Whenever we write, we draw on many different strategies
to articulate what we have to say. We may DEFINE
key terms, DESCRIBE people or places, and EXPLAIN how
something is done. We may COMPARE one thing
to another. Sometimes we may choose a pertinent story
to NARRATE, and we may even want to include some
DIALOGUE. The chapters that follow offer advice on how
to use these AND OTHER BASIC STRATEGIES for developing
and organizing the texts you write.
Beginning and Ending
Whenever we pick up something to read, we generally start by looking at
the first few words or sentences to see if they grab our attention, and
based on them we decide whether to keep reading. Beginnings, then, are
important, both attracting readers and giving them some information
about what's to come. When we get to the end of a text, we expect to be
left with a sense of closure, of satisfaction—that the story is complete,
our questions have been answered, the argument has been made. So endings
are important, too. This chapter offers advice on how to write beginnings
How you begin depends on your RHETORICAL SITUATION, especially your purpose
and audience. Academic audiences generally expect your introduction
to establish context, explaining how the text fits into some larger
conversation, addresses certain questions, or explores an aspect of the
subject. Most introductions also offer a brief description of the text's content,
often in the form of a thesis statement. The following opening of an
essay about "the greatest generation" does all of this:
Tom Brokaw called the folks of the mid-twentieth century the greatest
generation. So why is the generation of my grandparents seen as
this country's greatest? Perhaps the reason is not what they accomplished
but what they endured. Many of the survivors feel people today
"don't have the moral character to withstand a depression like that."
This paper will explore the Great Depression through the eyes of ordinary
Americans in the most impoverished region in the country, the
American South, in order to detail how they endured and how the government
assisted them in this difficult era.
If you're writing for a nonacademic audience or genre—for a newspaper
or a Web site, for example—your introduction may need to entice
your readers to read on by connecting your text to their interests through
shared experiences, anecdotes, or some other attention-getting device.
Cynthia Bass, writing a newspaper article about the Gettysburg Address
on its 135th anniversary, connects that date—the day her audience would
read it—to Lincoln's address. She then develops the rationale for thinking
about the speech and introduces her specific topic: debates about the
writing and delivery of the Gettysburg Address:
—Jeffrey DeRoven, "The Greatest Generation:
The Great Depression and the American South"
November 19 is the 135th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. On
that day in 1863, with the Civil War only half over and the worst yet
to come, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech now universally regarded
as both the most important oration in U.S. history and the best
explanation—"government of the people, by the people, for the
people"—of why this nation exists.
We would expect the history of an event so monumental as the
Gettysburg Address to be well established. The truth is just the opposite.
The only thing scholars agree on is that the speech is short—only
ten sentences—and that it took Lincoln under five minutes to stand
up, deliver it, and sit back down.
Everything else—when Lincoln wrote it, where he wrote it, how
quickly he wrote it, how he was invited, how the audience reacted—
has been open to debate since the moment the words left his mouth.
—Cynthia Bass, "Gettysburg Address: Two Versions"
Ways of Beginning
Explain the larger context of your topic.
Most essays are part of an
ongoing conversation, so you might begin by outlining the positions to
which your writing responds, as the following example from an essay
about prejudice does:
The war on prejudice is now, in all likelihood, the most uncontroversial
social movement in America. Opposition to "hate speech," formerly
identified with the liberal left, has become a bipartisan piety. In the
past year, groups and factions that agree on nothing else have agreed
that the public expression of any and all prejudices must be forbidden.
On the left, protesters and editorialists have insisted that Francis L.
Lawrence resign as president of Rutgers University for describing blacks
as "a disadvantaged population that doesn't have that genetic, hereditary
background to have a higher average." On the other side of the
ideological divide, Ralph Reed, the executive director of the Christian
Coalition, responded to criticism of the religious right by calling a press
conference to denounce a supposed outbreak of "name-calling, scapegoating,
and religious bigotry." Craig Rogers, an evangelical Christian
student at California State University, recently filed a $2.5 million
sexual-harassment suit against a lesbian professor of psychology, claiming
that anti-male bias in one of her lectures violated campus rules and
left him feeling "raped and trapped."
In universities and on Capitol Hill, in workplaces and newsrooms,
authorities are declaring that there is no place for racism, sexism, homophobia,
Christian-bashing, and other forms of prejudice in public
debate or even in private thought. "Only when racism and other forms
of prejudice are expunged," say the crusaders for sweetness and light,
"can minorities be safe and society be fair." So sweet, this dream of a
world without prejudice. But the very last thing society should do is
seek to utterly eradicate racism and other forms of prejudice.
—Jonathan Rauch, "In Defense of Prejudice"
State your thesis.
Sometimes the best beginning is a clear THESIS stating
your position, like the following statement in an essay arguing that
under certain circumstances torture is necessary:
It is generally assumed that torture is impermissible, a throwback to a
more brutal age. Enlightened societies reject it outright, and regimes
using it risk the wrath of the United States.
Forecast your organization.
You might begin by briefly outlining the
way in which you will organize your text. The following example offers
background on the subject, an analysis of immigration patterns in the
United States, and describes the points that the writer's analysis will
I believe this attitude is unwise. There are situations in which torture
is not merely permissible but morally mandatory. Moreover, these
situations are moving from the realm of imagination to fact.
—Michael Levin, "The Case for Torture"
This paper analyzes the new geography of immigration during the
twentieth century and highlights how immigrant destinations in the
1980s and 1990s differ from earlier settlement patterns. The first part
of the analysis uses historical U.S. Census data to develop a classification
of urban immigrant "gateways" that describes the ebb and flow
of past, present, and likely future receiving areas. The remainder of
the analysis examines contemporary trends to explore the recent and
rapid settlement of the immigrant population in America's metropolitan
Offer background information.
If your readers may not know as much
as you do about your topic, giving them information to help them understand
your position can be important, as David Guterson does in an essay
on the Mall of America:
—Audrey Singer, "The Rise of New Immigrant Gateways"
Last April, on a visit to the new Mall of America near Minneapolis, I
carried with me the public-relations press kit provided for the benefit
of reporters. It included an assortment of "fun facts" about the mall:
140,000 hot dogs sold each week, 10,000 permanent jobs, 44 escalators
and 17 elevators, 12,750 parking places, 13,300 short tons of steel,
$1 million in cash disbursed weekly from 8 automatic-teller machines.
Opened in the summer of 1992, the mall was built on the 78-acre site
of the former Metropolitan Stadium, a five-minute drive from the
Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport. With 4.2 million square feet
of floor space—including twenty-two times the retail footage of the
average American shopping center—the Mall of America was "the
largest fully enclosed combination retail and family entertainment
complex in the United States."
Define key terms or concepts.
The success of an argument often hinges
on how key terms are DEFINED. You may wish to provide definitions up
front, as this page from an advocacy Web site, Health Care without Harm,
does in a report on the hazards of fragrances in health-care facilities:
—David Guterson, "Enclosed. Encyclopedic. Endured:
The Mall of America"
To many people, the word "fragrance" means something that smells
nice, such as perfume. We don't often stop to think that scents are
chemicals. Fragrance chemicals are organic compounds that volatilize,
or vaporize into the air—that's why we can smell them. They are added
to products to give them a scent or to mask the odor of other ingredients.
The volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) emitted by fragrance
products can contribute to poor indoor air quality (IAQ) and are associated
with a variety of adverse health effects.
Connect your subject to your readers' interests or values.
want to establish common ground with your readers, and sometimes you
may wish to do so immediately, in your introduction, as in this example:
—Health Care without Harm, "Fragrances"
We all want to feel safe. Most Americans lock their doors at night, lock
their cars in parking lots, try to park near buildings or under lights,
and wear seat belts. Many invest in expensive security systems, carry
pepper spray or a stun gun, keep guns in their homes, or take self-defense
classes. Obviously, safety and security are important issues in
Start with something that will provoke readers' interest.
opens an essay on feminism with the following eye-opening assertion:
—Andy McDonie, "Airport Security: What Price Safety?"
Let's use the F word here. People say it's inappropriate, offensive, that
it puts people off. But it seems to me it's the best way to begin, when
it's simultaneously devalued and invaluable.
Start with an anecdote.
Sometimes a brief NARRATIVE helps bring a topic
to life for readers. See, for example, how an essay on the dozens, a type
of verbal contest played by some African Americans, begins:
Feminist. Feminist, feminist, feminist.
—Anna Quindlen, "Still Needing the F Word"
Alfred Wright, a nineteen-year-old whose manhood was at stake on
Longwood Avenue in the South Bronx, looked fairly calm as another
teenager called him Chicken Head and compared his mother to Shamu
Ask a question.
Instead of a thesis statement, you might open with a
question about the topic your text will explore, as this study of the status
of women in science does:
He fingered the gold chain around his thin neck while listening
to a detailed complaint about his sister's sexual abilities. Then he slowly
took the toothpick out of his mouth; the jeering crowd of young men
quieted as he pointed at his accuser.
"He was so ugly when he was born," Wright said, "the doctor
smacked his mom instead of him."
—John Tierney, "Playing the Dozens"
Are women's minds different from men's minds? In spite of the
women's movement, the age-old debate centering around this question
continues. We are surrounded by evidence of de facto differences
between men's and women's intellects—in the problems that interest
them, in the ways they try to solve those problems, and in the professions
they choose. Even though it has become fashionable to view such
differences as environmental in origin, the temptation to seek an explanation
in terms of innate differences remains a powerful one.
Jump right in.
Occasionally you may wish to start a narrative as close
to the key action as possible. See how one writer jumps right into his profile
of a blues concert:
—Evelyn Fox Keller, "Women in Science: A Social Analysis"
Long Tongue, the Blues Merchant, strolls onstage. His guitar rides sidesaddle
against his hip. The drummer slides onto the tripod seat behind
the drums, adjusts the high-hat cymbal, and runs a quick, off-beat tattoo
on the tom-tom, then relaxes. The bass player plugs into the amplifier,
checks the settings on the control panel, and nods his okay. Three
horn players stand off to one side, clustered, lurking like brilliant
sorcerer-wizards waiting to do magic with their musical instruments.
—Jerome Washington, "The Blues Merchant"
Endings are important because they're the last words readers read. How
you end a text will depend in part on your RHETORICAL SITUATION. You may
end by wrapping up loose ends, or you may wish to give readers something
to think about. Some endings do both, as Cynthia Bass does in her
report on the disputes over the Gettysburg Address. In her two final paragraphs,
she first summarizes the dispute and then shows its implications:
What's most interesting about the Lincoln-as-loser and Lincoln-as-winner
versions is how they marshal the same facts to prove different
points. The invitation asks Lincoln to deliver "a few appropriate
remarks." Whether this is a putdown or a reflection of the protocol of
the time depends on the "spin"—an expression the highly politicized
Lincoln would have readily understood—which the scholar places on it.
Bass summarizes the dispute about Lincoln's Address and then moves on
to discuss the role of scholars in interpreting historical events. Writing
during the Clinton impeachment hearings, she concluded by pointing out
the way in which expert government witnesses often offer conflicting
interpretations of events to suit their own needs. The ending combines
several strategies to bring various strands of her essay together, leaving
readers to interpret her final words themselves.
These diverse histories should not in any way diminish the power
or beauty of Lincoln's words. However, they should remind us that history,
even the history of something as deeply respected as the Gettysburg
Address, is seldom simple or clear. This reminder is especially
useful today as we watch expert witnesses, in an effort to divine what
the founders meant by "high crimes and misdemeanors," club one
another with conflicting interpretations of the same events, the same
words, the same precedents, and the same laws.
—Cynthia Bass, "Gettysburg Address: Two Versions"
Ways of Ending
Restate your main point.
Sometimes you'll simply SUMMARIZE your central
idea, as in this example from an essay arguing that we have no "inner"
self and that we should be judged by our actions alone:
The inner man is a fantasy. If it helps you to identify with one, by all
means, do so; preserve it, cherish it, embrace it, but do not present it
to others for evaluation or consideration, for excuse or exculpation, or,
for that matter, for punishment or disapproval.
Discuss the implications of your argument.
The following conclusion
of an essay on the development of Post-it notes leads readers to consider
how failure sometimes leads to innovation:
Like any fantasy, it serves your purposes alone. It has no standing
in the real world which we share with each other. Those character
traits, those attitudes, that behavior—that strange and alien stuff sticking
out all over you—that's the real you!
—Willard Gaylin, "What You See Is the Real You"
Post-it notes provide but one example of a technological artifact that
has evolved from a perceived failure of existing artifacts to function
without frustrating. Again, it is not that form follows function but,
rather, that the form of one thing follows from the failure of another
thing to function as we would like. Whether it be bookmarks that fail
to stay in place or taped-on notes that fail to leave a once-nice surface
clean and intact, their failure and perceived failure is what leads to the
true evolution of artifacts. That the perception of failure may take centuries
to develop, as in the case of loose bookmarks, does not reduce
the importance of the principle in shaping our world.
End with an anecdote,
maybe finishing a NARRATIVE that was begun earlier
in your text or adding one that illustrates the implications of your
argument. See how Sarah Vowell uses a story to end an essay on students'
need to examine news reporting critically:
—Henry Petroski, "Little Things Can Mean a Lot"
I looked at Joanne McGlynn's syllabus for her media studies course, the
one she handed out at the beginning of the year, stating the goals of
the class. By the end of the year, she hoped her students would be better
able to challenge everything from novels to newscasts, that they
would come to identify just who is telling a story and how that person's
point of view affects the story being told. I'm going to go out on
a limb here and say that this lesson has been learned. In fact, just
recently, a student came up to McGlynn and told her something all
teachers dream of hearing. The girl told the teacher that she was listening
to the radio, singing along with her favorite song, and halfway
through the sing-along she stopped and asked herself, "What am I
singing? What do these words mean? What are they trying to tell me?"
And then, this young citizen of the republic jokingly complained, "I
can't even turn on the radio without thinking anymore."
Refer to the beginning.
One way to bring closure to a text is to bring up
something discussed in the beginning; often the reference adds to or even
changes the original meaning. See, for example, how Barbara Kingsolver
opens an essay arguing that the American flag symbolizes not only patriotism
but also the desire for peace and the right to dissent with this anecdote:
—Sarah Vowell, "Democracy and Things Like That"
My daughter came home from kindergarten and announced, "Tomorrow
we all have to wear red, white, and blue."
She returns to this image at the end, where the final sentence takes on a
"Why?" I asked, trying not to sound anxious.
"For all the people that died when the airplanes hit the buildings."
I said quietly, "Why not wear black, then? Why the colors of the
flag, what does that mean?"
"It means we're a country. Just all people together."
Shortly after the September attacks, my town became famous for a
simple gesture in which some eight thousand people wearing red,
white, or blue T-shirts assembled themselves in the shape of a flag on
a baseball field and had their photograph taken from above. That picture
soon began to turn up everywhere, but we saw it first on our
newspaper's front page. Our family stood in silence for a minute looking
at that stunningly beautiful photograph of a human flag, trying
to know what to make of it. Then my teenager, who has a quick mind
for numbers and a sensitive heart, did an interesting thing. She laid
her hand over part of the picture, leaving visible more or less five thousand
people, and said, "In New York, that many might be dead." We
stared at what that looked like—that many innocent souls, parti-colored
and packed into a conjoined destiny—and shuddered at the
one simple truth behind all the noise, which was that so many beloved,
fragile lives were suddenly gone from us. That is my flag, and that's
what it means: We're all just people, together.
Propose some action,
as in the following conclusion of a report on the
consequences of binge drinking among college students:
—Barbara Kingsolver, "And Our Flag Was Still There"
The scope of the problem makes immediate results of any interventions
highly unlikely. Colleges need to be committed to large-scale and long-term
behavior-change strategies, including referral of alcohol abusers to
appropriate treatment. Frequent binge drinkers on college campuses are
similar to other alcohol abusers elsewhere in their tendency to deny that
they have a problem. Indeed, their youth, the visibility of others who
drink the same way, and the shelter of the college community may make
them less likely to recognize the problem. In addition to addressing the
health problems of alcohol abusers, a major effort should address the
large group of students who are not binge drinkers on campus who are
adversely affected by the alcohol-related behavior of binge drinkers.
—Henry Wechsler et al., "Health and
Behavioral Consequences of Binge Drinking in College:
A National Survey of Students at 140 Campuses"
Considering the Rhetorical Situation
As a writer or speaker, you need to think about the message that you want
to articulate, the audience you want to reach, and the larger context you
are writing in.
||Your purpose will affect the way you begin and end. If
you're trying to persuade readers to do something, you
may want to open by clearly stating your thesis and
end by calling for a specific action.
||Who do you want to reach, and how does that affect
the way you begin and end? You may want to open
with an intriguing fact or anecdote to entice your audience
to read a profile, for instance, whereas readers of
a report may expect it to conclude with a summary of
||Does your genre require a certain type of beginning or
ending? Arguments, for example, often provide a statement
of the thesis near the beginning; proposals typically
end with a call for some solution.
||What is your stance, and can your beginning and ending
help you convey that stance? For example, beginning
an argument on the distribution of AIDS medicine
to underdeveloped countries with an anecdote may
demonstrate concern for the human costs of the disease,
whereas starting with a statistical analysis may
suggest the stance of a careful researcher. Ending a proposal
by weighing the advantages and disadvantages
of the solution you propose may make you seem
||MEDIA / DESIGN
||Your medium may affect the way you begin and end.
A web text, for instance, may open with a home page
listing a menu of the site—and giving readers a choice
of where they will begin. With a print text, you get to
decide how it will begin and end.
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Guiding Your Reader
Traffic lights, street signs, and lines on the road help drivers find their
way. Readers need similar guidance—to know, for example, whether
they're reading a report or an argument, an evaluation or a proposal. They
also need to know what to expect: What will the report be about? What
perspective will it offer? What will this paragraph cover? What about the
next one? How do the two paragraphs relate to each other? When you
write, you need to provide cues to help your readers navigate your text
and understand the points you're trying to make. This chapter offers
advice on guiding your reader and, specifically, on using titles, thesis statements,
topic sentences, and transitions.
A title serves various purposes, naming a text and providing clues to the
content. It also helps readers decide whether they want to read further,
so it's worth your while to come up with a title that attracts interest. Some
titles include subtitles. You generally have considerable freedom in choosing
a title but always you'll want to consider the RHETORICAL SITUATION to
be sure your title serves your purpose and appeals to the audience you
want to reach.
Some titles simply announce the subject of the text:
Sometimes when you're starting to write, you'll think of a title that helps
you generate ideas and write. More often, though, a title is one of the last
things you'll write, when you know what you've written and can craft a
suitable name for your text.
"Black Men and Public Space"
"Ain't I a Woman?"
"Why Colleges Shower Their Students with A's"
Nickel and Dimed
Some titles provoke readers or otherwise entice them to read:
"Kill 'Em! Crush 'Em! Eat 'Em Raw!"
"Thank God for the Atom Bomb"
"What Are Homosexuals For?"
Sometimes writers add a subtitle to explain or illuminate the title:
Aria: Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood
"Health and Behavioral Consequences of Binge Drinking in College: A
of Students at 140 Campuses"
"From Realism to Virtual Reality: Images of America's Wars"
A thesis identifies the topic of your text along with the claim you are
making about it. A good thesis helps readers understand an essay. Working
to create a sharp thesis can help you focus both your thinking and
your writing. Here are three steps for moving from a topic to a thesis
1. State your topic as a question.
You may have an idea for a topic,
such as "famine," "gas prices," or "the effects of creatine on athletes."
Those may be good topics, but they're not thesis statements, primarily
because none of them actually makes a statement. A good way to begin
moving from topic to thesis statement is to style your topic as a question:
What can be done to prevent famine in Africa?
2. Then turn your question into a position.
A thesis statement is an
assertion—it takes a stand or makes a claim. Whether you're writing a
report or an argument, you are saying, "This is the way I see . . . " or "This
is what I believe about . . . " Your thesis statement announces your position
on the question you are raising about your topic, so a relatively easy
way of establishing a thesis is to answer your own question:
What causes fluctuations in gasoline prices?
What are the effects of creatine on athletes?
The most recent famine in Eritrea could have been avoided if certain
measures had been taken.
3. Narrow your thesis.
A good thesis is specific, guiding you as you
write and showing your audience exactly what your essay will cover. The
preceding thesis statements need to be qualified and focused—they need
to be made more specific. For example:
Gasoline prices fluctuate for several reasons.
There are positive as well as negative effects of using creatine to
enhance athletic performance.
The 1984 famine in Eritrea could have been avoided if farmers had received
training in more effective methods and had had access to certain technology
and if Western nations had provided more aid more quickly.
Thesis statements are typically positioned at or near the end of the introduction
of a text, to let readers know at the outset what you're claiming
and what your text will be aiming to prove.
Gasoline prices fluctuate because of production procedures, consumer
demand, international politics, and oil companies' policies.
When adult athletes use creatine, they become stronger and larger—with
no known serious side effects.
Just as a thesis announces your topic and your position, a topic sentence
states the subject and focus of a paragraph. Good paragraphs focus on a
single point, which is summarized in a topic sentence. Usually, but not
always, the topic sentence begins the paragraph:
Graduating from high school or college is an exciting, occasionally even
traumatic event. Your identity changes as you move from being a high
school teenager to a university student or a worker; your connection
to home loosens as you attend school elsewhere, move to a place of
your own, or simply exercise your right to stay out later. You suddenly
find yourself doing different things, thinking different thoughts, fretting
about different matters. As recent high school graduate T. J. Devoe
puts it, "I wasn't really scared, but having this vast range of opportunity
made me uneasy. I didn't know what was gonna happen." Jenny
Petrow, in describing her first year out of college, observes, "It's a tough
year. It was for all my friends."
Sometimes the topic sentence may come at the end of the paragraph
or even at the end of the preceding paragraph, depending on the way the
paragraphs relate to one another. Other times a topic sentence will summarize
or restate a point made in the previous paragraph, helping readers
understand what they've just read as they move on to the next point.
See how the linguist Deborah Tannen does this in the first paragraphs of
an article on differences in men's and women's conversational styles:
—Sydney Lewis, Help Wanted: Tales from the First Job Front
I was addressing a small gathering in a suburban Virginia living room—a
women's group that had invited men to join them. Throughout the
evening, one man had been particularly talkative, frequently offering
ideas and anecdotes, while his wife sat silently beside him on the couch.
Toward the end of the evening, I commented that women frequently
complain that their husbands don't talk to them. This man quickly concurred.
He gestured toward his wife and said, "She's the talker in our
family." The room burst into laughter; the man looked puzzled and
hurt. "It's true," he explained. "When I come home from work I have
nothing to say. If she didn't keep the conversation going, we'd spend
the whole evening in silence."
This episode crystallizes the irony that although American men
tend to talk more than women in public situations, they often talk less
at home. And this pattern is wreaking havoc with marriage.
—Deborah Tannen, "Sex, Lies, and Conversation: Why Is It
So Hard for Men and Women to Talk to Each Other?"
Transitions help readers move from thought to thought—from sentence
to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. You are likely to use a number of
transitions as you draft; when you're EDITING, you should make a point of
checking transitions. Here are some common ones:
- To show causes and effects: accordingly, as a result, because, consequently,
hence, so, then, therefore, thus
- To show comparisons: also, in the same way, like, likewise, similarly
- To show contrasts or exceptions: although, but, even though, however,
in contrast, instead, nevertheless, nonetheless, on the contrary, on
the one hand . . . on the other hand, still, yet
- To show examples: even, for example, for instance, indeed, in fact, of
course, such as
- To show place or position: above, adjacent to, below, beyond, elsewhere,
here, inside, near, outside, there
- To show sequence: again, also, and, and then, besides, finally, furthermore,
last, moreover, next, too
- To show time: after, as soon as, at first, at the same time, before, eventually,
finally, immediately, later, meanwhile, next, simultaneously,
so far, soon, then, thereafter
- To signal a summary or conclusion: as a result, as we have seen, finally,
in a word, in any event, in brief, in conclusion, in other words, in
short, in the end, in the final analysis, on the whole, therefore, thus,
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