Archive for the ‘opening paragraphs’ Category

A few weeks ago, an editor requested that I not start an article with a quote. They said it made them feel as though they were coming into the middle of a discussion they knew nothing about. I pride myself on being nothing less than professional, and don’t imagine that I am writing immortal prose, so I used another opening strategy as requested. However, I still believe that the request was more a matter of personal preference than a general rule.

To start with, in any opening paragraph, readers are coming into the middle of a discussion, so the same objection can be raised about any chosen tactic. Perhaps the quote I used wasn’t perfectly suited to its position, but that is no reason to condemn the use of an opening quote in general.

In fact, starting in the middle is a time-honored literary technique. It was recognized more than two millenia ago by the Roman poet Horace, who called it in media res, as opposed to ab ovo, or starting from the beginning. Admittedly, it is usually thought of as a technique for epic poetry or fiction, but a journalistic article is often a form of narrative, too. Personally, I figure that what was good enough for Homer in The Odyssey or Shakespeare in Hamlet is good enough for me.

For another, part of the purpose of an opening tactic is to attract readers’ curiosity. Sometimes the topic is novel enough or important enough that the first paragraph needs no embellishment, but that is an exception. An article published online is competing with thousands of others for readers’ attention, and, so long as you don’t mislead or make exaggerated claims, anything that helps it get noticed seems worth trying.

In this case, part of the reason that I started with a quote is that it is a reasonably uncommon tactic. But, in addition, the quote made an unusual claim, which I was counting on to raise curiosity enough for them to read the next few sentences, where they would learn more clearly what the article was about.

Moreover, because a quote implies a speaker, it is automatically personal and direct. Writers of new releases know that a quote helps interest readers – so much so that many make sure that the a quote falls in the second or third paragraph to keep readers going. In a long news release, writers will often add additional quotes further down to reduce the odds of readers’ attention straying. Although articles are less mechanically structured than news releases, quotes can have similar advantages in journalism. Starting with a quote has a strong chance of attracting readers’ attention precisely because it is so personal and direct.

Anyway, even if none of what I said here were true, a part of me always regards a general rule about writing as a challenge. Tell me that something can’t be done – or worse, shouldn’t be done – and my impulse is to try to do it successfully. So, while I have made a note to avoid using an initial quote any time that I work with this particular editor (who otherwise shows a keen sense of how to improve a piece of prose), don’t be surprised if I use one elsewhere. Being told I shouldn’t only makes me all the more likely to try.

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(The following is a handout from my days of teaching first year composition at university. It consists of some informal examples of opening paragraph strategies, but should be equally useful for formal essays. Anyone who finds it useful can reproduce it, so long as they give me credit for it)

Explanation of Topic’s Importance (Anticipatory Summary):
Computers abound in our houses and offices, exchanging information via modems. Programmers are constantly finding new applications for existing software, and computer technicians are refining the hardware so fast that a new computer is no longer state of the art six months after it is sold. We live in a computer-dominated age, and every citizen should have some knowledge of computers. They make routine decisions in business, education and government, and monitor our defense systems. They help individuals to manage their private affairs, to organize their personal records, and to access goods and services, and municipali­ties and legislatures depend on them for planning future develop­ment. Since a knowledge of computers is so necessary for all of us, computer education–“computer literacy,” as the jargon has it–plays a significant role in our society. To understand this role, we must first consider the importance of computer education to the individual citizen and to the country as a whole; next, we must assess the present quality of computer education at all levels; and, finally, we must examine the ways in which computer education can be improved.

For many years, automatic vending machines have dispensed such products as salted peanuts, chewing gum, cigarettes, soft drinks and candy bars. Now these robot sellers are becoming more ver­satile. At one eastern airport, the simple act of inserting a coin in a slot will get you a magazine, a pen, a toothbrush, a pocket comb, a handkerchief, a necktie, a suit of underwear, a cup of hot coffee or chicken soup, a set of puzzle toys, a spray of perfume, an insurance policy or a shoe-shine. There are other machines that will take your blood pressure or give you a thirty-second dose of pure oxygen. One corporation has designed an automatic snack bar–a cluster of automatic vending machines that offer toasted sandwiches, hot soup, chili, baked beans and hot pastries and pies. Another firm has produced an automatic cafeteria with a menu of over fifty dishes, including a roast-turkey dinner; the machines even say “thank-you” in a computer-generated voice. These are only a few examples of the many types of vending machines. How are these mechanical conveniences constructed? What effect do they have on buying habits? As we shall see, the vending machine plays a major role in modern commerce.

Although manufacturers are reluctant to discuss it except in general terms, copyright violation is becoming increasingly common in our society. Briefly, copyright violation may be defined as the unauthorized use of an artistic product such as a book or a software program by anyone other than the creators or their representatives. It may involve the use of material in slightly altered form, or the copying and distribution of the work, with or without profit. Some people, especially artists, are violently opposed to copyright violation; others, especially software users, consider it their right and something which is inevitable. However it is viewed, it raises ethical issues of great importance.

Cause and Effect:
For the past two years, I have run an average of four to six miles every morning. The results have been amazing. The daily exercise keeps me calm and alert for the rest of the day. It allows me to eat what I want without worrying about calories, and to sleep well every night. It gives me more energy, and, most of all, it gives me a self-confidence that carries over into everything I do. My experience has convinced me that everyone should have some form of daily exercise.

Comparison and Contrast:
For many years, we have thought of the Vikings as bloodthirsty savages who did their best to destroy European civilization. Now, we are starting to understand that this view is too limited. The Vikings were certainly no more bloodthirsty than those they attacked (who generally defeated them, after all), and in many ways they were more advanced. At a time when merchant ships hugged the coast both for safety and for ease of navigation, the Vikings were building sturdy yet light boats that were capable of surviving all but the roughest storms, and boldly sailing across the open ocean using their navigation skills. At a time when most people lived and died within ten miles of where they were born, the Vikings ranged from North American to Russia, and from Greenland to central Africa. Most European art during the Dark Ages was a crude attempt at representational art; the Viking had an intricate abstract art style that we are only now starting to appreciate. Similarly, while most European literature was oral and poetic, the Vikings had complex poetry and detailed prose stories about the deeds of their ancestors. Until early in the twentieth century, a woman in France or Italy had little say in who she would marry, and almost no right to property or divorce; a thousand years ago in Iceland, women had all these rights under written law. As archaeologists have started to reevaluate Viking culture, we have learnt that, far from the horn-helmeted savages of popular imagination, the Vikings were a literate and sophisticated people who were probably closer to us in their assumptions than the southern Europeans of the Dark Ages.

Rhetorical Question:
Can chimpanzees talk in sign language, or do they simply learn what to do to get what they want? Are dolphins and whales possessed of an intelligence equal to ours, but subtly different in nature? Can parrots really have the intelligence of a five year old child? Biologists are divided about the answers to such questions, but the fact that these questions can be asked at all challenge our assumption of our uniqueness. How the question is eventually answered will have a sweeping effect upon our religions, science and ethics.

Illustrative Anecdote:
Once, I made the mistake of telling the woman who was cutting my hair that I wrote poetry. “Must be nice,” she said. “Just light up a joint, sit back and wait for inspiration, then write whatever comes into your head.” At the time, I could have told her that I didn’t smoke tobacco, let alone anything stronger, but, when I think of all that I have learned in the intervening years, I realize that I could have said a good deal more. Like most people, she had a romantic view of writing that is almost totally unrelated to the reality. The truth is not only that few writers use any stimulants stronger than coffee (at least, while they are writing), but also that they hardheadedly plug away at lonely and time-consuming work that, far from being easy, can ruin your nerves in a week if you take it too seriously.

Opposing View to Be Refuted:
Many people think that keeping parrots is like keeping fish. Just as you keep fish in a bowl, feed them, and sit back and watch them, so you keep parrots in a cage, feed them, and sit back and watch their antics. Pet-store owners tell me that this assumption is so strong that some people buy parrots to match the decor of their living rooms. I don’t know how many people act so careless­ly, but I do know that they are in for a surprise. Far from being passive animals, parrots are curious, intelligent birds, that have to be watched constantly and demand hours of attention each day.

Relevant Quote:
“Violence,” Isaac Asimov writes in his Foundation series, “is the last refuge of the incompetent.” Salvor Hardin, the character who adopts this aphorism as his motto, goes to great lengths to prove it, inevitably outwitting his enemies when he applies it. Cynics may doubt that avoiding violence in real life is as easy as it is for Hardin, but, if my personal experience is any indication, Asimov may have a point. Admittedly, avoiding violence is harder than giving into your impulses, and requires more patience. Yet the simple fact of making the effort is worthwhile for at least two reasons: it leads to creative thinking about problems, and, if successful, to more permanent solutions.

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