Should Your First Line Be Long or Short?

John Wood here, taking over the controls again this week for The Writer's Life.

When reading a sales letter, I always pay attention to the first line …

Aside from whether it draws me in and makes me want to read more, I always take note of whether it's long or short.

In his book The Adweek Copywriting Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Powerful Advertising and Marketing Copy from One of America's Top Copywriters, Joe Sugarman addresses the short/long first line issue.

He starts off by explaining why the first line is so important …

Joe notes that if the purpose of every headline is to get people to read the copy, you could also say that the purpose of the headline is to get the prospect to read the first line of the sale letter.

The first line’s purpose?

To get the prospect to read the second line.

The second line’s purpose?

To get your prospect to read the third line … and so on.

A good first line will suck the reader into the rest of the copy. An uninteresting first line could stop your reader cold and blow any chance of your letter turning them into a customer.

Your first line has to be compelling. It has to catch your reader's interest and make him or her want to read more.

The best way to do that, according to Joe, is to make it simple, interesting, and short enough that the reader can easily read it in its entirety. No multisyllabic word should be used. Joe says it should even almost appear to be incomplete.

It doesn't have to convey benefit or explain a feature. The length makes that pretty much impossible. It just has to get your reader to want to read the next sentence. Nothing more, nothing less, adds Joe.

Here are some examples of short opening lines that proved to be very successful for Joe:

Losing weight is not easy.
It's you against the computer.
It's easy.
It had to happen.
Hats off to IBM.

Joe says his most successful ads have followed this format with very few exceptions. He advises writers to make their first sentence short and easy to read. Stick to it, he says, and you'll have "an awfully good start and a great understanding of copywriting and the persuasive process."

To see how widespread the use of short opening sentences was, I decided to do a random informal survey of the first lines of 20 sales letters on AWAI's website.

Here's what I found …

Thirteen had opening lines of ten words or less.

Here are some of the opening lines:

It still surprises me when I think about it.
My name is Paul Hollingshead.
There’s a quiet revolution going on.
Jay White had a problem.

Seven had opening lines of greater than 10 words.

So it would seem like using a short opening line is the preferred method of the writers who write sales letters for AWAI.

Sounds good, but what about sales letters that start off with long sentences?

Does this mean they don't work?

Well, no.

This opening line …

"While urging you to buy their shares, top executives at MICROSOFT … CISCO … GENZYME … SYMANTEC … SEIBEL SYSTEMS … RED HAT … YAHOO … and many other high tech companies … are quietly dumping BILLIONS of dollars-worth of their companies' stock!"

 … written by copywriting superstar Clayton Makepeace was part of a sales letter that brought in over $2 million in sales during its first 12 months for Weiss Research.

So there are exceptions.

But overall, I have to agree with Joe Sugarman. A short, attention-grabbing opening line is the best way to make sure your opening line gets read, giving it the opportunity to compel your prospect to read deeper into your letter.

What do you think? Do you feel a shorter opening line is the way to go? What do you personally use? Please share your thoughts below.

Are you eager to start leading the writer's life, but feel you need a bit more motivation and inspiration to actually make the leap?

If so, become a member of the Professional Writers’ Alliance (PWA). One of the features I really enjoy is their Member Spotlight. This is where they interview a successful writer and pick their brain as to what they did that has contributed to them now living life on their own terms as a freelance writer.

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One last thing …

Readers won’t even make it to the first line of your sales copy if they never open the email. That’s why subject lines are so important. Check out my article “16 Tips on How to Write Email Subject Lines that Compel Readers to Open and Read Your Email” for some proven strategies.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Published: February 20, 2012

1 Response to “Should Your First Line Be Long or Short?”

  1. I think the length of the first line could be either short or long... more importantly, I think, is how it's constructed. However, I do find a shorter line that is well constructed does get, and keep, my attention more so than a longer one does.....

    Guest (Donna)February 21, 2012 at 12:23 pm


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