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Archive for June, 2011

All’s Well That Ends Well.

When we experience music, art, writing, drama-or dinner, for that matter-we, as humans, need order and completeness to make sense of things.   We like beginnings, middles, and ends.

We are discomfited when a song abruptly stops in the middle; we’d scratch our heads if the curtain came down just as Hamlet was dying.

As readers, especially, we really don’t like it when the piece we are reading feels incomplete, when it feels like it stopped in the middle of things.

So Conclusions are number 4 on the Top Ten List.  (Interestingly, one of Roget’s synonyms for the word “conclusion” is “completion”.)

In many ways, a good Conclusion is very like the mirror image of the Introduction.

Your Introduction establishes context, lets us know why we ought to be interested, and states your Thesis; so the Conclusion restates your thesis and, in effect, says, “There.  Aren’t you glad you read this?  Don’t you see how this all fits together?”

In a persuasive essay, you might go a bit further to suggest (though not in so many words) that, “the world would be a better place if everybody would just agree with me!”

We have observed elsewhere, but it bears repeating, that-especially in a relatively short piece of writing, of the length you’ll produce for most of your courses-there is really no need to summarize.  In fact, summarizing a short essay is pretty much guaranteed to annoy your reader.  (“What the heck?  Didn’t I just read that?”)

But even if, in a longer piece-an Action Research Project, for example-you do need to summarize, you still need to provide a conclusion after the Summary.

Likewise, in a short essay, you don’t need to begin your conclusion with the words, “In conclusion.”  Your reader is looking at the page; he or she can see that you are nearing the end, that this is the final section.

Like most things about writing well, concluding your essay is really just paying attention to your reader.   Make sure he or she goes away happy.

Well Begun Is Half Done.

When you’re in your ASAP cohort, writing those essays and papers that you have been assigned, it can be easy to figure that what you’re writing about is obvious; everybody in the class is doing the same assignment, after all.  But even in those circumstances, each piece of writing must be able to stand on its own, and that means, in order to be successful, it must begin by introducing itself.

So you’re at this party.  Up steps a fellow with squinty eyes, a sallow complexion, and a knowing look.  “I would urge caution,” says he, “about speculative selling of deep in-the-money naked calls on any stock, expecting the stock price to plummet, as you would inevitably be exposing yourself to potentially unlimited losses.”

You, naturally, run away, dialing the police as you go.

Had he, however, begun by introducing himself:  “Hello, I’m Ed, and I’m a former investment banker, now working as a consumer advocate,” you would at least understand that he meant well and that he was speaking in jargon.

Introductions are very, very important in writing, too.  So they’re number 3 on the Top Ten List.

Indeed, to your reader, beginning your essay with a discussion of the issue with no introduction is just as jarring and confusing as the encounter with Ed described above.

The function of the Introduction is threefold:

First, to let the reader know the subject, in general;

Second, to provide some sense of context (It makes a great deal of difference, for example, if you’re discussing the 1964 Cadillac as a work of art or as a symbol of everything wrong with 20th-Century American culture.);

Third, to let the reader know why this discussion matters, what are the factors that led you to it.

Somewhere in the Introduction, usually near the end, you’ll include your Thesis Statement, which will tell your reader quickly and clearly what to expect in the Body of the Essay that follows.

Wordworks #6 and #17 discussed “how-to” write an Introduction and Thesis Statement.  You can find them here in the archives.

(Note:  As you know, APA style calls for an Abstract.  That’s not to be confused with  an Introduction.  An Abstract is a very brief summary or précis of the entire essay. )

What’s in A Title?

Number two on the Top Ten most common writing problems list is:  overlooking the power of the title.  Lots of essays and papers that come across my desk have titles like, “Leadership Paper” or “Autobiography” or “Marketing Strategy”.

These are certainly “titles”, strictly speaking, but they stop way short of doing the kind of work for their writers that they could be doing.

That’s because the title, right there on the front page of the assignment, is the first thing your reader encounters.  And it’s your golden opportunity not only to make a good first impression, but also to help your reader have a better idea about what’s inside.

Newspapers have always known the power of the headline (their version of a title).  Have a look any day at the home page of any major newspaper; you will see headlines whose job it is to help you decide (maybe even persuade you) about what you’ll read.

On the May 31, 2011, for example, down near the bottom in the “Travel” section, we find:  “On the Farm, After the Fall:  Agritourism in the Former USSR.”  We have a pretty good idea what to expect in this article . . . certainly a better one than if it had been titled, “Travel Article.”

As you see from the Times example, your title doesn’t need to be especially clever to be effective.  Some ways to come up with a good title include:



In any of these options you might wish to follow the “catchy” title with a colon and a more explanatory phrase (as the Times headline writer did), thus:


“Stairway to Heaven:  Growing Numbers of Adults Pursue Associates Degrees to Enhance Job Prospects.”

The main thing is to TITLE EVERYTHING, and don’t settle for generics.  Try to find the title that could work ONLY with your wonderful paper!