harping on my students to write snazzy introductions. Write
snazzy introductions! But I've finally decided that they don't
know what I mean by introductions, much less snazzy
introductions. So here it is.
your teacher got a famous actor, maybe one of my favorites, someone
Dustin Hoffman, to come speak to your class. How do you
imagine the class would begin? Would Hoffman be the first to
speak? No, not likely. First, he needs to be introduced
to the class. (Why? We all know who he is. Well,
that's just the way it is done. It's the "right" way.
Just go with me on this.) How does the introducing happen?
Does he say, "Hi, I'm Dustin Hoffman"? By etiquette rules,
it's gauche to introduce yourself. No, it's most
probable that your teacher would first take the podium, say a few
words about Dustin Hoffman, and then say, "And now here's
someone who needs no introduction -- Dustin Hoffman."
THEN is when Hoffman would get up to speak.
Another example would
be at a graduation. CNM invited James Santiago Baca, a local
poet, to speak at our GED commencement ceremony. Before Baca
got up to speak, however, another person spoke for several minutes,
giving her own little speech about Baca. Then she introduced
him, and he stood up to speak.
examples are metaphors for essays. The essay itself is
directed by a thesis. That's the equivalent of the primary
speaker or his speech. The introduction is something
different, given even by someone else! It's that song and
dance routine before you get to the important part of the show.
Its purpose is to whet your appetite for the speaker (though it
often puts you to sleep -- but we'll get to that in a minute.)
If you've never heard of James Santiago Baca, then finding out that
he had a rough childhood and wrote his poetry in prison might make
you begin to look forward to what he has to say.
Another purpose of the introduction is to give the audience a chance to settle down and turn their attention to the primary speaker. It's to get the audience's attention. Now solely getting one's attention isn't always the best tactic. You could yell "Fire!" and get everyone's attention. I don't recommend it. I remember when I was in a speech class in college, it was rumored that the best way to start a speech was with, "Sex!" Then to continue with, "Now that I have your attention . . ." Several students tried the technique. And you know, after the first surprise, it lost its effect. People would roll their eyes and think Oh no, not that again. The problem is it doesn't take any thought or creativity to use. It's a cheap shot.
The introduction is
also to get you into the mood. It's the warmup bands that play
before Rammstein, or the local comedians that hit the mike before
Seinfeld. You don't want to have really, really bad comics to
frontline Seinfeld. If they're bad enough, people might get up
and leave. At the best, they'll be pissed off and not looking
for a fun time when the main comic gets up.
the introduction is the hook to reel your reader in.
Consider this. You are in the dentist's office, waiting to get a root canal. It's not hurting too much, so you want to read something to take your mind off what you're waiting for. You sort through the magazines provided and pick one that deals with a topic of interest. Then you flip through the magazine, look at the pictures, and read the first bit of each article.
When do you read the whole article? When are you tempted to rip the article out of the magazine and take it home with you? It's nearly always when the introduction got you interested in the story. Most of the time, though, you stop reading when you lose interest. After all, there are many other articles to read and pictures to look at.
Try to write like a magazine writer, as if your income depends on how well you hook the reader. To some extent, it's true. Only in this case, it's your grade that depends on your reader's interest. And of course there's no chance I will put it down if I am not interested by the beginning; I'm your captive audience. I HAVE to read every bit of it, interested or not. However, I've seen that as I am less interested in what you have to say, I begin to notice spelling problems and grammar errors much more. If I am interested, I read faster and for meaning, and somehow I don't notice those little tiny mistakes so much. An interested brain fills in the gaps and fixes the mistakes without the reader's even noticing.
So with a captive
audience, there isn't a chance you'll lose me. But with a
boring introduction, I may start looking at sentence structure.
noticed how boring the material that you HAVE to read can be?
I'm speaking of textbooks and instruction manuals. The writers
of these tend to give themselves permission to be boring because you
HAVE to read the material whether you want to or not. Their
livelihood doesn't depend on your interest. But have you also
noticed how much you get from the material that's more fun to read?
One of my students asked me the other day, "How can you make the essay interesting if you're not interested in the essay?"
That is a problem. If you aren't interested, there's no way you can get your reader interested. First, you have to find what interests you. Some students know exactly what they're interested in and have no problem writing essay after essay about it. One of my students was interested in sports and intended to become a sports announcer. Guess what he wrote about? You got it. His job then was to find ways to make what was interesting to him interesting to the rest of the world.
Then there are students who aren't interested in anything. They go through life exhibiting that flat teen attitude: Whatever. I believe they can create the interest in themselves. They can think through how certain topics affect them and their lives. Usually the more relevant a topic is to your life, the more interested you'll be in it. You may have no interest whatsoever in the plight of thousands of people who've been diagnosed with cancer, until you are diagnosed with it.
Finally, there are students who like everything. Their difficulty is which topic to choose out of the many that they like. In this case, my suggestion is to not agonize over it. Just pick something because they'll all be good if you're interested.
Bottom line is you've got
to be interested in your topic. Make it so.
that you have a topic that interests you, there's still the matter
of the introduction, making sure it interests the reader.
Students often try to introduce a specific topic by starting with something more general than their thesis. For example, if their topic is street rods, they may start the essay with some comments about cars in general.
Here are some examples of such an intro:
The invention of the television has impacted our society in many different ways. In the 50's television was a family gathering. Now there are televisions in every room. Most of the time you can never find your children. In the 50's there was an average of one television per household. It was more of a privilege. Now for most families, it is a way of life. We have TV in every room, you can get a thousand channels, and you can even have the option of having one in your car. Instead of families eating around the dinner table, you have TV tables in every room. What happened with dining with your family at dinner time and discussing your day?
This essay goes on to describe the writer's family's TV watching habits, specifically about her father, her overweight 12-year-old brother, and her three-year-old brother.
The essay isn't bad, but the introduction is a snoozer.
Here's another one on the same topic.
In recent years, the media has become aware of the need to rate what is on television. This makes it easier for a parent to know right away whether or not their child should view that program. I believe censorship begins in the home. It is very important to watch what your child is watching, read what your child is reading, and know what they are learning.
This particular essay goes on at that same general level, taking each of the statements in the introduction and expanding on them, moving just slightly toward the more specific. For example, this student writes that with the advancing of technology, the V-chip allows a parent to control what's viewable on TV. He doesn't get any more specific than that. This introduction is a collage of information.
One of the world's biggest problems is terrorism. Terrorism is spread almost all over the world and the whole world wants to get rid of it. Though we all know that it is kind of impossible, we can all try to minimize it. We said that terrorism is a problem, but terrorism is an effect of many problems that we will discuss later. Various acts of terrorism have different goals, and attitudes, and it is the same with the terrorists.
Hmm. Whenever a
student tries to speak for the whole world, I feel that's way too
general and tend to discount what he writes. In addition, it
feels like he's going all different directions, trying to cover
that the essay will cover. What made me interested in this
particular essay was the fact that the student's name was Farooq
Azizi. His introduction could have capitalized on that fact.
ever been told, "Say what you're going to say, say it, and then say
what you said"? If so, please forget it. That is way too
boring. Organized. But boring. You can be
organized without being so obvious.
All right, so how can we
create snazzy intros?
What kind of introduction
a Reader's Digest for good introductions. I pick this
magazine because it is a collection of the best articles from
different publications. The best articles, you will see, have
Flipping through an issue that I just grabbed -- the October 2003 -- I skip the pages with the ads, the humor columns, the letters to the editor, and columns like "Only in America", "Everyday Heroes," and "That's Outrageous." The pieces in the columns are too short to have introductions. Okay, so flip, flip, flip. . . I'm looking for a full-blown article.
Titled "Class Action," and *
It continues in that vein until it gets to the teacher who makes a difference in the kids' lives.
Anecdote + Quote
The next article is "12 Ways to Keep More of Your Money." The blurb says, "Top financial planners give their best advice -- free of charge." Here's how this one begins:
"A Look at Life" has the blurb, "Amazing high-tech imagery and medical advances are changing the debate on abortion." It begins,
I skip an interview
with Barbra Streisand. It's written in the Q&A format.
And I skip "Falling" because it's a narrative article -- which generally is
all narrative. Narratives, or stories, tend to start en
media res "in the middle of things" then backtrack to give
Here's another one: "Boys Are Falling Behind . . ." The blurb is ". . . and their loss is our loss. An alarming report on the new gender gap."
"It's a Fake, and your pharmacist doesn't know it."
You may have noticed a
couple of things about the Reader's Digest introductions.
Most of them are more than one paragraph long. That's because
the articles accompanying them are much longer than your essay is
expected to be. Also, you might have noticed how short the
paragraphs are. That's a journalism technique. In
reality some of these three-paragraph introductions could have been
just one long paragraph.
Our book lists several other types of introductions (in addition to what I've already shown): analogy, dialogue/quotation, facts and statistics, irony or humor, short generalization, startling claim, rhetorical questions, apology, complaint, Webster's dictionary, platitude, and reference to title. These are all what you COULD do, but not necessarily what you SHOULD do. Let me warn you -- in general, most of these types of introductions will end up being boring, and a few are just pretty hard to accomplish.
I lump dialogue/quotation in with anecdote because that's how it works. If you try using a worn out old saying, it won't be interesting. However, if you tell a story in which someone said something pertinent -- that works.
Check out my articles: In Women of Karate, I start with an anecdote about a little girl saying, "I want to be pretty like my mommy." In Clay Play, I begin with a representative discussion in which a friend says, "Oh, my Aunt Louise does ceramics." I have a hypothetical anecdote about waking up to a son's crying in the middle of the night in Sleep of Terror.
Others of my articles play with a contrast, a twist, if you may, a descriptive comparison. "Climbing Denali" describes taekwondo as "just one of the many things" Rick Witting did. Then the twist is that it suddenly became more than just one of the many things he did when it saved his life. "The Art of the Deadly Crutch" begins "Small in stature, 28-year-old Nancy Rowell-Stewart is a giant in spirit -- and martial arts ability." The contrast is the size of her body versus the size of her spirit.
This twist method is used in the Reader's Digest article about preemies and the one about boys falling behind in school.
The point is these are
the two most common, useful and easy types of introductions to
use and make snazzy.
My favorite example of a
snazzy introduction was in an article from In Health
magazine. One of my students
loaned it to me when she heard about my interest in sleep terrors and sleep walking.
I wish I'd copied it before giving it back. But I'll just
The article begins by telling about a man (it named him, and gave enough specifics that the reader knew this was a true story) who got up from a couch in his living room, drove several miles to his in-laws' house and shot them. His mother-in-law died, but his father-in-law survived. The man next went to a police station and said, "I think I just shot my in-laws." So he was being held for the murder of his mother-in-law. At the trial, the father-in-law even took the stand on his son-in-law's behalf. The defense said the man was sleep walking and didn't know what he was doing.
Isn't this a wonderful way to begin? Now you're going, "Oh my God, how can it be?" The rest of the article explains from a doctor's perspective about sleep, dreaming, the stages of sleep, how sleep walking occurs, etc. Periodically, whenever it was handy, the writer would refer back to the sleep-walking man who shot his in-laws. For example, the article explained at one point that sleep walking occurs most often when people are really, really tired and they fall into a sleep they can't rouse from. Then it told how the man had spent two days and nights awake, had just played a hard game of racquetball and had fallen asleep on the couch.
Then in the end, after you got all the information about what scientists and doctors know about sleep walking, the article said the man was acquitted. That's a conclusion, a satisfying one!
A conclusion is always
tied back to the introduction. Somehow, you remind the reader
of how you started off the essay. Remind us of that story or
that twist in addition to restating the thesis.