Category Archives: Opening statements

Structure: Once upon a time….

The end of Jean Cocteau's introduction to his film version of Beauty and the Beast.
The end of Jean Cocteau’s introduction to his film version of Beauty and the Beast.

Writers of nonfiction, including the academic variety, can often learn useful lessons from the more “artful” storytelling world of novelists, playwrights and filmmakers. The phrase “Once upon a time…,” despite or perhaps because of age (it’s apparently been in use since 1380), still evokes a sense of wonder. It’s a sense that has been exploited in numerous ways over the years, including George Lucas’ “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” in Star Wars to the title of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

The introduction to the first Star Wars movie.
The introduction to the first Star Wars movie.

Sometimes opening words can take on a life all their own. Think of the first paragraph of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or “Rosebud,” the first word spoken in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. While Tolstoy’s sentence sets the tone for his novel, the dying word of Charles Foster Kane sets up a mystery (a question if you will) which the film’s story attempts to unravel.

Students are taught to write introductory paragraphs that clearly state what you are going to write about and how you are going to go about it. Unless you have been assigned to do one of those five-paragraph essays, your opening statement does not have to be your opening paragraph—it might even be several paragraphs long.

For instance, you could start off by telling an anecdote whose relevance to your topic is not initially evident. It could set up a mystery or question much like Welles did with “Rosebud.” One might also begin with an evocative quotation, such as “Once upon a time….” to start a book review of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, or Tolstoy’s “Happy families” to introduce your essay on the dynamics of families coping with schizophrenia.

While the use of anecdotes and/or quotations to start off your book or essay might seem a bit of a cliché, they can be useful literary devices to get you going. After all, it’s much more interesting than starting a term paper for your American Literature class with something as cut and dry as, “John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California.”

The Secret of Academic Writing

All academic writing is an argument.Depiction of scribe writing in a multi-quire codex

If someone had told me this explicitly at the beginning of my grad school career, I would have been spared a lot of grief and rejected articles I later submitted to journals. I say explicitly because I think probably a couple of professors intended their assignments to identify the arguments in various articles to drive home this point. But even though I’m pretty smart and was judged to be a good writer, I didn’t get it.

I finally learned to be ruthless in paring down my paragraphs to include only those that served the argument I was trying to make. Sometimes the argument is not clear to me until I’ve written a draft. Writing is, for me, and I think for most good writers, a thinking tool. As I’m writing things fall into place, and I make connections and nail down insights as I write. I don’t know what I think until I write.

But since the next most important function of writing is communication—and notice I put it in second place, because writing has to be about ideas, and it will be a mediocre piece if I’m not putting myself into the work—once I’ve gotten that first thinking tool draft done, much more needs to happen.

If I wasn’t clear about my argument before, or if the argument turns out to be different from what I thought I was starting with, then I have to rewrite the opening. The argument needs to show up in the first, or at the latest, in the second paragraph.

My personal technique is to then write an outline of the draft. I know it is recommended you start with an outline, but that usually doesn’t help me. I make an outline of what is already there, and it quickly becomes evident where the evidence does not back up the claim I made in the opening paragraph. Usually I find a lot of extraneous material— nice paragraphs, nice thinking—but they don’t support the argument. They have to go. If there are two arguments, which often happens, again, for a journal article, one of them has to go.

Something with the unwieldy name of Science Writing Heuristic has helped me immensely with writing conclusions for scholarly essays. You can find it on my education blog here. (If you’re not a science educator it might not make much sense. I used to use the framework with both middle school students and teacher candidates.) What I took from this approach is that my conclusion needs to explicitly state how the evidence supports the argument, in some detail, perhaps a paragraph or two.

Happy writing!

Academic Writing: Term Papers vs. Scholarly Papers

The Jazz Singerj
Al Jolson’s appearance in blackface in The Jazz Singer is usually seen as evidence of the film’s racism.

What is the difference between a term paper and a scholarly paper? In the pejorative sense, this may seem like an academic question. However, it is not trivial one for students who are required to write a master’s thesis or doctoral dissertation. It is especially difficult when a student’s previous experience has been limited to writing term papers. So let me list some of the ways.

A term paper is…

  • Not expected to represent original research or ideas.
  • A compilation of what others have written or said.
  • Does not usually question conventional wisdom.

A scholarly paper…

 Questions conventional wisdom.

  • Attempts to provide new insight.
  • Can develop original theories regarding your area of study.
  • Can make new application(s) of theories from other fields to your field of expertise.

 In a sense, a good example of a term paper is Wikipedia article on a well-known historical figure like Albert Einstein. Essentially every statement of fact and opinion does not seem to come from the authors, but instead is cited from a previously published source, which is noted in 194 endnotes. Where it differs from a term paper is that it does not include a List of Works Cited (Bibliography), which many instructors require.

A scholarly paper, such as those presented at academic conferences or published in a peer-reviewed journal, should be a lot more adventurous, so to speak. That is, it needs to include the author’s original ideas and insights. An example of something that challenges conventional wisdom is Charles Musser’s “Why Did Negroes Love Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer?: Melodrama, Blackface and Cosmopolitan Theatrical Culture,” published in Film History. He starts off by stating that,

“Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (Warner Bros., 1927), starring Al Jolson, was the first feature length ‘talkie’, and so one of cinema’s milestones. If its importance has been impossible to ignore, the picture has been subjected to frequent, wide-ranging criticism that has tended to fall into three different but ultimately related categories. First, there has been a long-standing criticism of the film due to its excessive appeal to emotions, its sentimentality and its lack of obvious seriousness. … Second, commentators have often condemned the film for the way it depicts the Jewish immigrant community in the United States. …

“Third, and perhaps most forcefully, as Americans have continued to struggle with their fraught history of race relations, the film has come to be demonized as a racist text.”

Musser is clearly announcing he is challenging widespread criticism that The Jazz Singer is too sentimental, that it distorts the Jewish experience in the United States and that it is racist—a challenge reinforced by the title of his article. The rest of the piece is devoted to presenting his arguments to back up his thesis.

While this seems rather simple, my experience is that many students find it hard to break the habit of writing term papers and start thinking outside the box. This is especially so when they realize they also have to create a theoretical framework for their thesis or dissertation, which will be the topic for a future blog post.

— Harvey Deneroff