Structure: Opening and Closing Paragraphs

Dorothy Parker writingOne of the most common problems in writing nonfiction, faced by students and professionals alike, is making sure your opening and closing paragraphs relate to each other. This is true whether the work is a 1,500-word term paper or a 120,000-word book. It is an issue I’m facing right now in expanding my PhD dissertation into a book. Not only am I enlarging the scope of my earlier work, I am using a different theoretical framework, which has made me look at what I wrote years ago in a different light. Fortunately, I have a year to fix problems and I have two crackerjack editors—my wife and the one assigned by the publisher—to help me.

College students who don’t seek professional assistance in writing their papers tend to rely on friends, family and their school’s writing assistance program. Term papers are also often done last minute and the writer is delighted at finishing it on time. Very few professional writers, except possibly journalists, consider their work completed after a first draft. An example I saw all the time: A paper starts off with one topic ends up being about something else. There may nothing wrong with either topic, but when your opening paragraph says you’re going to write about “A” but your conclusion is about “B,” you have a problem—and it will hurt your grade.

The question then is how to avoid this situation? Problems like this are fixed by doing a second draft! You can edit your second draft to stick to your original topic. Or, you can rewrite the opening to conform to your conclusions, making sure your evidence supports the new argument. In other words, your opening paragraph should be the last thing you write.

In writing future papers, you might want to consider an approach championed by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams in their valuable book, The Craft of Research, when writing a paper, constantly refer back to your opening statements to make sure you’re keeping on track.

— Harvey Deneroff

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.