Let’s cut to the chase for the peyote-eating optimists out there: as long as LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, James Harden and any team coached by Gregg Popovich walk the wood planks of the N.B.A., a championship banner will not swing at Madison Square Garden or Barclays Center.
That’s the opening of Michael Powell’s contribution to this Knicks versus Nets preview, and it’s doing what a first sentence should: grabbing the reader’s attention and holding on tight.
Below, a challenge to students to write their own great opening lines, along with examples, tips, a quiz, and some lively student samples to help.
Article: “Why the Government Never Gets Tech Right,” an Op-Ed by Clay Johnson and Harper Reed
Millions of Americans negotiating America’s health care system know all too well what the waiting room of a doctor’s office looks like. Now, thanks to HealthCare.gov, they know what a “virtual waiting room” looks like, too. Nearly 20 million Americans, in fact, have visited the Web site since it opened three weeks ago, but only about 500,000 managed to complete applications for insurance coverage. And an even smaller subset of those applicants actually obtained coverage.
Your Task: Articulate what makes the first paragraph in this essay successful. How does it introduce a complex topic with a fitting comparison most readers can relate to? Then write an effective opening of your own, whether for a personal essay, an opinion piece, or an article for your school newspaper.
Below are suggestions that may help you decide what and how to write. Complete them all, or just choose the ones that are most helpful for you.
Before You Do the Task, You Might …
Learn More About Effective Openings: Read this handout from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Writing Center that explains in detail the process for writing an effective introduction. Consider your first sentence a bridge between a reader’s daily life and your writing, and try to make that transition as smooth as possible for your reader.
Here are some ways to start a piece that can get a reader’s attention:
- An anecdote — a short, interesting story about the topic
- A question that piques curiosity: Haven’t you always wanted to write an effective opening?
- A quotation that relates to your writing
- A brief personal story
- A provocative statement, but avoid being over the top or offensive
And here’s something not to do since it’s become a cliché:
- Avoid starting your writing with a dictionary definition. This overused opening tells the reader nothing about the writer or where the essay will go.
Analyze First Sentences: Take a look at this collection of Times headlines and their first sentences. Discuss what makes each successful. What do you notice about how the different opening styles match the types of articles? The first three are from recent editions of The Times; the last two are well-known pieces from 2012.
Rice Offers a More Modest Strategy for Mideast :
Each Saturday morning in July and August, Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s new national security adviser, gathered half a dozen aides in her corner office in the White House to plot America’s future in the Middle East.
After Year of Working Around Federal Cuts, Agencies Face Fewer Options:
In the weeks that led to the huge across-the-board cuts to federal spending early this year, Obama administration officials warned of dire consequences for the Justice Department: F.B.I. agents dropped from investigations, United States marshals pulled from their beats, federal prison guards furloughed.
A Library of Classics, Edited for the Teething Set:
The humble board book, with its cardboard-thick pages, gently rounded corners and simple concepts for babies, was once designed to be chewed as much as read.
Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek:
The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: ‘Avalanche! Elyse!’
Restaurant Review: Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square:
Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square?
Play a Matching Game: Use this interactive quiz to match each first sentence with the headline from the article or essay from which it most likely came. How do they work together to inform the reader?
Write About a Sports Team as the Season Begins: Let’s go back to the example at the beginning of this post. The opening of the N.B.A. season provides writers an opportunity to opine about their favorite basketball team, and The Times asked eight sportswriters to preview the emerging rivalry between the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks. Take a look at how each analyst begins his piece. How do they use the opening sentence to grab the reader’s attention?
Think about your favorite basketball or sports team. Write a preview of the team as the season begins, starting with a clear, attention-grabbing opening sentence.
Above and Beyond
Read Some Student Samples: Students in Michele Marchegiano’s creative writing class at Randolph High School in New Jersey have started exploring the power of an effective opening through the writing of memoir. Here are some opening sentences they wrote to introduce childhood memories:
- It was my second to last day of school in fourth grade, and, as you might expect, well-thought out decisions were not a priority.
- In the fifth grade, I learned that a dash of Harry Potter and a hint of bad weather are the perfect recipe for friendship.
- Some kids are afraid of monsters under the bed; others are afraid of patches over the eye. Oh wait, that last one is just me.
- At the age of 9, I was willing to write a complete thesis paper on why I should be able to have my own dog.
- My seventh birthday is one that I will surely never forget.
- From the tone of my mom’s voice, I knew she had found another clump of platinum-blond Barbie tresses in her hairbrush. “Evelyn and Jo!”
- A monarch butterfly gracefully landed on the pink rose that I had just touched.
- If Christmas of 2006 had been cancelled I would have an unscarred right hand.
Would you want to read the rest of these memoirs? If you had just one sentence to begin a memoir about your childhood, what would you write? How would you convey your experience?
Analyze Classic Opening Sentences From Fiction:
Call me Ishmael.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Both The American Book Review and The Telegraph ranked the best first lines from novels. How are the lists similar? Any noticeable differences? Which are your favorites? Discuss a book you have read recently that had a great opening line. What made its opening so effective?
What makes an opening so important? What is it about some of these openings that make people remember them for the rest of their lives? How can you take this lesson and apply it to your own writing? Can your college application essays be rewritten? What about that report you submitted for class? Remember that an opening sentence might be the only chance you’ll get to grab a reader’s attention.
Michele Marchegiano, an English teacher at Randolph High School, contributed to this lesson.
This resource may be used to address the academic standards listed below.
Common Core E.L.A. Anchor Standards
1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.
4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
Teaching ideas based on New York Times content.
If a student works rigorously, no topic is truly foolish, and the student can draw useful conclusions even from a remote or peripheral topic.
Photo by Getty Images/mizar_21984-Fotolia
“How to Write a Thesis” has become the go-to book for students writing theses not only in Italian, but in 17 other languages, and now this English translation of the book makes its way to a new group of eager minds.
Cover courtesy MIT Press
How to Write a Thesis (MIT Press, 2015) offers useful advice on crafting a thesis for educational purposes and real world applications outside of the classroom. Author Umberto Eco highlights unique research styles, information curating, developing a work schedule, polishing a final draft, and much more!
For Whom is This Book Written?
There are many students who are forced to write a thesis so that they may graduate quickly and obtain the career advancement that originally motivated their university enrollment. Some of these students may be as old as 40. They will ask for instructions on how to write a thesis in a month, in such a way as to receive a passing grade and graduate quickly. We should then say resolutely, this book is not for them. If these are their needs, if they are the victims of paradoxical legal circumstances that force them to graduate so they may resolve painful financial matters, they would be much better served by the following options: (a) Invest a reasonable amount of money in having a thesis written by a second party. (b) Copy a thesis that was written a few years prior for another institution. (It is better not to copy a book currently in print, even if it was written in a foreign language. If the professor is even minimally informed on the topic, he will be aware of the book’s existence. However, submitting in Milan a thesis written in Catania limits the probability of being caught, although it is obviously necessary to ascertain whether the thesis’s advisor held a position in Catania before teaching in Milan. Consequently, even plagiarizing a thesis requires an intelligent research effort.)
Clearly the two pieces of advice we have just offered are illegal. They are similar to advising an emergency room patient to put a knife to the throat of a doctor who refuses to treat him. These are desperate acts. We give this paradoxical advice to emphasize that this book does not attempt to resolve the serious temporal and financial problems that many university students currently face. However, this book does not require that the student be a millionaire or have a decade available to commit to his studies after having traveled the world. This book is for students who want to do rigorous work, despite the fact that they can only dedicate a few hours each day to study. This book is also for students who want to write a thesis that will provide a certain intellectual satisfaction, and that will also prove useful after graduation. As we will see, the rigor of a thesis is more important than its scope. One can even collect soccer trading cards with rigor, as long as he identifies the topic of the collection, the criteria for cataloguing it, and its historical limits. It is acceptable for him to limit his collection to players active after 1960, provided that his collection is complete after this date. There will always be a difference between his collection and the Louvre, but it is better to build a serious trading card collection from 1960 to the present than to create a cursory art collection. The thesis shares this same criterion.
The Usefulness of a Thesis After Graduation
There are two ways to write a thesis that is useful after graduation. A student can write a thesis that becomes the foundation of a broader research project that will continue into the years ahead, if he has the means and desire to do so. Additionally, writing a thesis develops valuable professional skills that are useful after graduation. For example, the director of a local tourist office who authored a thesis titled “From Stephen Hero to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” will have developed skills needed for his profession. He will have done the following:
1. Identified a precise topic
2. Collected documents on that topic
3. Ordered these documents
4. Reexamined the topic in light of the documents collected
5. Organized all this work into an organic form
6. Ensured that his readers have understood him
7. Provided the necessary documentation so that readers may reexamine the topic through his sources
Writing a thesis requires a student to organize ideas and data, to work methodically, and to build an “object” that in principle will serve others. In reality, the research experience matters more than the topic. The student who was able to carefully research these two versions of Joyce’s novel will have trained himself to methodically collect, organize, and present information, and for other professional responsibilities he will encounter working at the tourist office.
As a writer myself, I have already published ten books on different topics, but I was able to write the last nine because of the experience of the first, which happened to be a revision of my own laurea thesis. Without that first effort, I would never have acquired the skills I needed for the others. And, for better or for worse, the other books still show traces of the first. With time, a writer becomes more astute and knowledgeable, but how he uses his knowledge will always depend on how he originally researched the many things he did not know.
At the very least, writing a thesis is like training the memory. One will retain a good memory when he is old if he has trained it when he was young. It doesn’t matter if the training involved memorizing the players of every Italian A-series soccer team, Dante’s poetry, or every Roman emperor from Augustus to Romulus Augustulus. Since we are training our own memory, it is certainly better to serve our interests and needs; but sometimes it is even good exercise to learn useless things. Therefore, even if it is better to research an appealing topic, the topic is secondary to the research method and the actual experience of writing the thesis. If a student works rigorously, no topic is truly foolish, and the student can draw useful conclusions even from a remote or peripheral topic.
In fact, Marx wrote his thesis on the two ancient Greek philosophers Epicurus and Democritus, not on political economy, and this was no accident. Perhaps Marx was able to approach the theoretical questions of history and economy with such rigor precisely because of his scrupulous work on these ancient Greek philosophers. Also, considering that so many students start with an ambitious thesis on Marx and then end up working at the personnel office of a big capitalist business, we might begin to question the utility, topicality, and political relevance of thesis topics.
Excerpted fromHow to Write a Thesis, by Umberto Eco, published by MIT Press, 2015.