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My answer: “I think that would be polite. Do you agree?”
Quizzical looks follow. What does politeness have to do with writing an introduction?
Then I explain that an introduction is really just a way of saying hello to our readers, and usually when we say hello we try to be polite.
Many students come to us with formulaic notions of what an introduction should be and do. They think an introduction is a paragraph that begins with a startling statement, dictionary definition, or provocative question, followed by a general overview of the topic, and ends with a thesis statement as the last sentence.
That’s a nice little checklist, and maybe it’s useful for very young writers, but writers with any sophistication at all are ready to move beyond those limits.
If we are helping students think of writing as authentic communication between human minds rather than as the culmination of piling predictable rhetorical bricks upon bricks, an introduction becomes something much more interesting.
Most human interactions begin with some variation of “hello,” right? We say hello when we formally meet someone for the first time. We usually say hello to the people we see every day. Sometimes we say hello to an old friend after being apart for a long while. Within each of these situations, we can bring a variety of attitudes to the interaction. For example, a blind date is different from an inherently adversarial first meeting, as in some kind of legal proceeding. We say hello differently depending on the situation. The same is true of writing introductions.
If we help students think of writing introductions as a way of saying hello, we are asking them to think deeply about important elements of composition, including audience, purpose, and tone.
- Who is my audience? Is it one person, a specific group, or a more amorphous readership? Do we have any kind of pre-existing relationship with this audience? What kind of approach is most likely to engage this audience, and what kind of approach is more likely to create distance?
- Why am I writing this piece? Assuming it’s meant to be read by others, the piece has a purpose–persuasion, nostalgia, delivery of information, call to action, etc. What is the best way to say hello to my specific audience that is most likely to achieve my purpose? Do I engage charmingly and then work my way up to the most challenging main points? Do I drop an attention-getting bombshell right away and then attempt to pull together the shrapnel? Do I begin with a straightforward preview of what I’m going to say in the rest of the piece?
- What about tone? What attitude should I adopt at the beginning of this piece in order to elicit a certain type of response from a reader? If I immediately begin ranting, how is a reader likely to respond? If my introduction is stuffy or overly academic, what effect will that have on my audience?
When we discuss tone, students usually are quick to understand that whatever attitude we present in writing or face-to-face is likely to be reflected back to us from our audience.
A great discussion usually emerges when I explain a bit of theory from psychologist Eric Berne’s transactional analysis model. Berne said that we operate from one of three ego states when we interact with each other: Parent, Adult, or Child. These terms have specific meanings in Berne’s model. If we act like a Child (unreasonable, overly emotional), the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Parent (condescending, authoritarian). If we act like a Parent, the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Child. However, if we act like an Adult (reasonable, empathetic), the person we are interacting with is also likely to respond as an Adult. In this way we can predict and, to a degree, control how others will respond to our tone.
With this understanding of tone in mind, a writer can decide whether to begin concretely, emotionally, or poetically. Good writers are good decision-makers, and that decision-making ability is really the most valuable skill we can help develop in young writers.
But what about writing conclusions? Well, a conclusion is really just saying goodbye. As with introductions, we say goodbye in a variety of ways depending on the situation and the people involved. Maybe that will be another blog post.
Meanwhile, thank you for reading this. Your comments are always welcome. (Goodbye.)
My confession emerged yesterday during a class discussion of Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” an essay in which she writes empathetically about a plain moth unsuccessfully struggling to find its way through a window and to the light. Woolf’s essay becomes a meditation on endurance, limitations, and eventually death. Its purpose seems to be nothing more than Woolf reflecting on why the observation of this small moment reverberated in her with such emotional intensity.
Most writers can relate to that. I know that when I’m trying to work my way through some sludge or explore my own state of mind, I need to write about it.
If writing has any utilitarian value, maybe it’s just that: Writing can help us explain ourselves to ourselves. Writers understand this, but how often do writing teachers help students appreciate the value of such reflective writing?
In school we ask students to learn persuasive and expository techniques and approaches. We help them create description and figures of speech. We give them advice about how to organize and develop their writing.
Then we ask students to write for us or for other audiences.
What if we helped students to better understand the value of writing for themselves? What might it mean if students learned that writing can help lead them out of their own dark places? What if young writers could learn to see how writing can be their vehicle for problem solving and conflict resolution? We can help student writers understand that when we put our emotions down on paper, they become more of an object. When our feelings are written down, they are a little more outside of us, which means we can see them better and work on them with more clarity.
Personal writing leads students to spontaneously experiment with words in ways that result in surprising versions of their own writing styles. The satisfaction (maybe even pleasure) derived from this personal writing can infuse other more academic writing with fresh, unique voices. Young writers are more willing to dig deeply as they think about their own situations and issues; they can then apply that deeper level of thinking to the scholarly tasks that schooling demands.
Those of us who approach reading by using class time for both personal reading and literary study can adapt our writing instruction in a similar manner. What if students had time each day to write only for themselves, but we still covered all of our composition goals of teaching students to write effectively in a variety of modes for a variety of audiences?
I can hear the chorus of well-intentioned objectors warming up in the background: “But that kind of writing isn’t on the state test.” “We don’t have time for that kind of writing.” “How do we grade it?”
Those are realistic concerns, and there are ways to address them, but please don’t let that kind of thinking become an obstacle to the most important goal: Help students see themselves as writers.
A student recently said to me, “When I talk, I have a small voice or sometimes no voice. When I write, I have a big voice.” She is a different, more powerful person when she writes. And she knows it.