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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, Online Learning Tips
When author Truman Capote was asked if he knew of any special devices that could improve a writer’s work, he replied, “Work is the only device I know of. Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade, just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them.”
Many students will agree that writing is difficult; they would prefer any sort of test to an essay exam. But those students who work at their writing, as Capote advised, are usually rewarded with better grades.
An Excellent Paper Begins with a Well-Crafted Opening
But even before they can add the “light and shade,” many students stumble at the opening paragraph of their paper. Writing an acceptable – and attention-getting – introductory paragraph is the key to a successful paper.
“The introduction of your essay serves two important purposes,” says private tutor Alexander Peterman. As he explains, “First, it gets your reader interested in the topic and encourages them to read what you have to say about it. Second, it gives your reader a roadmap of what you’re going to say and the overarching point you’re going to make – your thesis statement. A powerful introduction grabs your reader’s attention and keeps them reading.”
Overcoming Writer’s Block as You’re Writing a Paper
Prior to the advent of the computer and Word docs, many students tossed reams of crumpled paper into a waste basket, often trying and failing to come up with just the right opening paragraph and thesis statement. This problem is commonly known as “writer’s block.” Happily, those days are gone; the waste basket is no longer the receptacle of wasted paper and prose.
Three techniques are particularly well-suited to overcoming that dreaded writer’s block and to sowing the seeds of a terrific opening paragraph.
1. Using Stream of Consciousness
Students often find this technique the most fun. Whether you have been given a topic to write about or have selected one of your own, open a Word doc or take out a notepad and pencil. Then, without stopping for at least one full minute, jot down anything and everything you can think of about the chosen topic. It can be a word, a phrase or a complete sentence; it doesn’t matter. Just don’t stop writing!
The idea is to not think too long or deeply, but to call up all sorts of ideas that somehow relate to your topic. If you do this properly (no breaks allowed), at the end of the minute you will have a disjointed and rambling list of ideas you might include in your paper and a good number of things that won’t make “the final cut.” You should also have a couple of ideas on how you want to craft your opening paragraph.
2. Making a List of Ideas
This method is favored by students who believe organization is the best way to get started. Rather than a wild, off-the-wall approach like the stream of consciousness method, the idea here is to create a thoughtful list of ideas you believe belong in your paper.
Some eager students will start their list long before the paper’s due date, adding or subtracting items as they move toward their first draft. Writing down each idea on a 3 x 5 index card (or typing them in a vertical row into a Word document) allows for shuffling ideas into a logical order that becomes Peterman’s roadmap for writing your paper.
3. Creating a Formal Outline
The formal outline requires a good deal of thinking and formal organizing. Ideas are divided into main categories, subcategories, supporting ideas and proof. The usual outline should contain at least three Roman numerals (I, II and III) that designate the opening, middle and conclusion of your paper.
Within those three sections, the main ideas are headed by capital letters, beginning with A, B, C and so forth. Lowercase letters (such as a, b and c) will designate supporting ideas. Ancillary items that support those ideas should be numbered 1, 2 and 3. The end result is more than a roadmap; you will have GPS guidance to direct you all along the way to the paper’s completion.
And if you still do not have your introductory paragraph and thesis statement, don’t worry. Start without them; find the outline section that you are most comfortable with and begin your writing there. The more you write and the nearer you get to the conclusion, the closer you will also be to discovering just how to begin your paper.