Writing the First Sentence: Thoughts on Revision

Joyce Carol Oates quote

If there’s anyone I’d feel safe taking writing advice from, it’s Joyce Carol Oates — one of the most prolific writers of our time. Having published over 120 books over the course of her career, surely she must know something about powering through a first draft and reworking it until it feels complete.

“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”

— Joyce Carol Oates

Don’t worry; you don’t need to start writing your novels backwards. Oates is simply stressing the importance of revision — of completing a first draft and then reworking it to create a sense of continuity from the opening paragraph to the closing scene.

Bonus Quote: “One should be able to return to the first sentence of a novel and find the resonances of the entire work.” — Gloria Naylor

The first sentence of a story can do a lot of work. From establishing the tone, introducing a unique voice or creating instant tension, there are many ways to start a novel using a powerful first line. In order to write a first sentence that strengthens the entire piece and drives your story forward toward its ultimate conclusion, you need to have a full understanding of how your story ends and what themes are important.

While you might have everything perfectly outlined from the beginning, it’s more likely that your story will shift and grow as you work through drafts. New characters might emerge,  or a surprising plot twist might radically change your story’s people, places and perspectives. It’s possible that the essence of your story may not reveal itself to you until you’re nearly done writing.

So, when you finish a draft, take a careful look at where your story begins and ends. Then, do your best to create an engaging, powerful sentence that will help connect the dots.

What’s your favorite first sentence of a novel or short story?

There’s much to be said about the craft of writing. That’s why each week on the Abbott Press blog, we’ll take a look at what some of our favorite authors and thinkers have to say about this challenging, fulfilling and sometimes mystifying art. We hope these discussions will help you to further refine your own ideas about writing and to achieve new insights into your own creative process. Browse Weekly Writing Quotes »