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Beginning the Essay

Getting Started

Perhaps there is nothing more intimidating than a blank sheet of paper, especially when it needs to be filled with insightful, coherent, intelligent ideas before a certain deadline. First you must decide on a topic, and then you have to think of things to say about it. Different writers have different methods for conquering the dreaded blank sheet. Here are some suggestions.

Talk. Talk about your assignment with anyone who will listen: friends, family, your professor, or a writing center consultant. This way, you are not alone - and conversation often leads to good ideas. If you talk about something that sounds interesting do not assume you will remember it; make a note of it before you forget.

Write. Freewriting is an excellent way to come up with a topic and/or supporting details. Instead of agonizing over your assignment, force yourself to do something about it. Take half an hour, sit down at your computer or desk, and just write. Write everything that comes to mind, no matter how stupid it might seem. Do not worry about form or grammar, and do not let yourself stop until the half hour is up. When you are done, read what you have written and look for ideas that might work in your paper.

Brainstorm. This is like freewriting, except you just make a list of ideas--a list of possible topics, or a list of details or points that you might include in the paper. Always keep your notebook handy, and try to squeeze out as many ideas as you can. You can eliminate the stupid ones later.

Develop a working thesis. Once you have a topic and some supporting details, try to come up with one or two sentences that capture exactly what your paper is about and indicate what "angle" you will be taking on the topic. This helps give you direction. Don not worry about sloppy wording; you can revise it before you include it in your final draft.

Plan. Unless your professor requires it, you probably do not need to write a formal outline--but you do need to have a plan for your paper. After you have a working thesis, scratch notes to yourself about what each paragraph will cover and what details you need to include. This plan might change, but at least the paper has a skeleton.

Start in the middle. Once you have a working thesis and a plan, it is time to write a rough draft. Many people find the introduction to be the most difficult part of a paper. If you are stuck on that first sentence, skip it! (Or just write something stupid that you can rewrite later.) Jump to the body paragraphs, and do the introduction last. Sometimes it is easier to introduce when you can see exactly what you are introducing.

Remember the Writing Center, both online and IN the NOVA library. We will help with your paper at any stage! Whether you’re having trouble getting started or have written a draft, be sure to take advantage of this free service!

Writing Introductions

Why do I need an introduction?

The purpose of an introduction is to grab your reader's attention, to set the stage for the rest of your paper, and to get across the paper's main point. After reading the introduction, your reader should not be surprised by the paper's contents, tone, or organization. Many writers find introductions to be the most difficult section of a paper to write.

How can I write one?

1. Skip it. Until you have written the rest of your paper, you do not know exactly what you are introducing. Even if you write the introduction first, you will probably have to go back and change it after you write the body of the paper. So jump to the body first! After you know what the paper contains and how it "sounds,' you will probably find it easier to write the introduction.

2. You cannot go wrong with a general-to-specific structure, sometimes called the "inverted pyramid" or "funnel." (It is not terribly exciting, but it gets the job done.) These introductions begin with a broad, general sentence to give the reader perspective. The next few sentences get more specific, until the paragraph ends with the thesis statement. Here is an example from The St. Martins Handbook: The United States has seen many changes in its economy during the last hundred years. Among these changes is the organization of workers. Unions were formed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to battle against long hours and bad working conditions. The workers organized against their employers and won their battles. Today, it is very uncommon to find such oppressive conditions in the work place. Why, then, do unions still exist today? When we examine many of the labor battles of recent years, we find that unions exist mostly as bargaining units through which workers can gain higher wages-at any cost.

3. The first sentences of an introduction are often the trickiest. The Bedford Handbook for Writers describes eight "hooks,' or types of first sentences: a startling statistic or unusual fact; a vivid example; a description; a paradoxical statement; a quotation or bit of dialogue; a question; an analogy; a joke or anecdote.

St. Martins provides some good examples of "hooks":

Opening with a quotation: "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog," says Mary Grace, an unattractive girl from a Massachusetts college, to Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a hypocritical Southern woman, in Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation."

Opening with an anecdote: "Imagine awakening to a thunderous roar that sounds like a herd of elephants and banshees, accompanied by an upheaval of your bed that dumps you on the floor."

Opening with a question: "Why is the American population terrified of turning to nuclear power as a future source of energy?"

What about the thesis statement?

The thesis statement is a crucial part of most introductions. The thesis should say exactly what the paper will be about, but it should not be a fact; instead, it should be "a generalization demanding proof or further development" (Medford Handbook). For example, the thesis in the sample paragraph above (#2) is the last sentence; it tells us exactly what the paper will do: it will describe some recent union battles and will argue that these battles (often quite nasty) were ultimately about the workers seeking higher pay. Bedford gives additional examples:

Too factual: The first polygraph was developed by Dr. John A. Larson in 1921. Revised: Because the polygraph has not been proved reliable, even under the most controlled conditions, its use by private employers should be banned.

Too broad: Many drugs are now being used successfully to treat mental illness. Revised: Despite its risks and side effects, lithium is an effective treatment for depression.

Too vague: Many of the songs played on station WXQP are disgusting. Revised: Of the songs played on station WXQP, all too many crudely depict sex, sanction the beating or rape of women, or foster gang violence.

Remember - The OWL has other online handouts about introductions and thesis statements.

Interesting Introductions

In the Writing Center, we have seen countless papers that begin with a sentence like this: "Abortion is one of the most controversial topics in America today." What a sleeper! As a writer, you should pay close attention to your first few sentences because they have the power to pique your readers' interest and encourage them to keep reading; unfortunately, they can also make your readers yawn and toss the paper aside. Below are some suggestions for attention-getting introductions, with examples about graduate teaching assistants.

A Controversial Statement: Some students swear that graduate teaching assistants are inexperienced, ignorant, and uninteresting; others insist that they are enthusiastic, friendly, and inspiring.

An Element of Surprise: That slightly older dude, garbed in jeans and a sweatshirt, sometimes with a beard, often with a pipe, nearly always with a sack of books, is neither a student nor a professor, but a peculiar species known as a graduate teaching assistant.

A Note of Contradiction: Graduate teaching assistants are neither fish nor fowl, neither completely students nor teachers, neither really graduates nor assistants.

A Short, Dramatic Statement: Beware of graduate teaching assistants.

The Use of Statistics: Most of the two million freshman entering colleges and universities this fall will be instructed by graduate teaching assistants.

A Figure of Speech (Simile or Metaphor): A graduate teaching assistant is like a pilot on a new route: each is capable, but each is unfamiliar with the course.

The Use of a Quotation: "Although they are inexperienced, most graduate teaching assistants are generally effective instructors because they relate well to their students." state Adelstein and Pival in their book The Writing Commitment.*

A Reference to a Current Event: The recent debate in the freshman dorm about graduate teaching assistants was almost as heated as the one in the United Nations about the Middle East.

Proof of your Authority: Having had seven graduate teaching assistants in my first two semesters at college, I feel well qualified to discuss their strengths and weaknesses.

*Taken from The Writing Commitment by Adelstein and Pival

Thesis Statements

What is a thesis statement?

A thesis statement is a sentence that briefly but thoroughly explains the point you will be making in the paper.
A thesis statement is a CONTROLLING IDEA that outlines the focus of your paper.
A thesis statement is an ASSERTION that introduces your stance about that focus.
A thesis statement is a PROMISE to your reader about the content and organization of the essay.

When should I write my thesis statement?

Every writer has a different process, so there is no definite rule about when it is appropriate to write your thesis statement. Some people like to write the body of their essay before they write their thesis statement. However, if you are new to essay writing, you should probably try to compose the thesis statement prior to writing the body of your paper because doing so will enable you to better organize your ideas. If you begin with a solid thesis statement, you are well on the way to having a strong paper.

Where should I put my thesis statement?

A thesis statement belongs at the end of the first paragraph.

Why do I need a thesis statement?

A thesis statement clarifies the purpose of your paper to readers from the outset and prepares them for the way your ideas will be organized within the essay. Having a thesis statement helps you stay focused on the logic of your argument; every sentence in your text should support the thesis.

How can I write a thesis statement?

*The subject of your sentence should be the topic of your paper.
*The predicate of your sentence should be the assertion about that topic that the essay makes. Try to use strong, active verbs and avoid using the verb "to be."

Consider the following two thesis statements:

BAD: There is a lot of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter.
BETTER: Hawthorne's use of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter falters and ultimately breaks down with the introduction of the character Pearl.
The second one is more successful than the first because it uses the topic as the subject of the sentence and then employs a strong, active verb (not a derivative of "to be") to make a specific assertion about that topic.

Here are more examples of thesis statements:

BAD: Drug abuse is a big problem.
BETTER: Heroin, long regarded as a street drug, is fast becoming the drug of choice among middle class urban professionals.
The second one is more successful than the first because it is specific about both the subject of the paper and what argument the paper will make.

BAD: The so-called "right to bear arms" is a bunch of crap.
BETTER: While revered as truth by many Americans for decades, the Constitutional "right to bear arms" has in fact been misinterpreted.

BAD: College is better than high school
BETTER: NOVA is better than Broad Run High School because the teachers are more attentive and the school is closer to my house.

Check your thesis by asking yourself these questions:

Is your thesis specific?
Is it concise?
Does it have a strong subject and verb?
Does it introduce the organization of your essay?
Does it cover everything you plan to cover in your paper?