Beyond Once Upon a Time: Fairy Tales arent the Only Thing Needing Catchy Openings

Once a upon a recent time in a galaxy not so far away, I received an e-newsletter that provided valuable dos and don'ts for email newsletter publication. Ah, something about this newsletter didn't pull me in to read its tales nor did I take out the sword to slash my name from the e-newsletter distribution list. Happens to all who inhabit the Kingdom of the Internet; we sign up for an e-newsletter, but rarely read what we receive. These newsletters have value and appeal to me because they address an interest, help me do my job, and / or keep me on top of developments in a hobby.

After a long day of working at the castle, I'm too fatigued to read the e-newsletter. These folks throw more stones in my already heavy email box; it's worse than Publishers Clearinghouse. How often do they send these missives? I don't know, but it seems like every other day there is something from them.

Bullheaded Marketers and Online Naivete

The other day, however, I clicked on the thing and opened it. Suddenly, the plot thickened and I caught myself heeding the call. What was different? Why did I open this newsletter when so many others had been shooed to the trash?

The subject line of the email, "Bullheaded Marketers and Online Naivete" caught my attention first. The second attention-getter was the name listed in the from field, "Online Spin." These two indicated that the content would be edgy, interesting, and even funnier than the King's fool. It hit me that I needed to spend more time composing the subject lines for my own newsletters. A subject line that doesn't reel in the reader like a tall tale makes the rest of the e-newsletter look like a waste of time.

The next noticeable thing was the MSN advertising banner, good news for email newsletters. King Microsoft, by advertising in an online newsletter has obviously realized the newsletter's merit. By advertising, they validate the marketing niche of "If Microsoft is joining exclusive knights of the newsletter round table, I probably can't afford to pass it up," mentality. For many, however, a Microsoft endorsement is a double-edged sword. Recent MSN billing shenanigans, the Microsoft court case, and the general arrogance of the company creates a negative connotation. This negativity spreads to the Web site by association.

The rest of the e-parchment looked slick and professional. Even the opinion box has a good name, Spin Board.

Anatomy of a Bad Opening

The content, however, was another tale of woe. The headlines and section headings grabbed me by my hat, but the stories failed to deliver on the promise of edgy, interesting information. The first sentence read, "Research people out there are looking under the wrong rocks." Huh? Even with the support of the headline, this sentence is vague. Even the all-powerful, all-knowing Merlin wouldn't understand this mystical language.

In scanning the story and trying to discern what it was about, I still didn't understand the article when I finished reading it. Since it didn't tell me up front what I could expect, I tossed the newsletter into the moat. Few writers gain trust the reader's trust only to lead them down a primrose path without revealing the destination. The lesson here is to tell readers what to expect before asking them to commit their time to an article.

A college creative writing instructor used to urge us to state clearly, in the first sentence if possible, what the story was going to be about. Hemingway begins Old Man and the Sea, "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he and gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." There's no doubt that this story will be about a man trying to catch a fish. I did take away one thing from this newsletter: take extra care to develop opening sentences that bring the reader in and foretells what the rest of the tale holds.

Meryl K. Evans is the Content Maven behind meryl's notes, eNewsletter Journal, and The Remediator Security Digest. She is also a PC Today columnist and a tour guide at InformIT. She is geared to tackle your editing, writing, content, and process needs. The native Texan resides in Plano, Texas, a heartbeat north of Dallas, and doesn't wear a 10-gallon hat or cowboy boots.

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