Monday, August 13, 2007

Since the Dawn of Time, Students Have Sucked at Intros

I'm not going to claim that introductions are easy to write. To catch your reader's attention while simultaneously conveying, clearly and concisely, exactly what you will be arguing in your essay is difficult. If the process seems laughably simple to you, you are probably using formulae, and if you are using formulae, I am going to yell at you very, very loudly. A formulaic introduction is another one of those blasted "shortcuts" that allow students to write quickly, mindlessly, and entirely without useful results.

Sandwich theory encourages writers to start with a broad "universalising" statement, then move quickly to the thesis. I shall dance on the graves of the idiots who believe that this method is a good one. For crying out loud, people: you have driven generations of markers mad with unbearable rage! I want to punch you with my teeth! Fume fume fume fume fume!

I'm going to be discussing many aspects of introduction formation, but I'll start with a list of openings that you must never, ever use. These openings are popular amongst high-school students and undergraduates, all of whom think they are being daringly original. They're not. You're not. These openings are terrible. Stop using them.

Here they are:

Since the dawn of time...

Ah...the perennial favourite. "Since the dawn of time, people have written poetry." "Since the dawn of time, human beings have been artists." There were no human beings at the dawn of time. When the hell was the "dawn of time," anyway? The instant of the Big Bang, perhaps? Were people writing poetry fourteen billion years ago when the universe exploded into being from a densely packed core of matter? Were human beings painting art on the flaming and rapidly expanding vistas of newly created space? Do you not think about what you're writing? Do you never pause for half a second and say to yourself, "Wait a minute. 'Since the dawn of time'...?"

You should also consider this fact: you have been asked by your prof to write a short paper. Let's say that this paper will be between one thousand and fifteen hundred words. If you start at the goddamned dawn of time, how the hell are you going to narrow down your topic in time to write anything on it? If you were writing on the joys of peanut-butter sandwiches, would you begin with a history of food? No? Then keep your hands off the dawn of time. It is not relevant to your essay unless you are Stephen Hawking, and somehow, I don't think you are.*

Since the dawn of man...

Every time I come across this one, I get an image of a bunch of guys in monkey costumes shuffling about and hooting at each other as Thus Spake Zarathustra plays in the background.** Then I go sit in a corner and cry.

Again, you seem to be going back a bit too bloody far. If you are arguing that since the dawn of man, people have worn underwear, I want to see your citations. When was the dawn of man? Was it before or after certain varieties of primate began standing upright and hitting other primates with sticks? Did these primates wear underwear? write poetry? fight what we know now as wars? If so, I really need to see your citations, and you need to write a book. If not, why are you lying to me in the first sentence of your essay? Do you think I am not going to notice that initial asinine statement? You do not need to go back to the dawn of time, and you do not need to go back to the dawn of man.

Since the start of human history... or Throughout human history...

You are creeping slowly forward in time, but you're still too far back. One thousand words, remember? This paper is going to be four pages long. Why are you universalising it? Does it matter to your argument that people have written stories about food throughout human history? Would your essay be less brilliant without that piece of information? If I asked you when "the start of human history" was, would you be able to tell me? Are we talking about written history only? Have you been reading the grocery lists of the ancient Sumerians, or are you simply spouting another bit of meaningless cliche?

For hundreds/thousands/millions of years...

For crying out loud. You are writing a thousand-word essay. I don't care what happened hundreds, thousands, or millions of years ago! I care about the narrow, focussed subject of your essay. Please stop trying to distract me from it.

Since the world/universe began...

Right back to the dawn of time again. No. No. No.

All poetry/wars/food/people/authors/buildings... or Poetry/wars/food/people/authors/buildings always...

"All" and "always" are both beautiful words that are often (not "always") mauled and tortured by well-meaning writers who forget exactly what they mean. If you say that poetry is always difficult to understand, you mean that poetry is always difficult to understand. Please don't generalise. Generalisation is frequently both unnecessary and inaccurate. You'll also want to be avoiding the words "never," "obviously," and "clearly," which are just as misused as poor "always"; they are good words, but they should generally stay the hell out of argumentative essays.

In the whole of the field of English literature/history/philosophy/early childhood education...

What did I just say about generalisation? Cut it out.

Many horrible essay-writing guides claim that a good way to begin an essay is with a "universal" statement. These guides are lying to you. Your markers, who have seen such broad, vague beginnings time after time, know that they rarely work well. Students seem to feel that if they contextualise their topics, situating them as important parts of vast fields of universal human concern, markers will be impressed and give them "A"s. Markers are, in fact, very tired of hearing what has happened since the dawn of time. It is not necessary to universalise your essay. It is a short piece of writing on a narrow aspect of a very specific topic, and it has little to do with the vast sweep and scope of human existence. It does not need to be universalised.

Starting wide and then focussing is not a bad idea, but in a short essay, "wide" generally means "slightly less restrictively narrow than the thesis." For instance, if you are still working on the essay I mentioned in the last entry--the one on friendship in The Fellowship of the Ring--you might start not with a mention of how humans have been writing stories about friendship since the world began, but with a sentence or two on how Tolkien's novel is concerned with many aspects of friendship, though you will, in the end, only be dealing with one. Perhaps it is fair to say that you should start wider, not "wide" per se.

However, there are many ways to begin essays. The introduction is there to snag the reader's attention, engaging her as quickly as possible in the argument at hand. Teachers who tell you that there is only one viable way to draw in the reader haven't been reading enough essays. Some good methods are as follows:

1) Starting with an anecdote. Anecdotes won't work in all essays. Someone writing a paper on the political significance of the Wars of the Roses should probably not begin, "When I was a little boy...." However, in certain essay types, anecdotes can be effective at both engaging the reader and providing an early illustration of the argument. Someone writing an essay on wait times in Ontario's hospitals may try for maximum emotional impact by starting with the story of a real person who has been affected by these wait times. This story itself does not count as evidence; it is a single instance of the problem under discussion and proves only that one person in the whole of Canada has been affected negatively by the wait for surgery. Yet it provides a hook that will, with luck, interest the reader enough that she will go on to find the hard evidence provided in the rest of the essay.

Anecdotes work less well with literary criticism. "When I was a little boy..." would be just as startling in an essay about Hamlet as it would in one about the Wars of the Roses.

2) Starting with an example. The essay about hospital wait times could, if its writer wanted it to have less of a subjective feel, begin with a concrete example of the effects of lengthening wait times: some statistics, the citation of a government report or a newspaper article, or a brief description of a bill up before parliament. This example would probably turn up again later in the essay. However, the writer would also want it in the introduction because it would illustrate or encompass a central idea of the paper. The Fellowship of the Ring essay, which deals with Tolkien's treatment of friendship as a hidden property, could easily start with a mention of Tolkien's "All that is gold does not glitter" line: a line that conveniently acts as a metaphor for hidden worth. Beginning with an example can be tricky--it can seem abrupt or out of place if handled clumsily--but it can be a good way of highlighting a piece of evidence so important that it seems to sum up the paper's thesis in and of itself.

3) Starting with a controversial statement. This method is another tricky one because there are so many ways it can go horribly wrong. I could begin an essay about Harry Potter by writing, "Harry Potter is a tool of the devil; he corrupts our children and converts them to Satanism." Such a statement would certainly be controversial, but it wouldn't actually be true. As I have observed, "controversy" does not have to shock; it merely has to intrigue. A controversial beginning to the Tolkien essay might be: "J. R. R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring is not a novel in which friendship appears as an overt ideal." Since many believe the concept of friendship as an ideal to be one of the book's major threads, readers could take issue with such a statement. Yet the writer would go on to explain that the idea of subversive friendship--friendship built on betrayal or fear--gives the novel one of its themes: that of goodness as a hidden property, a type of "gold" that does not glitter. The controversial statement is the hook; the rest of the paragraph justifies it and leads to the controversial thesis.

4) Starting with an analogy, metaphor, or simile. The analogy method should be approached with caution. During my own ignominious undergraduate career, I once began an essay about Renaissance prose fiction by comparing a piece of writing to a sentient machine. I cannot remember now why I did so, but I spent an entire paragraph on this analogy. I could easily have cut the whole thing out.

However, starting with an analogy, metaphor, or simile can sometimes work rather well, as long as it is is concise and relevant. Similes are especially useful in this regard. A writer might reveal that in The Fellowship of the Ring, friendship is like a precious metal obscured by dirt; though it does not necessarily appear to be beautiful, its worth is no less than it would be if it gleamed in the sun. This statement connects nicely to the idea that "all that is gold does not glitter." Someone writing about hospital wait times might compare Canada's health-care system to the human body and observe that lack of nourishment (i.e., funding) will gradually starve this body and cause its systems to shut down one by one. This analogy could also easily take the form of a metaphor ("The Canadian health-care system is itself a living human body"). A good figure of speech will effectively capture the reader's attention and give the writer an image that he can milk throughout the essay.

The "universal" opener is not, unfortunately, the only stupid way to start an essay. Here are a few more tempting but forbidden*** openers:

1) Starting with a quotation. Certain essay-writing guides will tell you that it is all right to begin with a quotation. It is...but only in extremely rare instances and under extremely specific circumstances. I'm not talking about a quotation from a work you happen to be analysing; that counts as an example and works fairly well as an opener. I'm talking about essays that begin something like this:

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."
-Oscar Wilde

Sincerity is an important issue in William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

Hello? Why are you quoting Wilde here? What does he have to do with Shakespeare? You googled "sincerity" and "quotation" and got this little Wildean one-liner as your first hit, didn't you? Do you even know who Oscar Wilde was? That is a cute, pithy little statement of his you have found, but you just have it there because it uses the word "sincerity." You are not going to build your essay around it, and if I ask you where it's from, you won't have the faintest idea.

If you manage to find a quotation that is absolutely essential to your essay--a piece of controversy written specifically about the topic on which you are writing, perhaps--you may begin with it. Don't begin with a random bit of whatever you have dredged out of the online version of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

Starting with a dictionary definition. It is important to define your terms, and often, the introduction is a good place to do so. You should not define your terms by quoting the bloody dictionary. If I don't care what Oscar Wilde has to say about sincerity, I sure as hell won't care about what the huge team that put together the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about it either. You want a definition of sincerity? Give me your own. Tell me exactly what you mean when you use the word "sincerity." About twenty students of mine recently wrote on "the supernatural" in certain novels; not one of them started by defining "supernatural." Their essays suffered for it. However, their essays would also have suffered if they had plundered Webster's. Oxford, Webster's, Collins, whatever: every dictionary will have a slightly different definition of a particular term. You shouldn't stick with any one of these definitions; you really do need to use your own.

One qualification: it is acceptable to quote a dictionary--preferably a comprehensive one such as the Oxford English Dictionary--when you need to explain the etymology, past uses, or common uses of a word. For instance, in my dissertation, I had to go to the Middle English Dictionary for a definition of the word pouk, which was used in a slightly unusual way in one of the texts I was analysing.

3) Starting with an unanswered question. This method is highly frustrating for the reader. The writer gets away with sounding intelligent for posing a difficult question, but if he doesn't answer it, he is implying that he expects the reader to do his analytical work for him. As well, a lot of students who start with a question simply don't know when to stop. I have seen introductions that look very like this:

What is love? Is it just an emotion? Does it exist only due to body chemistry? Does everyone feel it? Is it the same thing as lust? What is lust? Can everybody love? Shakespeare wrote about love; did he understand it? What is love?

Gosh. I don't know. You tell me. No, really. You tell me.

If you pose a question, answer it. Better yet: avoid questions altogether. Too many questions make a writer seem uncertain.

Once you have your hook, you have to deal with the rest of the paragraph (or, in the case of long essays, paragraphs). Many writers wonder about thesis placement. One version of the sandwich method insists that the "thesis" (actually the "topic," but who am I to argue with the Devotees of the Mighty Sandwich?) be the second sentence, after the universalising statement; the rest of the introduction consists of the listing of thesis points. Some high-school teachers insist on the thesis statement being the first sentence of the whole essay. Other teachers and professors insist on it being the last sentence of the introduction. Everyone has an opinion on where the thesis should go.

The truth is that if the writer of the essay is skilful enough, it doesn't matter if the thesis is the essay's first sentence or its last. A good writer will ensure that her argument is clear throughout. Some excellent essayists deliberately avoid stating the thesis until near the end of the paper. Others include several paragraphs of explanation or definition before introducing the thesis statement. Narrative essayists--those writing true stories with points--sometimes never state their theses.

You are going to state your thesis, however. You are going to state it at the beginning of your paper, probably at the very end of your introductory paragraph or paragraphs. I, as your marker, am not going to mark you down for not stating your thesis; I am going to mark you down for not having a thesis. The odds are that if you don't state the damned thing, it won't be there. I have read very few undergraduate papers in which a vague or absent thesis statement is followed by a brilliant, incisive, unified essay. Students who have no theses have no arguments either, whereas those who save their theses for the ends of their essays tend to be the same people who don't prepare for essay composition but just make the whole thing up as they go along. Put the thesis at the beginning. It won't gain you marks simply by being there; it will gain you marks by guiding and focussing your argument.

The thesis need not appear as the last sentence of your introduction, but such a placement will allow you to move directly from the declaration of your argument into the argument itself. The middle of the introduction--the bit between the hook and the thesis--is up to you. I don't want to be any more specific on this matter because I don't want to limit your thinking. The sandwich method tells you exactly what to write; I believe that the sandwich method is eminently silly. The introduction is yours; it does not have to be filled with formula. Find a concise, engaging way to move from the hook to the statement of your argument. Expand on the hook. Explain it. Define your terms. Connect the hook to your topic, and narrow your topic to your thesis. Identify any pieces of literature on which you are writing and explain their connection to your thesis.**** If you have room and are so inclined, write more than one introductory paragraph. Your introduction should be as long or short as it needs to be. Avoid unnecessary padding***** or long, rambling analogies, but do not skimp on needed definitions. Make sure that your introduction contains 1) only relevant information and 2) enough relevant information.

A "good introduction" can take one of many, many forms. Don't be afraid to try out your own ideas or stray from what you think of as "the norm"; there is no norm.

In my next entry, I'm going to take a short break from my dissection of the essay and talk about pronouns (four or five in particular). You may think you know how to use pronouns in essays, but you may actually be kind of completely wrong about that.

*I may be wrong. If so: hi, Stephen Hawking.
**Plus sometimes I see a monolith and a gigantic space baby.
***By me.
****Which should mention them. If you have a topic such as, "Discuss the role of heroism in fantasy in relation to two of the course texts," your thesis should not simply be about the role of heroism in fantasy; it should be about the role of heroism in fantasy in relation to two of the course texts. Do not be afraid to be specific.
*****Unlike the student of mine who, in beginning a discussion of one of Shakespeare's plays, decided to tell the life story of Queen Elizabeth I, though she never did explain why she had.


Me said...

uhm....yeah, i just started reading this blog after a google search born out of desperation for some help with an introduction to a paper about A Raisin in the Sun (probably one of the most boring books i've read...XP)...and i really enjoy it, since your writing style doesn't put me to sleep and is actually helpful. ^.^ i'm to be a high school freshman in a few days time, and i don't want to look like a brainless moron to my teacher the first day of school when we turn in our summer homeword assignments, so...could help me out with my introduction? i've never been very good at starting out anything...O.o so i appologize if your eyeballs bleed. XD

Looking for a good change in a person’s lifestyle is like looking for a particular book in a library or bookstore. You may find what you’re looking for, you may not, and you may come away disappointed and/or irritated-but odds are you will discover and learn many things along the way, and maybe even find something new to interest you in place of what you were looking for. In A Raisin in the Sun, both Walter and Beneatha (aka Bennie) are seeking fulfillment in their lives, and both run into difficulty on their journeys, but end up coming out of their predicaments more or less unscathed. Along the way, they attempt to better their lives through investments, degrees, relationships, and changes in setting.

Kem said...

Hey...I didn't see this comment until just now...but I'll ask you one question, then give you my thoughts.

The question:

For what were you searching on Google? You say you were looking for some "help" on the introduction to your paper. What sort of help do you mean? Were you looking for ideas or simply for someone to critique your work? If the latter, fine; if the former, please reconsider your approach. You need to be able to form your own ideas about literature (even if you find it boring) based on what you, personally, see in it. If you become too reliant on information found online, you will be in danger of plagiarising your assignments. Plagiarism is not simply the theft of words; it is the borrowing, without acknowledgement, of the ideas of others.

As for your paragraph itself:

I don't know what particular restrictions your teachers put on your writing. If you are allowed to write informally, your style here is fine; if you aren't, you need to get rid of some of the colloquialisms (addressing the reader as "you," using contractions, etc.). Your introductory analogy is interesting but could be snappier; that second sentence is a bit too long and confusing, and by the end of it, the reader is in danger of losing the point. The analogy also seems only loosely connected to your thesis. The two sections of the paragraph fit awkwardly together without any real transition.

You need to work the analogy into your argument, which is currently a bit unclear. What ARE you trying to argue here? When I try to connect your analogy with your two statements about Walter and Bennie--or even just these two statements with each other--I fail. You need ONE clear central idea around which you can build your thesis, which should answer a "How?" or a "Why?" question rather than a "What?" question. At the moment, you're in danger of launching into a bunch of plot summary.

However, for a grade nine student, you're doing well (if these ideas are, in fact, all yours. Sorry. I've been marking too long to trust anyone at all). You can see that there are themes at work in the novel, and you understand the purpose of analogical openings. I would suggest that you find a single interesting idea and run with it instead of trying to cover everything. As well, really do try to develop a solid thesis (an argument that can be argued AGAINST).

Your teacher won't think you're a brainless moron. You seem to know what a sentence is (hurrah!), and you are aware of the concept of analysis. Try not to be too put off by teachers who want you to stick to certain formulae; practise more sophisticated forms on your own. Frankly, your writing is already better than that of many university students.

Good luck in high school, which is, by the way, one of the inner circles of Hell.

Me said...

ah, if only i'd found this comment on my comment when it hasn't been *counts on fingers* three months since i turned in said paper...adn in answer to your question, as old as it may be by now, i was really looking for ideas on how to start an essay, like up there *points to Introduction-Blog-Post-Thingy*. that was immensely helpful, and continues to be, with my intros. they always seem to suck to me. O.o
so yeah, thanks for critiquing (probably didn't spell that right) my intro, even if it was a little late...^.^; dunno what i actually got on the essay, since Mr. Landry hasn't told me yet...or rather i haven't had time to ask him. XD
...looking at the next part ofyour comment/question in your comment on my comment, i've only ever found two books in my entire life boring...sad. T.T didn't mean to give the impression of me in a devil costume dancing around at a book burning for fun party or something...though that is a funny image.
last note! XD on two different things though, so i guess i'm a bloodly stinking liar and will be sent to Hell...wait, i'm already in one of the inner circles, so it shouldn't matter. yes, high school is Hell, but with more instances of impreganting...O.e Frankly, your writing is already better than that of many university students. aww...what a wonderfully sweet insulting compliment. XD

yay boredom and long comments that nobody will read for three months! XD

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