When we write for college courses, we write for an audience other than ourselves. And it’s an audience of more than one–the professor who assigned the piece. A good way to think of (and never forget) audience is to imagine we are writing the assignment for a popular magazine that sits in multiple copies on the shelves of an equally popular bookstore. For each magazine sold, pretend, we get a percentage.
Our goal, then, is to have as large and widespread a readership as possible–to hook as many browsers as we can–with an effective opener (also known as an introduction). We therefore must engage, first, before we entertain, educate, or inform.
First the Caveats and Comments on Ineffective (Bad) Openers
NO to SNORE openers - Forget burdening or alienating your readers with comments of how many people in many countries have many different ideas about life and society and all those other blah, blah, blah hard-to-wrap-the-brain-around opening commentaries…which really just send the reader off to find a more intriguing read.
NO to OBVIOUS - Similar to the snore generalizations, the obvious comments in an opener will have eyes (if not heads) rolling as readers take in the TV is mental masturbation or ads are used to manipulate us statements you can avoid–by using an old Marshall McCluhan quote or Cleo awards description, for example, instead.
NO to HYPERBOLE - Putting myself through school as a waitress, I had a number of regular customers who were writers, too, they said. They would talk at me all through my shift, reciting their best work. One insisted on reiterating his description of the verdant rolling hills that kissed the edges of the glistening waters at the feet of the majestic span of the Golden Gate Bridge…until I would get so mental I would fantasize about bringing the heft of the glistening glass coffee pot screaming down onto his head. In other words, do not exaggerate. Do not bring in heavy drama and description that will overwhelm and, again, alienate your readers. Stick with the truth. Stick with the openers that work.
We Use Modes for Engaging Openers…and I’m going to Use One Here, Out of Necessity…and Spite
I once read a how-to article on web content writing, on making a site that brings traffic (the attention of many). I had already begrudgingly given in to the understanding that web content writing is very different than academic writing–it has different goals, different audiences, and different elements that lend themselves to an ‘A’ piece of writing. In fact, it is so different that to write for the web we have to unravel all we have worked to weave, have to unlearn all we have learned as college English writers.
Don’t Confuse Web Content/Writing and Academic Writing
So the writer of this article says to start web copy you skip the opener and go directly to the main point (what we in academia know as the thesis). Okay. This made sense, I thought, as web readers read differently: they read fast, they skim, they scan, they skip…to draw the most usable info in the shortest amount of time. (Probably the way you are reading now, hoping I get on with the point).
-I was with Mr. Web when he explained these facts.
-I was with him as he noted the research findings that back up the rationale for sacrificing good academic exposition for web text.
-And I was there with his tips and tricks, which were great…until he went too far, editorializing about writers who actually use openers:
He claimed that writers who rely on openers don’t have “the courage” to just get to the point. So he lost me.
Don’t Let Anyone Shame Your Learning Writing Tricks
We can adapt to just about any rhetorical style. We can adjust our notions of what makes for good writing. But we should balk when a how-to writer insults other methods of writing. We should even disregard implications of cowardice as unnecessary ad hominem attacks. False attacks. Fallacious and floppy and frivolous teaching. Screw that.
Readers of Academic Essay Writing Appreciate (even Prefer) a Good Opener
Openers in academic writing, whether in a creatively developed literary response or a historical survey, are imperative. They are a gentler way of drawing in, luring our readers. They are at first quite challenging to get right, but our mastering them–which is possible–has nothing to do with courage, which comes from the French word, “coeur,” heart. We have plenty of heart. We’re studying English, for hell sake.
Against my wishes, then, this page opens with a declaration and gets right to the point. At first. But it also has a “grabber” slipped in–because we’re looking at grabbers and because, well, I can’t help it. I want to model decent prose for you.