First Year Seminar
A good opening paragraph accomplishes three things:
(1) it grabs the reader’s attention;
(2) it establishes the tone of the essay; and
(3) it usually reveals the one central problem that is going to be addressed.
In its most conventional form, the first paragraph concludes with the writer’s thesis.
When Muhammad Ali flunked his army intelligence test, he quipped (with a wit that belied his performance on the exam): “I only said I was the greatest; I never said I was the smartest” (Citation #). In our metaphors and fairy tales, size and power are the almost always balanced by a want of intelligence. Cunning is the refuge of the little guy. Think of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Bear; David smiting Goliath; Jack chopping the beanstalk. Slow wit is the tragic flaw of a giant.
The handiest and most frequently used device for introducing the topic, however, is the so-called funnel paragraph. The funnel-shaped opener begins with an assertion covering a broader area than the paper will address; this gives the reader a wide perspective and a context for understanding the actual topic when it is stated. The, in perhaps two or three sentences, the funnel paragraph narrows to the topic, which is usually revealed just as the paragraph ends. The following is typical:
Only a few politicians have taken a craftsman’s pride in self-expression, and fewer still- Caesar, Lord Clarendon, Winston Churchill, Degaulle—have been equally successful in politics and authorship. Of these, Churchill may be the most interesting, for he was not only among the most voluminous writers, but he also commented freely on the art of writing. He was, in fact, a writer before becoming a politician.
When the thesis of the essay states an opinion or expresses an attitude, the introduction usually makes a forceful, perhaps somewhat surprising assertion that demands a response of some sort.
The revival of the forties and fifties is upon us. The Middle-American time of my youth is gaining its place in our historical imagination. Movies, essays, stories, novels, and the sheer passage of time have already begun transforming that east from banal to exotic. The record is being filled not only with nostalgia but with critical insight, as writing men of wit try to pin down those days. Nevertheless, something crusial is missing because the reality being recorded about that era is essentially a male reality, the experience a male experience. And until the female side is acknowledged and recorded, the era cannot even begin to emerge in perspective.
This paragraph certainly could be strengthened: the first five sentences are constructed alike, the diction is somewhat repetitive, and little progress is made from the first sentence through fourth. Yet the author does what needs doing. The opening sentence gives us orientation and a promise of interesting details to follow; we can tell from the tone that this will be a no-nonsense essay, factual and critical in its emphasis and the paragraph ends with a thesis sentence for the whole essay, thus concluding one movement of thought and opening up a more ambitious one. Not very much has been said, but we have settled back and prepared ourselves for the rest.
A thesis statement is...
…a sentence that expresses the main point of your paper in the form of an assertion.
…a sentence in which you state a claim (attitude/opinion) about your subject that you will support throughout your paper.
A thesis statement is not...
…a sentence stating your topic.
…a statement of fact or truth. (A thesis statement should be debatable!)
A good thesis statement...
…holds your paper together. Every paragraph explains a part of your thesis.
…states your true opinion about a subject that interests you.
…is one that you will be able to support.
…can answer any good question you ask about the subject of your paper.
To write a thesis statement, follow these steps:
1) Pick a subject that you can have an opinion about
“Trees of the rainforest’ is not a very good sucject.
“The destruction of rainforest trees” is a better subject.
2) Discover what opinion you have about your subject; Take a stance!
I think that the destruction of rainforest trees is unacceptable!”
Note: This step might require additional research, so that you can formulate your thoughts!
3) List reasons/facts that support your opinion.
a. Rainforest trees keep our air clean.
b. Rainforest trees are beautiful.
c. Rainforest trees are homes to many different species of animals.
d. Rainforest trees are some of the oldest living trees on our planet.
4) Put the pieces together to form the assertion that you will prove throughout your paper.
“The destruction of rainforest trees is unacceptable as it causes many problems for our planet.”
The paragraph is used to state a main point, and then support it. Without proper arrangement, and coherence of ideas, your thoughts could flop, or worse yet, be misread! Clearly, you want your ideas to be understandable. You need to express your ideas clearly, relate them together in an understandable way, and make sure that the order of you supporting evidence promotes coherence. Read on to find out how.
a. Basic structure:
The paragraph contains one topic, in the form of a topic sentence, as well as any evidence supporting your topic. This evidence can be in the form of anything, really- as long as it makes sense and relates directly to your topic sentence. If my topic sentence is, “Bird are keen pets,” a supporting sentence in my paragraph would not read something like, “I like bananas, too.” Clearly, liking bananas has nothing to do with liking birds. Reasons why birds are keen pets would be the proper follow-up to my topic sentence.
b. Orders of paragraphs:
Once you have thought up supporting sentences for your paragraph, you cannot just throw them in in any old fashion. You must think up an order which will make the ideas flow together. Some typical orders are time order, space order, order of importance, and cause-effect. You can even create your own, as long as the order you use is logical and best expresses your idea. For example, if were writing a paragraph about my activities last night, I might use time order, telling when I did everything, or space order, telling where I did what I did. I may give cause and effect; that is, telling why I went out and skipped my homework. Order of importance could also be used to list what was most important of all the things I did.
Mixing my ideas, however, would be disastrous. See if you can follow this paragraph:
Last night I went out. The last thing I did was visit my friend. I decided to go out because I needed a study break. I played billiards, which was at the Pub. When I got to the Pub, no one was there. I ate dinner at 6:00 at the cafe, because my foodservice dollars are getting low.
Combining ideas only results in an illiterate mess. Picking one order, and sticking to it, is the best bet. If I want to use all the different orders to support one idea, I should arrange them into different paragraphs.
You’ve got the topic sentence and evidence to support it, you’ve got your order... but do you have coherence? Some key questions must be asked when checking coherence of a paragraph. (Questions listed courtesy of The Random House Handbook, pp.
1. What is the topic sentence of the paragraph? In other words, what are you writing about?
2. What details support the topic sentence? Do you have evidence to back your subject up?
3. What consistent order do these details follow? IS there a “method to your madness?”
4. What key terms are repeated or referred to by pronouns? What do all your “this’s” refer to?
5. What transitions are used? Do your sentences flow cleanly into one another? If not, how can you fix that?
A good essay is more than just a collection of paragraphs about the same general subject; it requires that you make logical
shifts from one paragraph to another. Transitions are the way that you make these logical shifts. They are your way of guiding our reader along with you in your thinking process.
Think of it this way: You are going on a 5-week vacation and you are leaving your dog with a friend. You are going to be
very careful in your instructions: "Not only does Lassie like to bite babies but she also likes to chew on furniture." Besides
having transitional words like "not only" and "also", the preceding sentence also linked the dogs chewing habits together.
Keeping this in mind, the next thing you would tell your neighbor might be: "After she has chewed the furniture, she won't be hungry, so be sure not to feed her or she will get sick."
The next topic, then, might be about when it is okay to feed Lassie. You see, it is easy because you know your dog. The best way to write transitions is to have a command of your
subject matter and then just use your common sense. It will come more naturally than you think.
Here are five good ways to make the transition from paragraph to paragraph:
1. Repeating Key Words.
Rx: "What about the Indians?..............You may find shards of pottery. At other places you will see their writing on the canyon walls‑‑the petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs are carved in the rock; pictographs are painted on the rock...."
(Handbook of Current English, Corder, p.272)
Or: "...Space meals have progressed from such items as gelatin‑coated coconut cubes and peanut cubes to complete heat‑and‑serve meals on board Skylab and the space shuttle. Space meals are not prepared so much as assembled. All the food is precooked and is either canned, dehydrated,...." (Handbook of Current English/7, Corder, p.465)
2. Recalling a key idea.
Ex: "...This is the choice women have been brought up to make and men have been taught to expect. It is the unusual woman, the woman wholly committed to her career or an impersonal goal, on whom criticism descends. Up to the present the dilemma is one most women have managed to avoid. One way of doing it has been by...." (Writing: A College Handbook, p. 124)
3. Answer one or more questions that were posed in the paragraph before.
Ex: "...If your husband's job took him to another country, would you give up a promising career to go with him? Would you go far away from friends and relatives for your career?
Often, the answer is quite predictable...." (Adapted from the Writing: A College Handbook, p. 123)
4. Use transitional words.
Just as you use certain "transitional words"‑‑"however," "but,""as a result"‑‑within the paragraph to link the ideas together, you can also use these words effectively between paragraphs.
Ex: "...But nothing in that end of town was as good as the dump ground...the dump was one of the very first community enterprises, almost our town's first institution. More than that, it contained relics of every individual who had ever lived there, and of every phase of the town's history." (Handbook of Current English, Corder, p.467)
5. Use a transitional paragraph.
Transitional paragraphs are used for shifts from one main section of a paper to another. They are usually only one or two sentences.
Ex: "So Ford had revolutionized the automotive industry with his assembly‑line approach. What effect did this have on other industries?" (Steps to Better Writing, Lea Lane, p. 92)
A conclusion should stress the importance of the thesis statement, give the essay a sense of completeness, and leave a final impression on the reader.
A good conclusion applies the topic of the essay to a broader issue. In a conclusion you can illustrate that the subject you have written about has importance beyond the ideas developed in your body paragraphs. You show that you have used what you have written to help you think about other ideas. This is not an easy chore. You run the risk of sounding too “important,” too philosophical, too much like a show-off. As a result, the concluding paragraph needs especially careful thought and must often progress through several rewritings, but the finished product is well worth it: it helps the reader see that the narrow topic you developed has relevance in other critical areas. It gives you an opportunity to develop an idea that has an important relationship to your topic, but is new in the frame of the essay itself.
Remember, do not:
- start a whole new topic.
- contradict your entire point.
- make obvious or overused statements.
- apologize for your lack of knowledge.
- end suddenly with a one-sentence conclusion such as “That’s all I have to say.”
- draw conclusions that are absolute or too general (make sure that you allow for possibilities or exceptions)
Writing a Conclusion
Conclusions are often the most difficult part of an essay to write, and many writers feel that they have nothing left to say after having written the paper. A writer needs to keep in mind that the conclusion is often what a reader remembers best. Your conclusion should be the best part of your paper.
- Answer the question "So What?"
- Show your readers why this paper was important. Show them that your paper was meaningful and useful.
- Synthesize, don't summarize.
- Don't simply repeat things that were in your paper. They have read it. Show them how the points your made and the support and examples you used were not random, but fit together.
- Redirect your readers.
- Give your reader something to think about, perhaps a way to use your paper in the "real" world. If your introduction went from general to specific, make your conclusion go from specific to general. Think globally.
- Create a new meaning.
- You don't have to give new information to create a new meaning. By demonstrating how your ideas work together, you can create a new picture. Often the sum of the paper is worth more than its parts.
Echoing the introduction:
Echoing your introduction can be a good strategy if it is meant to bring the reader full-circle. If you begin by describing a scenario, you can end with the same scenario as proof that your essay was helpful in creating a new understanding.
From the parking lot, I could see the towers of the castle of the Magic Kingdom standing stately against the blue sky. To the right, the tall peak of The Matterhorn rose even higher. From the left, I could hear the jungle sounds of Adventureland. As I entered the gate, Main Street stretched before me with its quaint shops evoking an old-fashioned small town so charming it could never have existed. I was entranced. Disneyland may have been built for children, but it brings out the child in adults.
I thought I would spend a few hours at Disneyland, but here I was at 1:00 A.M., closing time, leaving the front gates with the now dark towers of the Magic Kingdom behind me. I could see tired children, toddling along and struggling to keep their eyes open as best they could. Others slept in their parents' arms as we waited for the parking lot tram that would take us to our cars. My forty-year-old feet ached, and I felt a bit sad to think that in a couple of days I would be leaving California, my vacation over, to go back to my desk. But then I smiled to think that for at least a day I felt ten years old again.
Challenging the reader
By issuing a challenge to your readers, you are helping them to redirect the information in the paper, and they may apply it to their own lives.
Though serving on a jury is not only a civic responsibility but also an interesting experience, many people still view jury duty as a chore that interrupts their jobs and the routine of their daily lives. However, juries are part of America's attempt to be a free and just society. Thus, jury duty challenges us to be interested and responsible citizens.
Looking to the future
Looking to the future can emphasize the importance of your paper or redirect the readers' thought process. It may help them apply the new information to their lives or see things more globally.
Without well-qualified teachers, schools are little more than buildings and equipment. If higher-paying careers continue to attract the best and the brightest students, there will not only be a shortage of teachers, but the teachers available may not have the best qualifications. Our youth will suffer. And when youth suffers, the future suffers.
Posing questions, either to your readers or in general, may help your readers gain a new perspective on the topic, which they may not have held before reading your conclusion. It may also bring your main ideas together to create a new meaning.
Campaign advertisements should help us understand the candidate's qualifications and positions on the issues. Instead, most tell us what a boob or knave the opposing candidate is, or they present general images of the candidate as a family person or God-fearing American. Do such advertisements contribute to creating an informed electorate or a people who choose political leaders the same way they choose soft drinks and soap?
- What is my primary motivation for writing this essay? What do I want to prove? There should be a cause/effect relationship asserted in your introductions. This is your main point, or thesis, and every paragraph in your paper should help prove this point.
- What would draw a reader to this essay? The question you are trying to answer should be intriguing and have a valid counter-point. You must assert that your response is the most correct theory. Pose a question that challenges the reader's beliefs.
- What audience do I want? While writing, you must be aware of who will be reading your essay: professors, students, academics, etc. If you are writing for your professor, s/he will probably know the background information. Therefore, you only need to give the information that is pertinent to your argument.
- Do I quote, summarize, and paraphrase sources that demonstrate support for my view? Do I have evidence for my argument? Give specific details from the text that directly corresponds with your argument. You want to give specific examples from the text and then explain how you interpret the evidence. A good rule to follow is to have two sentences explaining every quote. A quote can be interpreted in different ways; the reader needs to be able to understand the meaning you have derived.
- Do I provide enough context to allow readers less informed than I am to follow my essay easily? You must give a certain amount of background information, but there is a big difference between giving a brief background and a summary of the book. Background information gives the reader a feel for your thought process and helps place him/her in a position to objectively compare her/his interpretation with yours.
- Have I classified my evidence? You must tell the reader where you are receiving your information because the credibility of your interpretation depends on the evidence3e that you use. Certain sources are more trustworthy than others; the reader wants to know that your evidence is valid.
- Where do I infer conclusions from the evidence? You must make the connections for the reader. The reader should not have to think about and interpret your evidence; that is your job. You are telling the reader what to believe.
- Do I take contrary evidence into account, and have I been fair in my presentation of the evidence? You cannot completely disregard contrary evidence if it directly applies to your main point. You must give evidence and state that what you are presenting is more reliable, accurate, and persuasive than its critique. Your point should be strong enough that contrary evidence can be disproved, and the proof of that has to be in your paper.
- Are my transitions effective? The reader should be able to identify the natural progression of your ideas, culmination to your conclusion.
- Is my opening interesting enough to draw readers into it even if they are not specialists in the subject? The reader will want to read your essay if they realize that they will finish with a new and greater knowledge of the subject. If they want an answer to your question, they will want to read your paper. This leads back to topic selection. You must choose a topic that creates a dialogue.
- Does my conclusion mirror my opening in some way? You are going to want to make some grander connection in your conclusion, whether it is with your title or introduction. By referring to your attention-getter, the curiosity that should have been established will be satisfied.
- What is my tone in this paper? You should accomplish something in your paper, whether it is to persuade, critically analyze, summarize, explain, etc.
- Are my sentences clear enough to be understood at first reading? If your reader has to make his/her won connections to your thoughts, your sentences are either not clear or are not explained well enough. When using a quote, a good rule to follow is to have two sentences explaining your interpretation of a quote. Other's words can be misinterpreted; you must relate your point of view to the reader before you tell how that relates to other information.
- Can I eliminate words, phrases, sentences, or whole paragraphs? Can I make my writing more direct? A passive sentence does not have the subject actively participating in the sentence. For example, "The house was destroyed." The house did not destroy anything; therefore, it is passive. A better sentence would be, "A flock of rabid geese destroyed my house." The geese are the active participants; they are the executors of destruction.
- Do I repeat some words or phrases too often and can I find other words or phrases to give variety to my prose? The English language has a lot of colorful adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. Using your vocabulary can be extremely effective in making your writing more vivid and interesting. Be careful that you do not use a bog word just for the sake of using a big word; it has to have the precise meaning you want to convey.
Marius, Richard. A Short Guide to Writing About History 3rd ed. New York: Longman Publishing. 1999