A Good Start: Writing Tips for Beginning Sections of Sentences

November 12, 2019 by Paul McClure

When I teach writing workshops, I like to joke that I’ve introduced some “highly technical” terms for the three main sections of an effective sentence in English: the beginning, middle, and end. But as simplistic as the terms may sound, a few pointers on the best uses of these components of a sentence can make a big difference in how most people write.

This blog will look at first things first: the beginning section.  Over time, I’ve found that one of the biggest reasons a piece of writing can feel choppy is that the writer has underused opening sections of sentences.  By this I mean the content, ranging from a single word up to a moderately long phrase, that starts the sentence and is subordinated to the main clause that contains the subject, verb, and object.  This could be a simple transition (e.g., “However,” “Also,” “Moreover,” “By contrast”).  It could be a piece of “dateline” information, telling who, what, when, where, why, or how, as a way of framing the rest of the sentence (e.g., “In 2019,” “Across the EU,” “As a new employee,” “When drafting policy,” and so on).  It could be a piece of navigation (such as “Building on this argument,” “Turning to the broader region,” and so forth).  Or it could be an entire subordinate clause (e.g., “Although I’ve been to Belgrade several times, ...”).

These may seem like obvious things to start a sentence with.  But time and again, writers don’t offer much of a transition at the beginnings of their sentences, or they leave dateline information for later, where these details can clog up other parts of the sentence.  Also, if your native language has a lot of cases or declensions—which can make word order much more flexible than in English—you may feel you should always start with the most important information.  This could cause you to avoid these beginning sections much more than a native English speaker would. 

A key takeaway here is that effective writers in English use beginning sections quite often for the types of content mentioned above.  Not every sentence needs a beginning section, but for text to have a good flow, usually more than half of the sentences do have such sections. 

So beginning sections are a good thing when it comes to your sentences.  But you can also have too much of a good thing.  The proportion matters: if your beginning section is longer than the first third of the sentence, it’s likely to be too much—and some of its content could move elsewhere.  At the first comma, the reader usually assumes that your text is moving on to the middle section and the main subject of the sentence.  So, don’t follow an introductory phrase with a second one. 

And if two is bad, three or more is worse: any list or series of things belongs much later in the sentence, even if the content would otherwise be considered dateline information.  Fortunately, when you have an overloaded beginning section, it often works to revise by moving some of the content to the end. 

To apply some of these pointers, consider this sentence: “In Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, our program has been working for the past three years with tax authorities.”  The list of countries makes the beginning harder to read, because readers don’t usually expect to start a sentence with a list of items, especially one that could be quite long.  Also, the dateline information about the program’s time frame comes in mid-sentence.  One good way to revise would read: “For the past three years, our program has been working in five countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.”  Note that, in addition to finding new locations for the series and the time frame, this explicitly alerts the reader to the length of the series. 

As another example, consider: “In our project in Montenegro, where work got underway in 2013, we have seen steady progress.”  Here the issue is a disproportionate beginning section, with a second introductory phrase when the reader expects to move on to the main subject.  A good revision would not try to do too much at the start: “In Montenegro, our project has seen steady progress since work got underway in 2013.”

One additional benefit to this last revision is that the time frame now gets more emphasis by being placed at the end of the sentence.  In my view, this helps reinforce the point about the project’s steady progress.  But I’ll explain more about the best uses of middle and end sections of sentences in upcoming blogs, now that we’ve made a good start.