Writing Workshop: Less Hideous Introductions

An infamous introduction:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)


There is more than one way to do an effective introduction to an essay, just as there is more than one way to do a poor one. That’s lesson number one. Lesson number 2 is the focus for the workshop in class. A good way to improve upon the kinds of introductions (and related to these, the conclusions) you write is to think about writing more than one. Experiment with a different way of getting the reader into your essay, your argument, your narrative. Think of film as a relevant analogy: all films need to introduce and set up and even establish, so to speak, a thesis; but there are different ways to do it. And I would suggest, as with film, the way to find out how best to do the introduction is to have more than one to select from. Explore alternatives.

One basic way to introduce: begin generally and move toward your more specific focus and thesis statement. This establishes the context for the reader. The trick here is that you need to be careful not to be too general, too broad in your beginning. Context helps; generality hurts, distracts. For example, starting with sentences like this:

There are many films. Some are made from novels while others are not. Blade Runner is an example of a film. It is not made from a novel, but it can be viewed in relation to one….

A related danger is that in this introduction, you wander so far into generality, even when you think you are stating a thesis, it comes off as not specific. Something like: Blade Runner has lots of ideas that are also in Frankenstein (which, based on the last project, doesn’t directly answer the question given).

An antidote to being too general and vague is to start from the reverse position: challenge your reader directly with a close-up, something so specific it is not clear (yet) where the essay is going. Then back out to a middle-distance, where you state your focus and your thesis. In the case of an essay on Blade Runner, this would be to start in directly with an image or scene, then offer what the Graffs call ‘meta-commentary’: “What does this eyeball have to do with my focus?As I will argue in this essay, the eye…” I think of this as the ‘in media res’ approach: starting in the middle of the story, as it were, and using the specificity to focus your reader’s attention. This is also a way to borrow some rich, vivid imagery and language from your text and put it to work in your introduction, engage your reader with it.

Another option would be to do some combination of the two, the close-up and the distant/general view–to stay with film terminology, this is a tracking shot: where you follow a character into or out of a situation. This strategy provides context for the overall focus of your writing, but does so by also moving directly toward some specific points and questions. It locates your reader in the context of your argument before you get them to your specific statement of the argument. I found an example of this in a recent book review by Elizabeth Kolbert in ‘The New Yorker’ (a review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer).

Americans love animals. Forty-six million families in the United States own at least one dog, and thirty-eight million keep cats. Thirteen million maintain freshwater aquariums in which swim a total of more than a hundred and seventy million fish…[continues with several more sentences about pet-related expenses]

Americans also love to eat animals. This year, they will cook roughly twenty-seven billion pounds of beef, sliced from some thirty-five million cows. Additionally, they will consume roughly twenty-three billion pounds of pork… [more statistics]

How is it that Americans, so solicitious of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious. This inconsistency is the subject of Johanthan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals.”

In addition to the structure of your introduction, you can and should also consider other poetic and rhetorical  issues–that is, your use of language to create and convey. Thus, consider being specific with your language; consider also using variation of your sentences, shifting from long to short deliberately. On that score, consider this example, the opening of a recent essay about Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. Notice how the shift from longer to shorter sentences conveys the argument–that Rwanda has shifted, has changed. This rhetorical strategy (a matter of his style) thus also helps introduce his essay effectively. In this sense, he can show us what he is writing about.

When I began visiting Rwanda, in 1995, a year after the genocide, the country was still pretty well annihilated: blood-sodden and pillaged, with bands of orphans roaming the hills and women who’d been raped squatting in the ruins, its humanity betrayed, its infrastructure trashed, its economy gutted, its government improvised, a garrison state with soldiers everywhere, its court system vitiated, its prison crammed with murderers, with more murderers still at liberty–hunting survivors and being hunted in turn by revenge killers–and with the routed army and militias of the genocide and a million and a half of their followers camped on the borders, succored by the United Nations refugee agency, and vowing to return and finish the job. In the course of a hundred days, beginning on April 6, 1994, nearly a million people from the Tutsi minority had been massacred in the name of an ideology known as Hutu Power, and, between the memory of the slaughter and the fear that it would resume, Rwanda often felt like an impossible country. Nowadays, when Rwandans look back on the early years of aftermath, they say, “In the beginning.”

On the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide, Rwanda is one of the safest and the most orderly countries in Africa. Since 1994, per-capita gross domestic product has nearly tripled, even as the population has increased by nearly twenty-five per cent, to more than ten million. There is national health insurance, and a steadily improving education system. Tourism is a boom industry and a strong draw for foreign capital investment. In Kigali, the capital, whisk-broom-wielding women in frocks and gloves sweep the streets at dawn. Plastic bags are outlawed, to keep litter under control and to protect the environment. Broadband Internet service is widespread in the cities, and networks are being extended into the countryside. Cell phones work nearly everywhere. Traffic police enforce speed limits and the mandatory use of seat belts and motorbike helmets. Government officials are required to be at their desks by seven in the morning. It is the only government on earth in which the majority of parliamentarians are women. Soldiers are almost nowhere to be seen…. And Rwanda is the only nation where hundreds of thousands of people who took part in mass murder live intermingled at every level of society with the families of their victims.

For some additional suggestions and strategies on introductions (and conclusions), check out this previous post.


Workshop: Introductions

An infamous introduction:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford (1830)


There is more than one way to do an effective introduction to an essay, just as there is more than one way to do a poor one. That’s lesson number one. Lesson number 2 is the focus for the workshop in class. A good way to improve upon the kinds of introductions (and related to these, the conclusions) you write is to think about writing more than one. Experiment with a different way of getting the reader into your essay, your argument, your narrative. Think of film as a relevant analogy: all films need to introduce and set up and even establish, so to speak, a thesis; but there are different ways to do it. And I would suggest, as with film, the way to find out how best to do the introduction is to have more than one to select from. Explore alternatives.

One basic way to introduce: begin generally and move toward your more specific focus and thesis statement. This establishes the context for the reader. The trick here is that you need to be careful not to be too general, too broad in your beginning. Context helps; generality hurts, distracts. For example, starting with sentences like this:

There are many films. Some are made from novels while others are not. Blade Runner is an example of a film. It is not made from a novel, but it can be viewed in relation to one….

A related danger is that in this introduction, you wander so far into generality, even when you think you are stating a thesis, it comes off as not specific. Something like: Blade Runner has lots of ideas that are also in Frankenstein (which, based on the last project, doesn’t directly answer the question given).

An antidote to being too general and vague is to start from the reverse position: challenge your reader directly with a close-up, something so specific it is not clear (yet) where the essay is going. Then back out to a middle-distance, where you state your focus and your thesis. In the case of an essay on Blade Runner, this would be to start in directly with an image or scene, then offer what the Graffs call ‘meta-commentary’: “What does this eyeball have to do with my focus?As I will argue in this essay, the eye…” I think of this as the ‘in media res’ approach: starting in the middle of the story, as it were, and using the specificity to focus your reader’s attention. This is also a way to borrow some rich, vivid imagery and language from your text and put it to work in your introduction, engage your reader with it.

Another option would be to do some combination of the two, the close-up and the distant/general view–to stay with film terminology, this is a tracking shot: where you follow a character into or out of a situation. This strategy provides context for the overall focus of your writing, but does so by also moving directly toward some specific points and questions. It locates your reader in the context of your argument before you get them to your specific statement of the argument. I found an example of this in a recent book review by Elizabeth Kolbert in ‘The New Yorker’ (a review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer).

Americans love animals. Forty-six million families in the United States own at least one dog, and thirty-eight million keep cats. Thirteen million maintain freshwater aquariums in which swim a total of more than a hundred and seventy million fish…[continues with several more sentences about pet-related expenses]

Americans also love to eat animals. This year, they will cook roughly twenty-seven billion pounds of beef, sliced from some thirty-five million cows. Additionally, they will consume roughly twenty-three billion pounds of pork… [more statistics]

How is it that Americans, so solicitious of the animals they keep as pets, are so indifferent toward the ones they cook for dinner? The answer cannot lie in the beasts themselves. Pigs, after all, are quite companionable, and dogs are said to be delicious. This inconsistency is the subject of Johanthan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals.”

In addition to the structure of your introduction, you can and should also consider other poetic and rhetorical  issues–that is, your use of language to create and convey. Thus, consider being specific with your language; consider also using variation of your sentences, shifting from long to short deliberately. On that score, consider this example, the opening of a recent essay about Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. Notice how the shift from longer to shorter sentences conveys the argument–that Rwanda has shifted, has changed. This rhetorical strategy (a matter of his style) thus also helps introduce his essay effectively. In this sense, he can show us what he is writing about.

When I began visiting Rwanda, in 1995, a year after the genocide, the country was still pretty well annihilated: blood-sodden and pillaged, with bands of orphans roaming the hills and women who’d been raped squatting in the ruins, its humanity betrayed, its infrastructure trashed, its economy gutted, its government improvised, a garrison state with soldiers everywhere, its court system vitiated, its prison crammed with murderers, with more murderers still at liberty–hunting survivors and being hunted in turn by revenge killers–and with the routed army and militias of the genocide and a million and a half of their followers camped on the borders, succored by the United Nations refugee agency, and vowing to return and finish the job. In the course of a hundred days, beginning on April 6, 1994, nearly a million people from the Tutsi minority had been massacred in the name of an ideology known as Hutu Power, and, between the memory of the slaughter and the fear that it would resume, Rwanda often felt like an impossible country. Nowadays, when Rwandans look back on the early years of aftermath, they say, “In the beginning.”

On the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide, Rwanda is one of the safest and the most orderly countries in Africa. Since 1994, per-capita gross domestic product has nearly tripled, even as the population has increased by nearly twenty-five per cent, to more than ten million. There is national health insurance, and a steadily improving education system. Tourism is a boom industry and a strong draw for foreign capital investment. In Kigali, the capital, whisk-broom-wielding women in frocks and gloves sweep the streets at dawn. Plastic bags are outlawed, to keep litter under control and to protect the environment. Broadband Internet service is widespread in the cities, and networks are being extended into the countryside. Cell phones work nearly everywhere. Traffic police enforce speed limits and the mandatory use of seat belts and motorbike helmets. Government officials are required to be at their desks by seven in the morning. It is the only government on earth in which the majority of parliamentarians are women. Soldiers are almost nowhere to be seen…. And Rwanda is the only nation where hundreds of thousands of people who took part in mass murder live intermingled at every level of society with the families of their victims.


First Project Follow Up

As part of my attempt to move us all away from a traditional model of  writing in schools (where you write only to the teacher, an audience of one; then throw away your thinking and work put into the essay, if not the essay itself, when you get it back), I plan to have us follow up each writing project in a couple ways.

  1. I will be posting here some reflections on what I am seeing and noticing–strengths as well as some collective weaknesses we can add to our to-do lists. For this first time, I saw strengths throughout in how writers introduced the theses/focal points of their essays using a basic ‘template’ of some sort. To get right away to the ‘so what’ and the ‘why you should care about this essay and my perspective on reading/writing.
    1. To consider just two examples (there were many more): Max effectively uses a version of the I used to think this/now I think this–complete with the template from the Graff’s (“Although my old self would disagree…”). I think it works very well and in fact allows him to be creative in his voice and style while still offering a clear thesis; Carolyn effectively uses Birkerts on the privacy of reading to set up and highlight her contrasting vision.
    2. One presentation (mechanics/punctuation) issue I saw frequently concerns run-on or fused sentences: basically, when a sentence has more than one sentence in it, incorrectly joined by a comma when it should be a period. This is one of the hangovers from the transition from oral to print: a sentence that in our head or in conversation can fit lots into it, but in print comes out sounding hurried, rushed, confusing. The page on run-on sentences at the Guide to Grammar and Writing is very good–includes strategies for repairing them and some self-quizzes. Take a look. This is a basic use of commas that you need to get control of so we can move on to some more complicated ways of putting commas (and other punctuation) to work for us in more stylistic ways.
  2. A second way we will follow up on the projects you have completed: on the Wednesday following each project publication date (this Wednesday, for example), I will assign you to read through the essays of the writers from one of the writing groups. After reading, I will ask you to comment, briefly, directly on the writer’s blog (at the bottom of the essay posting). Your comment should respond to the following: Good writers are never fully satisfied; in the case of this class, each of the four projects could lead to something larger, different, hopefully stronger (namely, the final project in which one or more of these essays will be revised, expanded). If the writer were to go back to this essay at the end of the course, what might they do, where might they go further? What is here that you would encourage them to stay with, develop, build upon?
    1. You will be reading the writers from group #1
      1. 1.2.30 class: alex a., mike, tyler, kat cohen
      2. 1.30 class: cbevans., mallory, jcragle, claire

Editing: introduction and conclusion

Some strategies and variations on dealing with introductions and conclusions–ways of making them seem less hideous and monstrous.

  1. Introduction: in media res (in the middle). Can be effective, particularly to establish a story or narrative for your essay. Since you are dealing with film, think about starting with a close-up, in one moment from one scene, then pulling back to get the larger view of the essay, ask questions, indicate where you are going.
  2. Conclusion: circle back to beginning. Can tie in with the strategy above. End by circling back to a moment from your text that you opened with, but now go back to that with greater insight. Films do this when we begin at an end, and the film is showing us how we got there.
  3. Keywords: set-up some keywords that your reader will look for throughout the essay (think of them as the hyperlinks that your reader will be following); then reiterate those keywords in the conclusion. This can help you avoid merely re-stating or repeating in your conclusion. See Jen’s example.
  4. Start with a vivid image or line from the text: both catches attention, but also a key image/idea that you will go on to reflect upon in the essay, get back to, look at from different angles. See Erin’s example.
  5. Conclusion: raise some larger implications. Can be tricky, since a conclusion can’t start a brand new argument or offer a new thesis. But a good essay will leave your reader thinking and (we hope) will have them begin to think about other places where they could take your thesis and make further applications. One way to do this with a text (print or film): suggest a passage at the end that you didn’t deal with, but that would be interesting to view from the perspective of your thesis. How your critical vision might help readers re-think or re-vise our understanding of other aspects of this author’s work, related questions and topics. Leave your reader not just with a good understanding of what you focused on, but what the larger stake or implication of that focus is.
  6. Introduction: two-step thesis set up. Something we have seen Hayles and others do: an initial set up of the focus in one paragraph, perhaps raising a key question; then a refined, and more complicated statement of your thesis, or how you plan to answer that question in a second paragraph. 
  7. Meta-commentary: don’t be afraid to speak directly to your reader at key points in your introduction and conclusion, to signal a point of emphasis. “In other words”; “What I mean by this”; “As I have said, my thesis is”; “Let me clarify this point”; “This is an important point, worth emphasizing”. These are effective signals; they can enable you to repeat without being too repetitive.

Examples to consider from our Writing Center consultants:

Jen Malat: excerpt from a thesis chapter (introduction and conclusion) about film versions of Pride and Prejudice.

Strategy: Don't try to cram every important idea into one thesis
statement. Use a few sentences that set up the work and broad ideas of the
paper, then use your actual thesis statement to present the most specific
and interesting point made by your paper.

Here, I started with a broad statement that sets up the modern context I
want the paper to address because the paper is examining a contemporary
film and the aspects of our culture that it reflects. By spreading a
thesis statement into several sentences, the layers of the argument
(culture, film, and text) can be clearly established.
The conclusion also acknowledges the multiple media of the paper and
extends that cultural context to a statement about how the themes of the
film relate to each other.

The countless self-help guides lining bookstore shelves highlight the modern confusion over how romance is structured and how to navigate through turbulent emotional waters. This confusion is especially true during early romances while one is growing up, a theme that is explored in countless novels, songs, and movie. It follows, then, that recent adaptations of Pride and Prejudice would be eager to explore these modern themes with beloved characters and a well-known title. The most recent big-screen adaptation of Austen’s novel, director Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet and Matthew Macfayden as Fitzwilliam Darcy, consistently highlights physicality, nature, and romance. By constructing the adaptation as romance rather than social commentary, the filmmakers track the maturation of Elizabeth. The very setting and visual aesthetic of the film highlight Elizabeth’s uncertainties about her body and reflects her emotional vacillations regarding the movement into adulthood, as the film depicts romance as the catalyst for her coming of age.

 

….

  The filmmakers have capitalized on the power of the visual imagery of film to achieve their ends and reinvent the period piece for the modern audience, as “youth-oriented filmmaking techniques balances with the visual pleasures of the heritage film” (Dole). The difficulties of navigating the body highlight emotional uncertainty and the always-relevant theme of coming of age. The changes, both textual and visual, drastically manipulate the social focus of Austen’s satiric writing into a more intimate story. Though many of the alterations in the film can be attributed to time constraints or a conscious appeal to female and teen demographics, there still remains the profound cultural desire for a strong female lead who manages to gain self-empowerment while achieving a fairy-tale ending as a material reward. Marriage is portrayed as the end point for socially approved sexual desire, which leads to greater self-knowledge and helps a modern woman fulfill her demands for adulthood. 

 

Erin O’Hare: from her thesis work on Shakespeare.

Strategy:            Use a vivid image (quote from the text or a supporting source, specific visual image from a scene, etc.) to immediately capture your reader’s interest.  If one has stuck out to you in your reading, it might be an interesting starting point for your essay. 

Here, instead of using a typical “In this play…” introduction, I use a quote that mirrors the issues I highlight throughout the essay (and this is a long essay).  The idea of “cause” present in the chosen quote and the other issues addressed in the described scene introduce and support the complex argument formed within the paper.

            I use this technique again in the conclusion, much to the same effect—I have chosen to end the essay just as it began, with a vivid image enhanced by quote (and a quote from that very same scene, nonetheless) that the reader will see over and over each time he or she thinks about the essay.

 

Introduction:

“It is the cause,” the deteriorated Othello moans in the final scene of Shakespeare’s Othello:  The Moor of Venice.  “…[It] is the cause, my soul;/ Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,/ It is the cause” (5.2.1-3).  “It” is the image of his wife Desdemona, her white skin “smooth as monumental alabaster,” an image the Moor cannot bring himself to deface despite the fact that it has already destructed his own sense of self.  It is the last scene in a tragedy that, through iconography (the creation of images), idolatry (a worship of image), and iconoclasm (destruction of image), explores “the disruptions, conflicts, and radical changes wrought by the Protestant Reformation.”           

 

 

Conclusion:

 

Shakespeare’s movement through acts of iconography, idolatry, and iconoclasm in rehearsal of the audience’s own fears, instructs his audience on the proper way of looking at images.  He places a play within a play for eyes to gaze upon without becoming enthralled by the immediate spectacle before them, using the tragic genre to evoke the most human of emotions rooted firstly in fear, as they become aware of rather than part of Iago’s revenge tragedy.  Though he employs Protestant rhetoric and works to attack a certain form in order to build another, Shakespeare cannot completely destruct the dramatic form, much as Othello cannot bring himself to “shed [Desdemona’s] blood,/ Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow” (5.2.3-4).  And yet it is the cause, and theater, at least in its idolatrous Catholic form, “must die, else she’ll betray more men” (5.2.6).

 


Huston Diehl, Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England  (Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1997): 2.