Know your purpose in writing

There are a lot of reasons why we write, and as we write we may call on a number of strategies. Technically, those strategies–the “how” we do what we’re doing–are called “rhetorical modes.” (Don’t worry; I won’t quiz you on the terminology.) The experts disagree about exactly how many modes there are and how they work–largely because language is very flexible and can multitask. But basically, you need to know that the tools you use will depend on your purpose.

For example, you may have been taught that you need a “hook” to start your essays, something that will catch the reader’s eye. For some kinds of writing, that’s true. If you’re writing a piece of journalism, for instance, or a personal essay–or a blog post, perhaps–a hook can be essential. However, for purely academic purposes, when writing a report (which simply presents facts gathered from various sources–including, possibly, your own research) or an argument essay, you don’t need to try to catch the reader’s eye, because presumably, the reader has already determined (usually from the title of your piece) that you’re going to address something they want to know about.

I have focused on the argument essay in my teaching, in part because I find that a lot of students haven’t been well-prepared to write arguments for the college level but also because I think they may be the hardest kinds of essays to write. Bear in mind that, in academic circles, an “argument” isn’t a fight, or even necessarily a disagreement–though there must be room for real debate about whatever the focus of the essay is. And for an argument essay, your first sentence–absolutely the first thing you say–should set up for your readers the overall topic and your particular take on it. Here’s an example:

“Charles Dickens consistently employed the relationship
between parent and child as an important motif in his
denunciation of the injustice and corruption of Victorian

Father-daughter relationships in selected novels by Charles Dickens
Keh, Wonbong.The University of Iowa. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1996. 9629

Now, if you’re not someone who is interested in analysis of the works of the novelist Charles Dickens, that first sentence isn’t going to make you go, “Wow, that sounds fascinating! Let me read more!” However, if you are someone who is interested in analysis of Dickens’s novels, that sentence tells you a couple of important things right away (and that is the very first sentence of the source I used for the example). From that first sentence, you know it’s about Dickens (which the title also would have told you), about relationships between parents and children (ditto), and–here’s the important part–about a specific way of looking at what Dickens is doing in the way he creates those family relationships in his novels. That last bit narrows the larger topic to this particular author’s take on it–and shows that the topic is subject to debate. Other scholars might say, “I see the parent-child relationship in Dickens as doing something different, but let me read on to find out what Wonbong Keh has to say. I may not agree with it, but the authors will present a case for this view of those relationships, and that will be interesting for me to consider along with my own ideas.”

Again, note that that example is the first sentence; it’s not the thesis statement, though it gives some sense of what the thesis will be about. Because the example I chose is from a disseration, the thesis is not one or two sentences; it’s a bunch of paragraphs, because the thesis has to hold up for an entire book, so it needs to be complex enough to support that extensive an exploration. But you’ll find there is a lot of similarity between your first sentence and your thesis, though the thesis will be even more specific about your stance on the area of debate (in this case, how Dickens uses parent-child relationships as part of his critique of his society).

Students often have a really hard time getting straight to the point with that first sentence. It feels so stark, so bare, so … boring. If they were writing about parents in Dickens’s novels, they might want to start with a sentence like this: “Parents and children have had complicated relationships throughout history.” Well, true, but first, that’s too obvious to be worth stating, and second, you’re not going to talk about history; you’re talking about what happens in Dickens’s works. That sentence is a little like the spoof example one of my colleagues came up with: “Throughout history, people have felt the same and differently about a number of things.” True–and water is wet, and snow is cold. So, what are you really talking about?

Having a first sentence that sets up the topic and your particular take on it not only prepares the reader for what your essay will be about, it shows that you know what the essay will be about, and are clear about your ideas.

So my advice is, if you need to write a soft and fluffy first sentence just to get yourself wound up and writing, go right ahead. But then, when you finish writing, go back and either cut it or fix it to show the target you’re aiming for and where the bullseye is.