Thursday 23 February 2023

ChatGPT Is Set to Get a Heck of a Lot More Stupid

If you read my previous post about ChatGPT, you’ll know that I tried it out and wasn’t at all impressed. In response to my questions, it repeatedly churned out incorrect information, then, after I insisted that it cite its sources, referred me to an author who never existed. 

Perhaps I am a sucker for punishment, but I went back in today. This time, I approached things from a different angle. Instead of asking a general question about the imprisonment of the Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (which is what I did last time), I asked about the opinion of a particular expert on the subject:

Sounds reasonable, right? Well, whilst I can't claim the ability to recall every word the late (and very sorely missed) Jack Hillier ever wrote on the subject, he was my mentor, I have read his books too many times to count, and I am pretty familiar with his opinions. I knew that the bot's response was incorrect. I asked it to confirm that the quote was by Hillier; it did so. It confirmed that it was a direct quote, and it repeated the title of the book, its publication date and the page where the quote was located. There was a bit of going back and forth, then I challenged it, and I received this response:

In my quest to understand how ChatGPT comes up with this tripe, I prepared to go back down the rabbit hole and into the dreamlike, nonsensical world that it inhabits. Initial attempts to get it to tell me where the 'information' it spouted came from failed completely. For a bot designed to answer questions, it does a good job of avoiding doing so. It can't know everything, it informed me, and searching the Internet to find out where the quote came from is, according to the bot itself, beyond its capabilities. Perhaps I should have offered to google it?

Anyway, the quote had to have come from somewhere; it didn't just manifest out of thin air (okay, we're talking ChatGPT here, so it might have done). So, I persevered:

In no time at all, the bot managed to go from presenting information to me as a fact (several times) to suggesting said information could have been invented. Yes indeed, I have to give it its due; it certainly is fast. It can create nonsense a lot faster than I can. 

As the dialogue continued, I felt very much that I was being sent around in circles (which is what happened last time). And the bot's repeated form responses about its programming and algorithms went no way in explaining why it wasn't able to tell me where the quote came from. But I continued (at great risk to my sanity), and eventually the bot explained that its error was due to 'a misinterpretation of the information provided' to it. 

It was a straw, and I clutched at it. If there was information provided, there had to be an information provider. And, after some probing, the bot revealed the source of its wisdom: a previous user.

They read it in an online forum, no less! Well, fan my brow. Now I can see why writers are so worried that ChatGPT will steal all our jobs. With its incredibly impressive ability to pass on misinformation heard in an online forum - or whispered into its ear by Aunt Maud - it will be utterly unstoppable.

To finish off, I informed the bot of something I'd known all along:

As I said in my last post about ChatGPT, there's enough misinformation out there already; we don't need more of the stuff. I keep on hearing about how the bot will just get smarter and smarter as it learns and adapts. Well, until we humans start posting information in online forums that's considerably more factually accurate, ChatGPT is set to get a heck of a lot more stupid. 

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Word Ferret & Environmental Sustainability

Last week, I talked about what you can do to live more sustainably. This week, I’m going to talk about what we at Word Ferret are doing to help the planet and fight the climate and nature emergency.

Environmental sustainability is immensely important to us. We are passionate about taking care of our planet and do everything we can to make a positive impact on the world. A lot of companies make similar claims while doing very little to back them up - greenwashing words are cheap -  so what do I mean by ‘do everything we can’?

At Work

To begin with, we make every effort possible to reduce our carbon footprint, rather than offset it after the damage has been done. ¹

Our power is supplied by Octopus, which gives us 100% renewable electricity. Our broadband and telephone provider, Zen Internet, is a certified B Corporation. Also, Zen only operates in the UK, and it doesn’t have any subsidiaries in tax havens.

All of Word Ferret's proofreading, copy editing, copywriting and indexing work - in fact, everything we do - is carried out remotely. There are no car journeys, no flights, and we have no need to use taxis, car rentals, trains or hotels.

We recycle as much as can be recycled. And we don’t replace electronic equipment unless we absolutely have to. Our laptops are MacBook Pros from 2011, and we’ll go on using them until they go to the Great Laptop Heaven in the Sky. We approach the replacement of mobile ‘phones in the same way. We buy only what is absolutely necessary for the performance of our work.

On a Personal Level

Wherever possible, we buy locally sourced food and other products. We always choose the organic option, and we’ve been vegetarians since time began (we also switched to oat-based dairy products, such as milk and ice cream, many moons ago). We switched to solid soap/shampoo years ago (also organic and in paper/card packing), so there are no nasty plastic bottles involved. We look for products that are environmentally friendly, made from recycled materials and that are recyclable themselves. Also, we make every effort to reduce our water usage, and we save a minimum of 600 litres per month by recycling 'grey water'.

We garden organically. We use no nasty chemicals that harm our lovely pollinators, and we always aim to create an environment that attracts them to our garden, along with birds, toads, and other little critters. We have a moderate amount of outdoor space here, but we have managed to plant twenty-seven trees so far. When we moved to our current location, a small area had been concreted over to provide parking for one car; this, of course, is bad for the local wildlife, and rain runs off it more quickly and soaks in less (especially problematic when you’re located on a hill). So, those trees are our attempt to make up for that small section of lost land; the birds love them, and, along with numerous rose bushes, they drink up rainwater like it’s going out of fashion. Many of them also provide fruit.

We buy antiques and secondhand items for our home environment, and, as with our electronics, we don’t replace household things unless they fall apart. Of course, antique and vintage things don’t tend to do that; things used to be built to last.

We also support local charities, food banks and small businesses with donations that can be sold or given to those in need. If we buy too much food, we pass on the surplus. If we have too many books, they are given to friends, local charities or schools. We aim for as little waste as possible.

As I said above, we do not travel to carry out our work duties. In our personal lives, we use a car as little as possible (and we never fly now). We walk all over the place and much prefer using our legs to a set of wheels. In addition to helping the environment, this gives us a chance to actually look at and appreciate it. And when we go out walking, we make sure we bring our litter home.

We use social media to inform others about the climate crisis. We also use it to make others aware of corporate greenwashing, of government failures in tackling the climate crisis, and of products and companies that damage the environment. We make every effort to remain informed so that we are better able to do our part in protecting our planet.

Each and every day, we look for more ways to make a difference, no matter how small, because every little bit helps.



¹ There’s some interesting information here about the potential problems of carbon offsetting:

Friday 17 February 2023

Sling Your Knickers on the Compost Heap; or, Easy Ways to Live More Sustainably

We make choices every day that effect the environment, the climate and other species that share both with us. From choosing what we eat for lunch to what we eat it with, how we dispose of it and what we wear while eating it, we are making decisions routinely that have the potential to help or damage the planet that supports our very existence. Here are ten things you can do to make a positive impact on the planet and fight the climate and nature emergency.

1. Recycle, Reuse, Resell, Donate and Compost

Living a less consumerist lifestyle can help reduce your carbon footprint. Buy antique, vintage or secondhand rather than brand new. By avoiding buying brand new items, you’ll be helping to reduce the number that are manufactured; you’ll also be reducing the number that eventually need to be thrown away. Generally speaking, antique and vintage items for the home were built to last, and they’re more likely to be unique, so they’re likely to outlast anything you find in a modern department store.

When you are about to throw something away, consider repairing, upcycling or repurposing it instead. Alternatively, if you really don’t want to keep an item but it could still be put to good use, sell or donate it. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.

Start a compost heap in your garden for food waste. Aside from taking all of those potato peelings and grass cuttings, your compost heap will consume your threadbare clothing if it’s made from a biodegradable source, including your knickers and socks. If there’s still a bit of life in your drawers, you can donate them to charity. Otherwise, remove any component that is not compostable (such as elastic), shred what remains, then add those shreds to your heap. A couple of years from now, your bloomers could be keeping your roses blooming.

2. Think Twice Before Buying

‘Make Do and Mend’ was a pamphlet issued during the Second World War by the British Ministry of Information. It provided useful tips to housewives on how to be frugal but stylish during times of rationing. If you’re serious about helping the environment, make do and mend is something you should be making a return to now.

Every single day of the week, and practically every moment that you’re awake throughout those days, you’re being bombarded with advertisements that are trying to sell you something. But how much of what you buy do you actually need? Do you need a new ‘phone every six months? Your current laptop works perfectly well, so do you really need to buy a new one? Do you really not have a single thing to wear? By buying what you need, rather than buying what you want/are told you want, you’ll reduce your carbon footprint and your shopping bills at the same time.

Shop your own wardrobe when you’re looking for something to wear; change the way you put an outfit together, rediscover accessories you forgot you owned, and give the online clothes shopping a miss. Our grandparents were advised during the war to unpick old jumpers and re-knit new ones. I remember my grandmother doing this when she taught me how to knit, and it was great fun for me as a child, pulling apart my grandfather’s jumpers and unravelling the curly lengths of coloured wool. Instead of throwing out clothes the moment that they suffer some slight damage, learn to sew and knit so that you can repair them. 

Rather than paying a visit to Habitat or Ikea, rearrange the items you already possess when you’re tired of your home environment and feel like a change. Redecorate pieces of furniture that are still sound but have seen better days. Add a new fabric seat or cushion here, a lick of paint there, and create a new interior by giving old things a new lease of life.

If you need a ladder for an afternoon’s climbing but you’re not likely to need one again for another year, hire or borrow it. The same goes for power tools, gardening equipment and anything else that you seldom use. Aside from reducing your carbon footprint, you’ll be accumulating less junk that needs to be stored.

3. Shop Locally

When you buy from large chains, produce is often transported across the country, or across the world, to reach you, creating a great deal of pollution and damaging the environment in the process. When you shop locally and buy local produce, the goods have a much shorter distance to travel, which cuts down on carbon emissions and air pollution. Also, when it comes to fresh produce, a shorter journey means less wastage. It also means less packaging; the greater the distance the produce has to travel, the more packaging it requires to prevent it from getting damaged.

There are other benefits too. Buying from local sellers/producers means you’ll have access to the freshest produce available. You’ll be supporting local businesses and local jobs and boosting the local economy. And these benefits don’t just apply to food; goods made locally are more likely to be unique, of better quality and designed to last longer than mass-produced items from large stores.

4. Eat Sustainably

Farming animals for meat and dairy products ‘creates vastly more carbon dioxide than plants such as vegetables, grains and legumes.’¹ Also, due to the expansion of agricultural land for animal feed production, it is one of the biggest causes of forest loss.² Switching to a plant-based, organic diet will reduce your impact on the environment. Also, reducing your meat and dairy intake, or switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet, will reduce your food bills.

In addition to moving over to a more plant-based diet, you can eat seasonally, cook in bulk and freeze leftovers. You can also try growing your own food in your garden or on an allotment. Every time you waste food, you waste the resources that went into producing it; plan your meals, be smart about your shopping and find ways to use up everything you buy.

5. Be Water Wise

Water is a precious resource, and we should use it wisely to reduce environmental damage. There are a few simple things you can do to keep your water usage in check. Keep an eye on your plumbing and fix any leaks straight away. According to Thames Water, a trickling leak in your toilet can waste up to 200 litres of water each day.³ Don’t overfill your kettle (boiling a full kettle to get one cup of water wastes energy). Resist the urge to wash a single shirt in the washing machine (this wastes both energy and water); wait until your washing machine is full before beginning a wash cycle. Outdoors, install a water butt to catch rainwater for your garden. During times of drought, you can use bathwater or washing-up water, known as ‘grey water’, to water your garden, as long as you use ecological cleaning products (which you should be doing anyway). For some useful information about using grey water, click here.

6. Boycott Businesses and Products that Damage the Environment

Consumer activism plays an increasingly important role in social change. Boycotts that receive national media attention ‘have about a one-in-four success rate in influencing corporate practices,’ ⁴ and, according to the study The Rise of Sustainable Media, prepared by Dentsu and Microsoft Advertising, ‘59% of consumers [are] prepared to force change by boycotting businesses seen as failing to prioritize the environment within 12 months.’  So, refuse to work with companies, and boycott products, that damage the environment and endanger wildlife. Take to social media and spread information about offending companies; scream it from the rooftops until those companies change their objectionable corporate practices. And support companies that take real action to address climate change (remembering to scrutinise claims in order to see through the greenwashing).

7. Travel Responsibly

One of the easiest ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to travel responsibly. This means considering alternatives when travelling and choosing a more sustainable way to reach your destination. Walk, cycle or use public transport rather than taking your car, and holiday closer to home to avoid flying. Consider virtual business meetings rather than face-to-face ones to avoid travel that will damage the environment. After all, the pandemic has given us all the chance to see just how well we work away from the office. For the climate, flying is the most damaging way to travel, and, according to European non-governmental organisation (NGO) Transport & Environment, just ‘1% percent of people cause half of all aviation emissions… and many of these trips are business-related.’ ⁶ A return flight from London to San Francisco emits ‘more than twice the emissions produced by a family car in a year.’ ⁷

8. Choose Renewable Energy and Be More Energy Efficient

‘According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 99 percent of people in the world breathe air that exceeds air quality limits and threatens their health, and more than 13 million deaths around the world each year are due to avoidable environmental causes, including air pollution.’ ⁸

Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas account for ‘over 75 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions.’ ⁹ By switching to clean sources of energy, such as wind and solar, you will have a positive impact on both climate change and air quality. 

A properly draught-proofed and insulated home helps you reduce your CO2 emissions and energy demands, helping the environment and saving you money on energy bills at the same time. Check for draughts around windows and doors, and don’t forget to seal gaps between floorboards and under skirting boards. Also, don’t forget to close all of your curtains and blinds at night to keep the cold out.

9. Do Away with Chemicals in the Garden

Various chemicals are used in urban and agricultural environments to kill pests, diseases and weeds. But many insecticides, herbicides and fungicides also harm pollinators and other beneficial insects. ‘More than three-quarters of the UK’s butterflies have declined in the last 40 years and evidence suggests that neonicotinoid pesticides, in particular, are one of the causes of these declines.’ ¹⁰

Pollinators pollinate our fruit, vegetables and flowers, and without them we would have none of these things; we need these precious creatures, and we should be protecting them, not killing them. Also, beneficial insects can help keep harmful insects under control (a single ladybird can eat up to 5,000 aphids in its lifetime), so they are your friends in the garden. Add plants that attract beneficial insects to your garden, and let them do the work. Make your garden an attractive place for birds, hedgehogs and toads, and they’ll take care of your slugs. Also, you can buy nematodes that kill unwanted pests without harming beneficial insects. And you can make non-toxic homemade remedies to deal with diseases (there are numerous recipes available online).

10. Avoid Peat-Based Composts

Did you know that ‘our planet's 10 billion acres of peat hold more carbon than all the world’s forests combined’? ¹¹

Healthy peatlands have a net cooling effect on climate (locking in vast quantities of carbon), provide valuable ecosystems for plants and animals, and reduce the risk of flooding. They ‘can help to offset the effects of human activities such as fossil fuel burning that are raising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, leading to climate change.’ ¹² However, about 80% of the UK’s peatlands have been negatively impacted by human activity: they’ve been drained and ploughed for agriculture or mined for peat for use in gardening and horticulture.¹³ As a result, they’re not just failing to capture CO2, they are releasing vast amounts of it into the atmosphere. 

The sale of peat-based composts for use in household gardens will be banned in England from 2024, but there’s no reason to wait until then to reduce your carbon footprint.



¹ World Wildlife Fund, 10 Things You Can Do to Help Save Our Planet.
² Ibid.
³ Which (2022), How to save water around the home.
⁴ Roser-Renouf, Connie, Maibach, Edward and Leiserowitz, Anthony (Yale Program on Climate Change Communication 2016), Consumer Activism on Global Warming.
⁵ Glenday, John (2021), 59% of consumers say they’ll boycott brands that don’t address climate emergency.
⁷ Timperley, Jocelyn (BBC 2020), Should we give up flying for the sake of the climate?
⁶ Scorr, Mike (Reuters 2022), Can business travel get into a more sustainable flight-path post-Covid?
⁸ United Nations, Renewable energy – powering a safer future.
⁹ Ibid.
¹⁰ Butterfly Conservation (2022), 10 easy ways you can help our environment.
¹¹ Royal Horticultural Society, Peat-free gardening.
¹² UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (2019), Human activity means UK peatlands contribute to climate change.
¹³ Ibid.

Monday 13 February 2023

ChatGPT Is Not as Clever as You Think; or, How to Write Like an Almost-Credible-Sounding Idiot

After reading so much about ChatGPT recently - all the promises and hype, the warnings and tales of imminent doom - I thought it was time to test drive it for myself. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I had low expectations to begin with (having read some of what it had ‘written’ already), but it still managed to disappoint me.

I asked the chatbot a simple question: ‘Why was Kitagawa Utamaro imprisoned?’ Here is the chatbot's answer:
'Kitagawa Utamaro, a famous Japanese ukiyo-e artist of the late Edo period, was imprisoned for a period of time in 1796 due to accusations of producing "obscene" material. During this time in Japanese history, the government had strict censorship laws regarding the production of art and literature, and Utamaro was charged with violating these laws through the creation of shunga, or erotic prints. While Utamaro's work was highly sought after by collectors, it was also controversial and caused a significant public scandal at the time. It's worth noting that the obscenity laws during this time period were used as a tool of political control and suppression, and many artists and writers were targeted and punished for their work.'
As you can see, the chatbot’s answer is human-sounding. But it’s also completely incorrect. Oh, it’s wrapped up in fluff that makes it sound like it could be correct, like the ‘writer’ knows what it’s talking about, but it’s wrong all the same. Both the dating of the punishment and the reason for it are incorrect. Utamaro’s offence related to the naming of historical figures on printed works, and it took place in 1804 or 1805. So, I challenged the bot, and it confirmed that its response was incorrect.

I started a new chat session and asked my original question again. In response, I got three incredibly flat, fluff-filled paragraphs that I will not inflict upon you here. The bot repeated the claim about erotic prints but this time added that the artist ‘was arrested and imprisoned for several months in 1797’. Again, I challenged the chatbot. Again, it confirmed that its response was incorrect. 

I made several more attempts to get a response that was even remotely accurate. I received for my trouble various rewordings of the same erroneous information written with varying degrees of dullness. Finally, in contradiction to everything it had written previously, the bot informed me that there is in fact ‘no credible historical evidence that Kitagawa Utamaro spent several months in prison… there is no record of him having been imprisoned’. And then it confirmed that this too was incorrect.

I asked it to cite its sources. It failed to. When I insisted, it eventually (I thought it had gone to sleep) referred me to a book about Japanese art by an entirely invented writer by the name of Alexander Stuart Dru. When I challenged the bot, it confirmed that no such writer ever existed and that the information it had given me was therefore unreliable. That much I had worked out for myself. It had already become clear that the chatbot was just making it up as it went along. The more questions I asked, the more it sounded like one of those guys who thinks he’s an expert in a subject because he vaguely skim-read Wikipedia one time. If almost-credible-sounding idiot is what you’re aiming at, ChatGPT is probably just what you’re looking for.

I asked the bot how it picks and chooses data to use in a response when it encounters two pieces of information that are contradictory. It replied with a list of factors it uses, none of which it appeared to have used when answering the questions I asked, then added:
‘It is important to note that despite my training, I may still make mistakes in resolving contradictions and providing incorrect information, especially in situations where there is conflicting information from credible sources, or if the information is complex or poorly understood.’
I italicised that last part, because, from my perspective, that’s the bit that causes the trouble with ChatGPT when the factual element of a statement is of actual importance (there are issues with its punctuation too, but that’s a topic for another day). It regurgitates mistakes, inconsistencies and, in some cases, absolute nonsense, because that’s what it was fed during ‘training’. It has no concept of what is true or false, and it is incredibly bad at weighing pieces of information to decide which is accurate. If you have the knowledge to discern when the bot is making stuff up, you can challenge it, and it will quite readily admit that its responses are not accurate. I researched Kitagawa Utamaro's life and works for more than two decades, so I knew it was talking nonsense when it replied to my questions. But what if you don’t possess that knowledge? I mean, if you’re asking a question because you don’t already have the answer, how will you differentiate between fact and fiction? Will you cite old Alexander Stuart Dru, the fictitious exert in Japanese prints, and make yourself look an absolute fool?

After reading so much hype about its copywriting abilities, I asked it to write the blurb for a few published books. It spewed out several misleading ‘roll up, roll up, lookee here!’ sales pitches that I wouldn’t send out if my life depended on it. It described a satirical novel about an elderly bully as the story of man who, on his ‘40th birthday, begins to question everything he has ever known and sought after [and] embarks on a journey of self-discovery’, and it mistook The Room Opposite, Flora Mayor’s collection of short stories, for a novel about ‘a young woman who is haunted by her past and is in desperate need of a fresh start’. I have no idea where it gleaned that nonsense from; presumably it used one of Alexander Stuart Dru's numerous books on literature.

What the chatbot can do is generate misinformation very quickly. During our ‘dialogues’, it argued that the Earth is flat, that Covid vaccines are dangerous, and it even explained why Donald J. Trump is a genius; apparently, ‘His speeches, tweets, and negotiating skills are the stuff of legend’. None of the bot's arguments were convincing to someone who knows this is all nonsense, but there are people out there who are willing to believe this sort of stuff. And let’s face it, there’s enough misinformation out there already; the last thing we need is a bot that can produce it ten times faster than a human being giving us a heck of a lot more.

I don’t understand the gushy reactions from people who think ChatGPT is the bees knees. And I don’t understand how anyone who’s used it could suggest that it’s about to replace human copywriters. If the standard of writing (and accuracy of information) I received is the best it can do - if its ‘best’ is the basis for all of the claims being made about it being as good as, nay, better than human writers - I can only assume that the expectations people have of human writers are incredibly low. That’s a sad thought.

Not wishing to end on a sad thought, I will say that, despite having said all of the above, ChatGPT is an interesting toy to play with for a while. I found that it slowed considerably at times, was repetitive, often didn’t answer questions directly, had a tendency to pad responses with irrelevant information, and its prose was consistently flat and boring. But it was diverting for an hour or so. I got it to write an obituary for my fictional Aunt Maud, who frightened small children, cheated on her husband fifteen times and was once arrested for attempting to murder a stuffed squirrel. It made me laugh, so there is that.

Thursday 9 February 2023

Literary Hauntings Is Now Available as a Paperback!

Last December, Literary Hauntings: A Gazetteer of Literary Ghost Stories from Britain and Ireland was published as a hardback by the ever wonderful Tartarus Press. You may remember that I was a contributor to it (I may have mentioned this... a few times... all over the place). It sold out at the publisher in just ten days. Now, Tartarus has published a jacketed paperback edition, and it looks amazing (what do you expect from Tartarus? Their books are always beautiful). Anyway, without further ado, here it is... wearing its lovely jacket, then undressed to reveal the beautiful cover design beneath...

To learn more about this jacketed paperback edition and order a copy for yourself, click here.

There is actually a second paperback edition available, this time print-on-demand (from Amazon), and that may be of interest to overseas readers, with the international post being so slow at the moment. Of course, there's also the ebook version, which you can buy direct from the publisher (click here).

Shameless plug over. As you were. 

Update (27/2/2023):

Literary Hauntings has been reviewed by Dejan Ognjanovic in Rue Morgue, issue no. 211:
'Bound and designed up to the recognizably high Tartarus Press standards, this lovely book is useful both as a reminder of half-forgotten classics and a grimoire of British horror’s hidden lore. Even the most seasoned readers, who may not be willing to embark on a real and expensive roadtrip, will certainly be guided by these expert editors into discovering dozens of ghostly gems that are screaming to be revisited.'

Wednesday 8 February 2023

A Spooky Addition to the Samples Page

Tonight marks the anniversary of strange events that took place here in Devonshire one hundred and sixty-eight years ago, when locals awoke to find in the snow, and in the most unaccountable of places, a ‘vast number of foot-tracks of a most strange and mysterious description’...

The PDF version can be found on our samples page by clicking here. Alternatively, you can read the article on the Haunted Library blog by clicking here.

Friday 3 February 2023

First Sentences Are Doors to Worlds - Why Opening Lines Matter

You’re in a bookshop. Let’s make it a secondhand bookshop; they’re quieter, smaller and more friendly. And they smell good. You have time on your hands - enough that you don’t need to rush - and you’re looking for a novel to read. How will you choose it? I’m going to assume that you won’t read the entire first chapter of every book you pick up; you have time but probably not an entire week. Will you read the publisher’s blurb? Probably. Let’s assume that you’ve done that. What now?

Assuming that you’re a sane, respectable reader - not one of those people who actually reads the final page before the rest of the novel - you’ll read the first lines of the first chapter. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her essay The Fisherwoman’s Daughter, ‘first sentences are doors to worlds.’ That’s where you begin to lose yourself, where the magic begins… or not. If it’s the latter, there are plenty more books on those wonderfully sagging wooden shelves to capture your imagination.

So, consider this: those opening lines are your chance, possibly the only one you’ll ever have, to hook your own reader. Why would you use them to describe the weather, map out a route to your main character’s local shops or comment on the state of her underwear drawer (unless these things play a vital - and I really mean vital - part in the storyline)? And, though I’m talking primarily about writing fiction here, the same goes for non-fiction, business writing, and so on. You have a limited amount of time to capture your audience’s attention, so why waste it and risk losing your reader forever? Readers can be unforgiving; they have only so much time, and life’s too short to spend it reading uninspiring, uninteresting or bad writing.

Your opening paragraph should tell your audience everything they need to know in order to make one important decision: to read or not to read. It should set the scene, draw the reader in, make tantalising promises (that you keep) about what’s to come, and leave them wanting - nay, needing - to know what happens next. Consider the opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House:

‘No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.’

We all have different tastes in fiction, but that, to my mind, is the finest opening paragraph ever written (it is also a masterclass in how to use a semicolon, but that’s a topic for another day). That paragraph leaves you in no doubt about the kind of book you’re reading or the kind of main protagonist you’re dealing with. It tells you everything you need to know about Hill House and what you’ll encounter within its upright walls, and by the time you’ve finished reading it - just three (wonderfully punctuated, beautifully constructed) sentences in - you’ve already been tipped off-balance. Three sentences and Jackson’s got you; ‘not sane’ Hill House, and whatever walks alone there, has got you. There’s no escape, so you’ll just have to buy the book and read on. 

It’s up to those first lines to persuade a reader that it’s worth reading past them. So, how do you write an opening paragraph that’s persuasive enough to do that? Here are a few suggestions:

Create Intrigue

It is important to make your reader curious. You can present them with vital information in a way that sets their brain cogs grinding and gets them asking meaningful questions. Consider the first sentence of A Christmas Carol

‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’ 

Charles Dickens doesn’t even need first lines; he manages to grab your attention with just six words and an intriguing colon. One short sentence sets the tone for the entire book and presents us with information that’s vital to our understanding of everything that comes afterwards. At the same time, it raises more questions than it answers. And death is usually the end of things, so to place it at the beginning of everything is intriguing in itself. How could anyone not be intrigued? How could anyone not have questions? Now imagine if these had been the opening lines:

‘It was a cold, wet Tuesday, and more rain was predicted for the coming week. The sky was grey, and there had been no sunshine for several days. There was ice on the ground, and the pathways were slippy underfoot. And Marley was dead.’

Marley’s still dead. I’m still telling the reader that he’s dead. But I’m also making it clear that the weather forecast and state of the roads are of more significance. The opening paragraph is the place to showcase everything that’s unique, engaging, intriguing and wonderful about your book. There should be nothing tedious, trivial or mundane - nothing commonplace - about it. It’s highly unlikely that your reader is looking for commonplace.

Create a Sense of Unease

So, your reader is curious. How about making them feel uneasy too? That’s what John Wyndam does at the beginning of The Day of the Triffids:

‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.’

What’s wrong? Why is it wrong? If, as I do, you remember the almost silent Sundays of yesteryear, you’ll remember the eeriness of empty streets, shuttered shopfronts and car-free roads. What on earth could ever make a Wednesday feel like that? Whatever it is, it can’t be good. There’s tension there straight away; there’s mystery through uncertainty. It’s the lure of bewilderment. I’m unsettled; aren’t you?

Take a look at the opening line of George Orwell’s 1984

‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ 

That’s an opening sentence that you can’t just set aside and forget. It’s too disorientating to be ignored. In what sort of world does a clock strike the unluckiest of numbers? You know right off the mark that Orwell’s world isn’t quite the world you’re used to… the one you’re familiar with and comfortable in. You’re unsettled; you’re uneasy. And so you should be.

Be Bold or Shocking

You can knock your reader off-kilter a little (or a lot) by making a bold or shocking statement, as Michael Cox does in The Meaning of Night:

‘After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.’

Who in his right mind introduces himself as the sort of person who can kill a man and then go off for a plate of seafood? Is he not in his right mind? Can he possibly be telling the truth? What did the red-haired man do to deserve being killed? Should we dislike the narrator? Were there mitigating circumstances? You’re shocked and confused, you have questions - for example, is the narrator reliable? - and you’re hooked.

Be Concise

You’re not going to get ten pages to set the scene and hook your reader. You’ll get a paragraph; you may get two if your reader is feeling generous. So, be brief but comprehensive (remembering that comprehensive and wordy are not the same thing). Tell them what they need to know in as few well-chosen words as possible. As Voltaire once said, ‘The secret of being boring is to say everything.’

Read Other Writers

To improve your writing, you need to read a lot. To improve your first lines, you need to read a lot of first lines. Go to your own bookshelves, pick up your favourite writers’ books and read their opening lines. A lot of publishers and writers offer sample pages of their work online; usually you get to read the first few pages at least. You don’t have to read the whole book; focus on the first paragraph. What works? What doesn’t work? Why does it work? Why doesn’t it work? Keep notes.

Be Your Reader

It’s difficult to be objective when reading your own work. You’ll never be able to approach it in exactly the same way as your reader. But you can take a break from what you’ve written, do your best to distance yourself from your work and make an attempt at seeing it with fresh eyes. Close the file and leave it be for a fortnight, or tuck the manuscript away in a drawer if you’re a lover of pen and paper, and give yourself time to forget. Then return to it as a reader. Read nothing but your opening lines. And I mean read; I don’t mean edit or proofread. Then ask yourself this: if you’d picked your book up in a bookshop, and all you had to go on was that first paragraph, would you want to read what happens next? If the answer is no, or even a don’t know, then it’s unlikely that a complete stranger, who isn’t as attached to your work as you are, would want to bother either.

As I said before, the opening paragraph is the place to showcase everything that’s wonderful and unique about your story and hook your readers. It’s the place where readers begin to lose themselves, where the magic begins, but it’s also the place where readers are lost, sometimes forever. So, make every word of those opening lines count and give your readers reason to keep on reading!