Writing Effective (and Requisite) Essay Openers

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.

Samples of Effective Essay Openers by Mode/Type

Even better, I’ll share with you some samples, written by my former students (who have granted permission for the use of their work as models):

****People Love Stories. We Love to Tell Stories. The Narrative Opener:

Once upon a time, during the era of slavery, whites were afraid of blacks, and the “word” was born. That’s why someone came up with the “word.” Two hundred years later around my sister’s house, the children still use this “word”. Sometimes I even hear myself say this “word.” But guess what? I check myself and correct myself, because when you use the “word” to address someone, no matter who you are or what color you are, it is totally disrespectful.

The word: “nigger”. (1)

****To Establish Credibility, Try a Sober, Scholarly Introduction. The Statistics/Facts Opener:

By the age of forty-four, 47 percent of American women will have had an abortion. (Day 6) To describe this statistic as anything other than a tragedy is to deny the sanctity of human life. The Christian abortion debate rests upon the moral and theological dimension[s] of this issue. To examine the moral dimensions of abortion without examining the social realm is to ignore the mutually dependent relationship that surrounds this debate. (2)

****Appealing to the Senses Lures and Keeps Readers Interested. The Descriptive Opener:

Rain is pelting my car relentlessly as I drive home from [XXX] College. Cars rushing on the freeway cause the water on the pavement to burst into a fine mist, surrounding each and every vehicle with a billowing sheet of opaqueness. Finally, I arrive in front of my little two-bedroom home. With a sigh of relief, I enter my living room.

Lately, this house has turned into a haven of safety, sheltering me as much from nature’s elements as from the unpredictable and unprovoked malevolence I experience from one of my instructors. My dread is heightened by the fact that I appear to be the primary recipient of this teacher’s outbursts of viciousness. Slowly, my gaze shifts across the room and comes to rest on the play I have to read for my English class. It is Mamet’s Oleanna. I pick up the book and soon find myself drawn into the story. Quickly, it becomes clear to me that this play [deals with] the relationship between a teacher (John) and his student (Carol). While both characters show evidence of an interesting variety of behaviors, John mesmerizes me to a greater degree. I begin to wonder whether John displays symptoms of an underlying psychological disorder. (3)

Put the Readers in the Frame, Inside the Paper. The Direct Address Opener:

You are in the midst of a blazing inferno. Your mind is moving at the speed of light. Yet you are paralyzed by fear. The silence is deafening between the confinement of the four walls. You are no longer in control. You wonder how the communication between the members of the family has ceased, specifically between Mother and Father. Each passing day, only silence can be heard. The usual chatter at the dinner table is considerably lessened. It comes down to, “Pass the corn, please.” Or one excusing oneself from the table. (4)

Advance Trust, Establish Authority from the Start. The Authoritative Quote Opener:

“Generations of students have studied calculus without ever seeing its power.” This statement is found in an article by K.C. Cole titled, “Bringing Calculus Down to Earth,” from The Los Angeles Times. I most certainly agree with Cole. At one point earlier in the course of the class (calculus), I was not sure about the use of calculus and the importance of it. Others like me, such as friends, felt the same way. For this reason, I would assume, I am doing this research. This research is for students like myself to realize that “there is something about calculus,” as Cole states in the article…. (5)

Keep with the Traditional “Show, Don’t Tell” Lesson. The Example Opener:

Sex is great. To me, it is all about feelings and experiences–the feeling of flesh against flesh, the experience of orgasm after orgasm. Sometimes, even, there is that feeling of being special, wanted, and loved. I suppose my parents had sex. It is not really an image I like to bring to mind. But when my father has sex with someone other than my mom, how am I supposed to feel then? (6)

Engage by Asking for the Readers’ Opinion and Thoughtful Participation. The Profound Rhetorical Question Opener:

Is the play, True West, written by actor/writer Sam Shepard, a sublimation of his own sibling rivalry or a rationalization of one? He writes of two brothers who are equal in intelligence but opposite in character. The older brother lives by his wit and the younger by his pen. In his unique style, Shepard uses many symbols describing the keen emotions that make up these two brothers. He also uses metaphors that reel you, the audience, into the depths of anger, pain, and the reality of life…. (7)

Finally, the Encouragement of Effective (Good) Openers

YES to APPROPRIATE introductory material. That is, use an opener that is relevant to your essay topic. Use an opener that fits the material. For example, a definition of alcoholism (which might work if you were writing a book) might be too clumsy for a cause and effect paper studying the influences of alcoholism on the family.

YES to APT openers. Do the modes that you are best at writing. And do what you best like doing. Write what works for you, your audience, and your assignment.

YES, modes overlap. A narrative opener will have descriptive details. A quote may be combined with statistics and facts. But instead of tripping on what the exact boundaries are between modes or types of writing passages, focus on the specifics of one type of opener as you understand it. The rest will be bonus material that merely enhances your style.

And YES to engaging, alluring introductions that lead your readers in to the place where your thesis/opinion sits waiting to declare your bold, informed truths. Which should never be denied or neglected…any more than your audience should be.

End Notes

(1) Bronson, A. “The Word.”

(2) Roncella, L. “Judging Abortion.”

(3) Prince, U. “Who Cares? [A Study of Oleanna]”

(4) Tolosa, W. “Dark silence.”

(5) Pham, D. “Calculus as a Necessary Tool.”

(6) Guiterrez, R. “Dad, Why Cheat?”

(7) Stark, C. “[…a Study of the Psychology of True West].”

The Lesson of “I, Pencil” – An Essay on Economic Freedom For the Ages

As a young college student studying economics in the 1960’s I was exposed to the writings and philosophy of Leonard Read while researching a paper on Adam Smith’s enlightened principle of the “Invisible Hand”. Mr. Read had founded the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in 1948. As I conducted my sophomore research I noted that the thoughts and articles of Leonard Read were inevitably intertwined with the ideas of the capitalist pioneer Mr. Smith.

At that time I stumbled upon an essay that Mr. Read had first published in 1958. The title of the piece was “I, Pencil”. It was so stunningly logical and powerful in its suppositions that I made an unusual decision for an impoverished student of that time, I had the article copied and I have saved it to this very day. Reading the essay for the first time was moving, and more than four decades later I still receive the same jolt of excitement each time I re-read Mr. Read’s short tutorial on the creation of a simple lead pencil and all of the participants who willingly, and unwittingly, participate in the production of the humble implement.

Any student of the origins of capitalist thought, as presented by Adam Smith know that the “Invisible Hand” is the genesis of free market activity. People, acting alone, or collectively, make decisions to produce goods or services that serve their best personal interest. The fact that others may benefit from this productivity is not the primary reason to undertake such activity. Capitalists seek to make a profit from their endeavors, and in so doing, others may benefit. Leonard Read was profoundly an acolyte of Smith, and other great free market thinkers like Frederick Hayek. He believed that free men, working in pursuit of their own best interest would provide more benefit to society that centrally planned economic strategies.

Free men, working in a system that honors private property rights, rule of law, and maximum amounts of individual freedom will always produce a quality of life superior to any that can be generated from leaden socialist states.

“I, Pencil”, is a vivid, enthralling road trip that simply and clearly details all of the people, managers, workers, components, geographic locales, shipping routes, factories, science, mining, technology, investment, heavy equipment, harvests, and more required to assemble one basic, every day lead pencil. All of this enormous activity is undertaken on a worldwide stage without the participants knowing, and for the most part caring, what the end result of their labors will go to produce. This is an elemental example of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”, but one that must be continually taught and re-learned.

Every elementary school student should be exposed to the wonderful story, the clarity of thought, and the life’s lesson that is contained in the few paragraphs of “I, Pencil”. For century’s do-gooders, social planners, utopians and nihilists have presumed that they can, through centrally planned state enterprises, prescribe a path to a fairer, more perfect distribution of wealth. It has never been accomplished, nor will it ever be.

The inability to pick winners and losers, gather all of the knowledge necessary to administer programs from distant power centers and thwarting by decree the human desire to be free and work in self-interest precludes socialism from ever succeeding. Many years ago I was working in Germany and had the chance to visit Communist East Berlin. A wall had to be erected to keep the East Berliners “IN”! The simple crossing at Checkpoint Charlie was a shock. The western side of the wall was vibrant, bustling, joyful, and free. The journey over the border into East Germany was to a primitive land by comparison. People walked with heads down, drawn faces, gaunt. There was no public life. Stores were empty. The ubiquitous little two-cylinder Trabant cars, whining and belching smoke stood in stark contrast to the BMW’s, Porsche’s and Mercedes Benz’s so common on the streets of West Berlin.

A simple wall. On one side was a capitalist free state. On the other was an oppressive socialist militarist gulag. Peering into each society would make any honest, rational, fair minded observer clearly recognize that free men are happier, more productive and more beneficial to society as a whole that a citizenry cowering under the weight of a bureaucracy ruled by dint of military force, secret police presence and ideological absolutism.

Today is the perfect day to re-study Milton Freidman, Frederick Hayek, Adam Smith, the Founding Fathers, and read Leonard Read’s, “I, Pencil”. Today, a significant number of us do not revere and protect the principals of freedom that so many have fought and died for. The opportunities that each of us enjoy are being wrenched away by a well-meaning, but completely wrongheaded group of central planners who are not willing to study and learn the lessons of history.

A Brief Introduction to Translation

In his essay titled “Miseria y esplendor de la traduccion” (Misery and Splendor of Translation), first published in 1937 in the newspaper La Nacion of Buenos Aires, Jose Ortega y Gasset said that to translate “is without any doubt, a utopic endeavor,” which according to him is due to the fact that “human endeavors are unfeasible. The destiny – privilege and honour – of man is never to achieve what he intends to do and to be pure pretending, a living utopy. He always starts towards defeat and before getting into the fight he already bears a wounded temple. This is what happens in this modest occupation which is to translate. In the intellectual order there is no humbler task. However, it ends being exorbitant.”

Throughout the course of his learned essay, however, he gets more and more to the conclusion that to translate is not only possible, but that it also represents a very important task because thanks to it a “transmigration” is produced in the reader towards and into the foreign author he is reading, even while “making use of a quite irritating apparatus”, as he puts it.

In fact, we know that the translator’s job is a very complex occupation. To make a living we usually begin by translating commercial, legal, technical and scientific texts. Considering that these use a “sui generis” terminology that is more or less the same in most western languages, just as Ortega y Gasset also verifies in his essay, such translations are more feasible when the authors master the grammar of their own language, a matter, as translators also know, is really exceptional. However, all translators wish to enter into the literary field and, once they have tried their luck within this specialty, any other kind of work lacks interest for them. Although struggling with technical manuals, commercial documents and legal contracts will have to continue in order to earn our daily bread, even if they sometimes are interesting and we learn a lot from them, I do not know in our profession another more gratifying intellectual satisfaction as that of going back to a literary text, to learn about its author, to the effort of getting to the bottom of the deepest meaning of its words, and to clearly express it in our own language without lessening or distorting its original concepts.

In general it is held that a translator should only translate into his or her mother tongue. We speak about a “source language”, which is the foreign language from which we translate, and of a “target language”, which is our own language, into which we translate the foreign text. In fact, people who speak only their own language, especially when they have academic studies, usually master their mother tongue perfectly; they know its most hidden secrets, its variants and the different nuances one word may express according to the context it is used in. They acquire the foreign language in school or at the university, but usually do not achieve to actively master it, but can only understand it in a passive way that enables them to read specialized books they need to consult. People who study a foreign language thoroughly and get to master it in depth are very few, except in case they want to become foreign language teachers or …translators! These educate themselves as bilingual professionals, whose handling of their own language must be perfect. In addition they must have that profound knowledge of the “source language”. This is a “conditio sine qua non” for the translator because otherwise he would never be able to achieve a reliable version in his mother tongue.

I would like to cite Ortega y Gasset again. He says that the “theologist Schleiermacher, in his essay ‘On different methods of translating’ states that the version is a movement that can be tried in two opposite directions: either the author is brought to the reader’s language or the reader is taken to the author’s language.” According to Ortega y Gasset, “only when we pull the reader out of his linguistic habits and force him to move within those of the author, there exists real translation:” According to him only one translation of Plato’s work is really faithful, and that is precisely Schleiermacher’s, “because he deliberately renounced to produce a translation that is beautiful …”, but instead kept all elements that conform the platonic style to render a truthful version. Therefore, translation must be complete and as exact and faithful as possible, even if it sounds ugly.

Undoubtedly Ortega y Gasset’s statement that a translation must mainly be complete and correct, but necessarily ugly because it pretends to take the reader to the author’s language, remains more or less valid to this day when dealing with translations of ancient Greek and Roman authors, just as it is true for scientific and technical texts that have to be accurate, but don’t need to be beautiful. In translations of classical Greek and Roman authors, a geographical and temporal transmigration occurs because the reader must go far back in time and imagine the environment and culture of those peoples to understand their life and undertakings. They are very far removed from our present life and endeavors, which makes our comprehension somewhat difficult.

However, a translation must not necessarily be ugly from the literary point of view as it would have to be if done in the direction of the movement Schleiermacher wants to give it. On the contrary, it is possible to produce correct translations that also show great beauty in expressing the author’s ideas with utmost faithfulness and, at the same time, to adapt them in their form to the “target language”.

In the history of languages several examples of great translations exist that have been considered models of correctness in their respective language. One of these is Martin Luther’s Bible translation into German. Certainly there have been Bible translations earlier than his (after 1466 there already existed fourteen translations into High German and after 1480, three versions into Low German). But those translations were based on the Latin Vulgata and not on the original Hebrew and Greek texts. The latter were made accessible thanks to the truly unique philological feat of Erasmus of Rotterdam, who in1516 published the original Greek text of the New Testament. This text served Martin Luther as his source, and he began to translate some Psalms in 1517. In 1522 the first version of the New Testament was published in German; in 1523 the Old Testament was printed and finally, in 1534, after a great philological effort, the whole oeuvre was completed. Thus, Martin Luther rendered a work of great importance because, just to put it this way, he first had to create the language he needed for his German Bible.

He achieved to combine objective exactness with internal religious riches and popular speech. Luther wished most of all to be comprehensible for the common people. “It is necessary to ask the mother in her home, the children on the little neighbour streets, the common man on the market place and look at their mouth to see how they speak, and then interpret them based thereon. This is the way they can understand us and realize that one is speaking to them in German.” These are Luther’s own words (Sendbrief von Dolmetschen = Message on Interpreting, 1530). He liked to express himself in a very graphic way. On the one hand he was familiar with the religious language of mysticism and the rhythm of the humanistic style and, on the other, he found in the written and juridical language of the central-eastern German territory the phonetics that was most understandable in that time’s Germany, which was divided in multiple dialects. Anyway, his remarkable linguistic talent and his profound comprehension of the living spoken language that is born naturally, has a rich psychological content and directly reaches the heart of the reader, had an enormous influence on his work’s success. Thus, his intimate union with the people, his profound religious feeling, his instinct for the precise word and the suggestive strength of expression gave birth to this biblical language of Martin Luther’s that became the basis of modern High German.

The case of the Holy Scriptures’ English translation known as “King James Version” is very similar. Although it was not the first English book proper because that honour is reserved for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Bible translation was ordered in 1611 by King James to the best English scholars, who also translated directly from the Greek and Hebrew originals.

Another remarkable example of a correct translation and also a beautiful one from the literary point of view is the translation of Shakespeare’s works into German made by A.W. Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck during the nineteenth century. According to German experts, this version is even more beautiful than the English original.

When working on the translation of classical books, from which we are separated by one or more centuries in time, it is usual having to face some problems when adapting those works to our present time. Thus, for example, when translating Goethe’s Werther into Spanish, I had to solve a dilemma: Did I have to use in Spanish a language that would be closer to the times when the German story was written or was it more convenient to express its thoughts in a modern Spanish? After thinking it over thoroughly I decided to focus on the readers this book was intended to reach. In this particular case the issue was a budget edition, intended to be broadly spread and, therefore, a somewhat arcaic language could have been too difficult to understand for a large number of readers. Thus, I decided not to use a refined and very academical language, but instead a very correct modern language, but in no way colloquial.

As a conclusion we can see that translation is an art and a demanding profession, not only a banal occupation accessible to anybody who thinks he can translate just because he reads a foreign language fluently. It is not by chance that really good translators have been very few in the history of mankind.