, woman or child has not heard the many legends that tell of the gigantic Fin M’Coul?” A Legend of Knockmany: Fin McCoul

    I’ve been a lover of great first lines for a long long time :-) So much so, that every adapted (and illustrated) classic ebook we publish over at Giglets, keeps the first seven words of the original text in tact.
    Great openings are the best part of great stories.

    Nice post! But I’m now thinking about various great opening lines :-) I’ll be lucky if I get any work done over the next hour.

  12. Hi!
    Thanks for a great post. Of course, the classic: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of time . . .” ranks right up there. I find that the best opening lines provoke a question in the reader’s mind that will spur the reader on to answer the questioned raised. When reading that first line, my mind subconsciously wonders why it was the best of times and the worst of times? And how can it be the best and worst at the same time?

  13. I extend this advise to song lyrics.
    “Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven?” Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton

  14. “I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

  15. “It was a dark and stormy night.” ;-) Definitely memorable, but memorably bad.

  16. Okay, this is not from a book or anything, but recently I got an email from someone who started like this:

    “To the point.”

    Somehow that struck me. No fooling around, no wasting time. Just straight to the point.

  17. Nathan Hangen has the best first line in Copyblogger history!

    “I don’t kill people for money (I do that for free).”
    http://www.copyblogger.com/mercenary-internet-marketing/

  18. The best ledes are found in newspapers, where the inverted pyramid style of writing was invented. Editors know they have to summarize quickly so readers will decide if they want to continue reading. Your literary examples are intriguing, but that kind of lede doesn’t provide enough information for me to decide to continue reading. I’m too busy for teasing first sentences, unless it’s extremely well done by literary masters like the ones you chose.

  19. Thanks for the inspiration. I spend a disproportionate amount of time on the lede than I do the rest of any story, and somehow can’t write the rest until the lede is set. It’s a sweet feeling to finally get that great opening!

  20. This might be an article about the 2nd most important element, but it´s the headline that made me read it – good job:) It might be just my feeling, but simply adding “2nd” to the headline raises curiousity in the reader´s mind. I would really like to know if this article got the same number of readers if it would be just regular “The most important element…”

  21. I can’t believe no one has quoted Melville in Moby Dick.

    “They call me Ishmael.”

    • Thought the exact same thing. It is probably one of the best known opeing sentences. Not sure why, but it does make you wonder…what the heck? Who is Ishmael?

      • Yeah! I remember a creative writing course where they used it as an example of a great opening sentence. As for the rest of the book, I have read it twice and it’s not an easy one to read.
        Tom

  22. Not a fan of this article. I was expecting more. Look, this is a classic marketing post where the author says, “I’ve got a secret….but I’m going to string you along for the entire post…or 5 pages of my ‘special report’…and I’m never really going to spell out the details of the secret. I’ll just give you the 10,000 ft overview and leave you there.”

    This article could have been superb had 2-3 methods for crafting an engaging first sentence been discussed. Rather, I’m left feeling unfulfilled…or rather, stuffed with filler.

    • Not a fan of this comment. I was expecting more. Look, this is a classic troll comment where the author says “I’ve got some opinion, but I’m not going to own up to it with a URL or anything.”

  23. Powerful stuff! Loved the immortal first lines! Thanks for the reminder!

  24. Hi Robert,

    Quite nice article, your each written line entice me to the read second one.

    My best lede line is “When Quality prevails, every word brings a sale.”

  25. No one included A Tale of Two Cities, which totally breaks the “rule” because it’s not a short sentence at all. (It’s 120 words!) But everyone remembers the beginning anyway (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”). The entire passage is great and frequently imitated ;-)

  26. My personal fav from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

    “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. “

  27. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” That opening line sucked me in and made me wait decades for the full story to play out.

  28. “I sell mayhem, scandal, murder and doom. Oh, Jesus I do. I sell tragedy, vengeance, chaos, and fate. I sell the sufferings of the poor and the vanities of the rich. Children falling from windows, subway trains afire, rapists fleeing into the dard. I sell anger and redemption. I sell the muscled heroism of firemen and the wheezing greed of mob bosses. The stench of garbage, the rattle of gold. I sell black to white, white to black. To Democrats and Republicans and Libertarians and Muslims and transvestites and squatters on the Lower East side. I sold John Gotti and O.J. Simpson and the bombers of the World Trade Center, and I’ll sell whoever else comes along next. I sell falsehood and what passes for truth and every gradation in between. I sell the newborn and the dead. I sell the wretched, magnificent city of New York back to its people. I sell newspapers. The mayor reads me at breakfast, and the bond traders on the train in from New Jersey have a look, as do the retired Italian longshoremen sitting on their stoops in Broklyn, chewing on unlit cigars, and the nurses on the bus down from Harlem to Lenox Hill Hospital. The TV guys read me, and steal the story sometimes. And the Pakistani sitting in his cab outside Madison Square Garden, who, intent on figuring out Amer- ica, reads everything. And the young lawyers on their lunch breaks, after they’ve checked the ads touting the strip clubs .And the doorman in the apartment buildings on the East Side, looking up from the pages as teh professional women storm past each morning, rushing brightly into their futures. And the cops – the cops all read me to see if I got it right.”

    Manhatten Nocturne – Colin Harrison

  29. Interesting post, sometimes the simple ideas are the best. Simple but not so easy to do :)

  30. “Who is John Galt?” Atlas Shrugged. If you haven’t read it, do.

  31. ‘On the first day of his honeymoon, Simon Venables met the woman he wanted to marry.’

    The Nudists, Guy Bellamy

  32. Would it be terribly cheeky to say your third line should have been your first?
    :)

  33. I totally agree with making things a little bit short at first. I’ve noticed that the people are more likely to read the rest of the post if the first little bit is short (like the principle KISS states->keep it simple). Usually, in my own writing, I’ve found a few sentences that are shorter early on help tremendously when it comes to trying to get the reader to become more involved.

  34. Anna just beat me to the punch with “Who is John Galt?” (from Atlas Shrugged) so here’s my second pick for a favorite first line:

    “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
    ― Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

  35. I don’t think I’ve seen any 1st sentences that made me remember them lately? Maybe I’m to focused on headlines, bullet points, and other easy to spot items?
    Maybe I’m just tired, ha!
    -AJ

  36. The city was silently bloating in the hot sun, rotting like the thousands of bodies that lay where they had fallen in street battles. An oppressive, hot wind blew from the southeast, carrying with it the putrefying stench of decay.

    ―Francine Rivers, A Voice in the Wind

  37. Yes! Hunter S. Thompson quote for the win.

    Yeah the first sentence is always something I stare at for a few minutes. Next you know it only takes a few words to finish it. Sometimes simplicity is complicated.

  38. I Love it!

    Joseph Sugarman’s Copywriting handbook was the first book I ever read on the subject, and his diagram of an effective ad was so simple as so beautiful:

    The most important element of you ad: The Headline.
    It’s purpose: to get you to read the first sentence of you ad.

    The second most important element of you ad: the first sentence.
    It’s purpose: to get you to read the second sentence.

    And so on and so on until your prospect is sold.

  39. I probably have tons of copywriting tips from you. But they all seem like a wind that comes and goes from where and to where, i know exactly not.

    So can you please give me some links where I can find a good and bad copywrite? That we I can relate your tips with the real thing.

  40. “I’m sorry this letter is so long. I did not have the time to make it short.” Winston Churchill. Not exactly a memorable first line (although I always remember it!) but, as a pair, I think these sentences more or less sum up what all these comments are about.

  41. What’s even more important than the headline? Teaser copy…Oh but Teaser copy is a Headline….Alright you win!

    Liked the post. Well said Robert

    Hey one thing, seems like fiction is closer to copywriting than I thought.

  42. “You had me at “hello””

  43. Great tips… Writing copy for ads and things has never been a strong point for me. Making those headlines pop out, writing to entice your prospects and luring them back to what you have to offer. All traits that need to be studied in order to have success in this area.

  44. Thank you! I have over-looked this and instead of grabbing the readers interest I have fallen into grabbing the search engine spider instead. I am going to change the 85 articles on my site and get back to basics and begin each article with a “what’s in it for them” sentence. I think it is easy to spend more time on SEO than on optimizing this for the reader which will in turn increase the SEO due to the article getting tweeted or liked on facebook!

    Thanks again,

  45. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984

  46. What a great post simple but so effective but the best part IT WORKS

  47. Not exactly first sentences of copy … but definitely some of the best zeigarnik campaigns ever …

    What is the Secret?

    What is the Matrix?

  48. Well said. Photo captions are equally important though. I often read them before the main article.