Thomas S. Kane
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payments for this "stripped book."
This book is based on The Oxford Guide to Writing: A Rhetoric and Handbook for College Students, and thanks are due once more to those who contributed to that book: my friend
and colleague Leonard J. Peters; Professors Miriam Baker of
Dowling College, David Hamilton of the University of Iowa,
Robert Lyons and Sandra Schor of Queens College of the
City University of New York, and Joseph Trimmer of Ball
State University, all of whom read the manuscript and contributed perceptive comments; Ms. Cheryl Kupper, who copyedited that text with great thoroughness and care; and
John W. Wright, my editor at the Oxford University Press.
For the present edition I am again grateful to Professor
Leonard J. Peters and to John W. Wright. In addition I wish
to thank William P. Sisler and Joan Bossert, my editors at
Oxford University Press, who encouraged, criticized, and improved, as good editors do. Kittery Point, Maine
1. Subject, Reader, and Kinds of Writing 5
2. Strategy and Style 9
3. Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics 13
The Writing Process
Looking for Subjects 19
Exploring for Topics 23
Making a Plan 29
Drafts and Revisions 34
Organizing the Middle 67
Point of View, Persona, and Tone 74
The Expository Paragraph
12. Basic Structure 89
13. Paragraph Unity 95
14. Paragraph Development: (1) Illustration and
15. Paragraph Development: (2) Comparison, Contrast,
and Analogy 114
16. Paragraph Development: (3) Cause and Effect 125
17. Paragraph Development: (4) Definition, Analysis,
and Qualification 132
The Sentence: A Definition 151
Sentence Styles 161
The Well-Written Sentence: (1) Concision 191
The Well-Written Sentence: (2) Emphasis 200
The Well-Written Sentence: (3) Rhythm 223
The Well-Written Sentence: (4) Variety 234
Clarity and Simplicity 262
Figurative Language 295
Unusual Words and Collocations 325
Improving Your Vocabulary: Dictionaries 336
vi. Description and Narration
30. Description 351
31. Narration 366
32. Stops 383
33. The Other Marks 417
Name Index 439
Subject Index 445
The New Oxford Guide
Two broad assumptions underlie this book: (1) that writing
is a rational activity, and (2) that it is a valuable activity. To say that writing is rational means nothing more than
that it is an exercise of mind requiring the mastery of techniques anyone can learn. Obviously, there are limits: one cannot learn to write like Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. You can't become a genius by reading a book.
But you don't have to be a genius to write clear, effective
English. You just have to understand what writing involves
and to know how to handle words and sentences and paragraphs. That you can learn. If you do, you can communicate what you want to communicate in words other people can
understand. This book will help by showing you what good
The second assumption is that writing is worth learning. It
is of immediate practical benefit in almost any job or career. Certainly there are many jobs in which you can get along
without being able to write clearly. If you know how to write, however, you will get along faster and farther.
There is another, more profound value to writing. We create ourselves by words. Before we are businesspeople or lawyers or engineers or teachers, we are human beings. Our
growth as human beings depends on our capacity to understand and to use language. Writing is a way of growing. No one would argue that being able to write will make you morally better. But it will make you more complex and more interesting—in a word, more human.
and Kinds of Writing
Choosing a Subject
Often, of course, you are not free to choose at all. You must compose a report for a business meeting or write on an assigned topic for an English class. The problem then becomes not what to write about but how to attack it, a question we'll discuss in Chapters 5 and 6.
When you can select a subject for yourself, it ought to interest you, and interest others as well, at least potentially. It should be within the range of your experience and skill,
though it is best if it stretches you. It ought to be neither so vast that no one person can encompass it nor so narrow and
trivial that no one cares.
Don't be afraid to express your own opinions and feelings.
You are a vital part of the subject. No matter what the topic, you are really writing about how you understand it, how you
feel about it. Good writing has personality. Readers enjoy
sensing a mind at work, hearing a clear voice, responding to an unusual sensibility. If you have chosen a topic that is of general concern, and if genuine feeling and intelligence come through, you will be interesting. Interest lies not so much in a topic as in what a writer has made of it.
You don't want to repel readers. This doesn't mean you have
to flatter them or avoid saying something they may disagree
with. It does mean you must respect them. Don't take their
interest for granted or suppose that it is the readers' job to follow you. It's your job to guide them, to make their task as easy as the subject allows.
Ask yourself questions about your readers: What can I expect them to know and not know? What do they believe and value? How do I want to affect them by what I say? What
attitudes and claims will meet with their approval? What will offend them? What objections may they have to my ideas,
and how can I anticipate and counter those objections?
Readers may be annoyed if you overestimate their knowledge. Tossing off unusual words may seem a put-down, a way of saying, "I know more than you." On the other hand, laboring the obvious also implies a low opinion of readers: don't tell them what a wheel is; they know. It isn't easy to gauge your readers' level of knowledge or to sense their beliefs and values. Sensitivity to readers comes only with experience, and then imperfectly. Tact and respect, however, go a long way. Readers have egos too.
Kinds of Writing
The various effects a writer may wish to have on his or her
readers—to inform, to persuade, to entertain—result in different kinds of prose. The most common is prose that informs, which, depending on what it is about, is called exposition, description, or narration.
Exposition explains. How things work—an internal combustion engine. Ideas—a theory of economics. Facts of everyday life—how many people get divorced. History—why Custer attacked at the Little Big Horn. Controversial issues laden with feelings—abortion, politics, religion. But whatever
SUBJECT, READER, AND KINDS OF WRITING
its subject, exposition reveals what a particular mind thinks or knows or believes. Exposition is constructed logically. It organizes around cause/effect, true/false, less/more, positive/ negative, general/particular, assertion/denial. Its movement is signaled by connectives like therefore, however, and so, besides, but, not only, more important, in fact, for example. Description deals with perceptions—most commonly visual
perceptions. Its central problem is to arrange what we see into a significant pattern. Unlike the logic of exposition, the pattern is spatial: above/below, before/behind, right/left, and so on.
The subject of narration is a series of related events—a
story. Its problem is twofold: to arrange the events in a sequence of time and to reveal their significance. Persuasion seeks to alter how readers think or believe. It is usually about controversial topics and often appeals to reason in the form of argument, offering evidence or logical proof. Another form of persuasion is satire, which ridicules folly or evil, sometimes subtly, sometimes crudely and coarsely. Finally, persuasion may be in the form of eloquence, appealing to ideals and noble sentiments.
Writing that is primarily entertaining includes fiction, personal essays, sketches. Such prose will receive less attention here. It is certainly important, but it is more remote from
everyday needs than exposition or persuasion.
> List ten or twelve topics you might develop into a short essay. Think of topics that deal not so much with things, places, or how-todo projects as with your opinions and beliefs. Pick subjects that interest you and are within your experience, yet challenging. Be specific: don't simply write "my j o b " but something like "what I like most (or hate most) about my job."
£> Selecting one of the topics on your list, compose a paragraph about the readers for whom you might develop it. Consider how
you wish to affect those readers, what you want them to understand and feel. Think about their general knowledge, values, attitudes, biases; whether they are your age or older or younger, come from a similar or a different background; and how you would like them to regard you.
Strategy and Style
Purpose, the end you're aiming at, determines strategy and
style. Strategy involves choice—selecting particular aspects of a topic to develop, deciding how to organize them, choosing
this word rather than that, constructing various types of sentences, building paragraphs. Style is the result of strategy, the language that makes the strategy work.
Think of purpose, strategy, and style in terms of increasing abstractness. Style is immediate and obvious. It exists in the writing itself; it is the sum of the actual words, sentences, paragraphs. Strategy is more abstract, felt beneath the words as the immediate ends they serve. Purpose is even deeper,
supporting strategy and involving not only what you write
about but how you affect readers.
A brief example will clarify these overlapping concepts. It
was written by a college student in a fifteen-minute classroom exercise. The several topics from which the students could
choose were stated broadly—"marriage," "parents," "teachers," and so on—so that each writer had to think about restricting and organizing his or her composition. This student chose "marriage":
Why get married? Or if you are modern, why live together? Answer: Insecurity. "Man needs woman; woman needs man." However, this
cliche fails to explain need. How do you need someone of the opposite sex? Sexually is an insufficient explanation. Other animals do not stay with a mate for more than one season; some not even that long. Companionship, although a better answer, is also an incomplete explanation. We all have several friends. Why make one friend so significant that he at least partially excludes the others? Because we want to "join our lives." But this desire for joining is far from "romantic"—it is selfish. We want someone to share our lives in order that we do not have to endure hardships alone.
The writer's purpose is not so much to tell us of what she
thinks about marriage as to convince us that what she thinks is true. Her purpose, then, is persuasive, and it leads to particular strategies both of organization and of sentence style. Her organization is a refinement of a conventional question/ answer strategy: a basic question ("Why get married?"); an
initial, inadequate answer ("Insecurity"); a more precise question ("How do we need someone?"); a partial answer ("sex"); then a second partial answer ("companionship"); a final, more precise question ("Why make one friend so significant?");
and a concluding answer ("so that we do not have to endure
The persuasive purpose is also reflected in the writer's strategy of short emphatic sentences. They are convincing, and they establish an appropriate informal relationship with
Finally, the student's purpose determines her strategy in
approaching the subject and in presenting herself. About the topic, the writer is serious without becoming pompous. As
for herself, she adopts an impersonal point of view, avoiding such expressions as "I think" or "it seems to me." On another occasion they might suggest a pleasing modesty; here they
would weaken the force of her argument.
These strategies are effectively realized in the style: in the clear rhetorical questions, each immediately followed by a
straightforward answer; and in the short uncomplicated sentences, echoing speech. (There are even two sentences that are grammatically incomplete—"Answer: Insecurity" and "Be-
STRATEGY AND STYLE
cause we want to 'join our lives.' ") At the same time the
sentences are sufficiently varied to achieve a strategy fundamental to all good prose—to get and hold the reader's attention.
Remember several things about strategy. First, it is manysided. Any piece of prose displays not one but numerous strategies—of organization, of sentence structure, of word choice, of point of view, of tone. In effective writing these reinforce one another.
Second, no absolute one-to-one correspondence exists between strategy and purpose. A specific strategy may be adapted to various purposes. The question/answer mode of
organizing, for example, is not confined to persuasion: it is often used in informative writing. Furthermore, a particular purpose may be served by different strategies. In our example the student's organization was not the only one possible. Another writer might have organized using a "list" strategy: People get married for a variety of reasons. First. . . Second . . . Third . . . Finally . . .
Still another might have used a personal point of view, or
taken a less serious approach, or assumed a more formal relationship with the reader.
In its broadest sense "style" is the total of all the choices a writer makes concerning words and their arrangements. In
this sense style may be good or bad—good if the choices are appropriate to the writer's purpose, bad if they are not. More narrowly, "style" has a positive, approving sense, as when we say that someone has "style" or praise a writer for his or her "style." More narrowly yet, the word may also designate a
particular way of writing, unique to a person or characteristic of a group or profession: "Hemingway's style," "an academic
Here we use style to mean something between those extremes. It will be a positive term, and while we speak of errors in style, we don't speak of "bad styles." On the other hand, we understand "style" to include many ways of writing, each
appropriate for some purposes, less so for others. There is no one style, some ideal manner of writing at which all of us
should aim. Style is flexible, capable of almost endless variation. But one thing style is not: it is not a superficial fanciness brushed over the basic ideas. Rather than the gilding, style is the deep essence of writing.
t> Selecting one of the topics you listed at the end of Chapter 1, work up a paragraph of 150 to 200 words. Before you begin to write, think about possible strategies of organization and tone. Organization involves (1) how you analyze your topic, the parts into which you divide it, and (2) the order in which you present these parts and how you tie them together. Tone means (1) how you feel about your subject—angry, amused, objective, and so on; (2) how you regard your reader—in a formal or an informal relationship; and (3) how you present yourself.
When you have the paragraph in its final shape, on a separate sheet of paper compose several sentences explaining what strategies you followed in organizing your paragraph and in aiming for a particular tone, and why you thought these would be appropriate.
Grammar, Usage, and
Purpose, strategy, and style are decided by you. But the decision must be made within limits set by rules over which you have little control. The rules fall into three groups: grammar, usage, and mechanics.
Grammar means the rules which structure our language. The
sentence "She dresses beautifully" is grammatical. These variations are not: Her dresses beautifully.
Dresses beautifully she.
The first breaks the rule that a pronoun must be in the subjective case when it is the subject of a verb. The second violates the conventional order of the English sentence: subjectverb-object. (That order is not invariable and may be altered, subject to other rules, but none of these permits the pattern: "Dresses beautifully she.")
Grammatical rules are not the pronouncements of teachers,
editors, or other authorities. They are simply the way people
speak and write, and if enough people begin to speak and
write differently, the rules change.
Usage designates rules of a less basic and binding sort, concerning how we should use the language in certain situations. These sentences, for instance, violate formal usage:
She dresses beautiful.
She ain't got no dress.
Sentences like these are often heard in speech, but both break rules governing how educated people write. Formal usage dictates that when beautiful functions as an adverb it takes an -ly ending, that ain yt and a double negative like a in't got no or haven't got no should be avoided.
Grammar and usage are often confused. Many people
would argue that the sentences above are "ungrammatical."
Our distinction, however, is more useful. Grammatical rules
are implicit in the speech of all who use the language. Usage rules, on the other hand, stem from and change with social
pressure. Ain't, for example, was once acceptable. The adverbial use of an adjective like beautiful was common in seventeenth-century prose. Chaucer and Shakespeare use
double negatives for emphasis.
The fact that usage rules are less basic than grammatical
ones, however, and even that they may seem arbitrary, does
not lessen their force. Most of them contribute to clarity and economy of expression. Moreover, usage applies to all levels of purpose and strategy, to informal, colloquial styles as well as to formal ones. For example, grammatically incomplete
sentences (or fragments), frowned upon in formal usage, are
occasionally permissible and even valuable in informal composition. (Witness the two fragments in the student paragraph on marriage on page 8.) So is regarded in formal English as a subordinating conjunction which ought not to introduce a
GRAMMAR, USAGE, AND MECHANICS
sentence. But in a colloquial style, it may work better than a more literary connective like consequently or therefore.
In composition mechanics refers to the appearance of words,
to how they are spelled or arranged on paper. The fact that
the first word of a paragraph is usually indented, for example, is a matter of mechanics. These sentences violate other rules of mechanics:
she dresses beautifully
She dresses beautifuly.
Conventions of writing require that a sentence begin with
a capital letter and end with full-stop punctuation (period, question mark, or exclamation point). Conventions of spelling require that beautifully have two Is. The rules gathered under the heading of mechanics attempt
to make writing consistent and clear. They may seem arbitrary, but they have evolved from centuries of experience. Generally they represent, if not the only way of solving a
problem, an economic and efficient way.
Along with mechanics we include punctuation, a very complicated subject and by no means purely mechanical. While some punctuation is cut-and-dried, much of it falls into the province of usage or style. Later, in the chapter on punctuation, we'll discuss the distinctions between mechanical and stylistic uses of commas, dashes, and so on.
Grammar, Usage, and Style
Grammar, usage, and mechanics establish the ground rules of
writing, circumscribing what you are free to do. Within their limits, you select various strategies and work out those strategies in terms of words, sentences, paragraphs. The ground rules, however, are relatively inflexible, broken at your peril.
It is not always easy to draw the line between grammar and
usage or between usage and style. Broadly, grammar is what
you must do as a user of English; usage, what you should do
as a writer of more or less formal (or informal) English; and style, what you elect to do to work out your strategies and
realize your purposes.
"Her dresses beautifully," we said, represents an error in
grammar, and "She dresses beautiful," a mistake in usage.
"She dresses in a beautiful manner," however, is a lapse in
style. The sentence breaks no rule of grammar or of usage,
but it is not effective (assuming that the writer wants to stress the idea of "beauty"). The structure slurs the emphasis, which should be on the key word and which should close the statement—"She dresses beautifully." Most of our difficulties with words and sentences involve
style. For native speakers, grammar—in our sense—is not
likely to be a serious problem. Usage (which includes much
of what is popularly called "grammar") and mechanics are
more troublesome. But generally these require simply that
you learn clearly defined conventions. And having learned
them, you will find that rather than being restrictive they free you to choose more effectively among the options available
to you as a writer.
Style is less reducible to rule, and more open to argument.
No one can prove "She dresses in a beautiful manner" is
poorer than "She dresses beautifully." (One can even imagine a context in which the longer sentence would be preferable.) Even so, it violates a principle observed by good writers; use no more words than you must.
You may think of that principle as a "rule" of style. We
shall discuss and illustrate that and other stylistic "rules," but remember: they are generalizations about what good writers
do, not laws dictating what all writers must do.
P A R T
The Writing Process
Writing in its broad sense—as distinct from simply putting words on paper—has three steps: thinking about it, doing it, and doing it again (and again and again, as often as time will allow and patience will endure).
The first step, "thinking," involves choosing a subject, exploring ways of developing it, and devising strategies of organization and style. The second step, "doing," is usually called "drafting"; and the third, "doing again," is "revising." The next several chapters take a brief look at these steps of the writing process.
First a warning. They're not really "steps," not in the usual sense anyway. You don't write by (1) doing all your thinking, (2) finishing a draft, and then (3) completing a revision. Actually you do all these things at once. If that sounds mysterious, it's because writing is a complex activity. As you think about a topic you are already beginning to select words and construct sentences—in other words, to draft. As you draft and as you revise, the thinking goes on: you discover new ideas, realize you've gone down a dead end, discover an implication you hadn't seen before.
It's helpful to conceive of writing as a process having, in a broad and loose sense, three steps. But remember that you
THE WRITING PROCESS
don't move from step to step in smooth and steady progress.
You go back and forth. As you work on a composition you
will be, at any given point, concentrating on one phase of
writing. But always you are engaged with the process in its
Looking for Subjects
People write for lots of reasons. Sometimes it's part of the job. A sales manager is asked to report on a new market, or
an executive to discuss the feasibility of moving a plant to another state. A psychology student has to turn in a twentypage term paper, or a member of an art club must prepare a two-page introduction to an exhibit.
In such cases the subject is given, and the first step is chiefly a matter of research, of finding information. Even the problem of organizing the information is often simplified by following a conventional plan, as with scientific papers or business letters. Which is not to dismiss such writing as easy. Being clear and concise is never easy. (To say nothing of being interesting!) But at least the writing process is structured and to that degree simplified.
At other times we write because we want to express something about ourselves, about what we've experienced or how we feel. Our minds turn inward, and writing is complicated
by the double role we play. / am the subject, which somehow
the / who writes must express in words. And there is a further complication. In personal writing, words are not simply an
expression of the self; they help to create the self. In struggling to say what we are, we become what we say.
Such writing is perhaps the most rewarding kind. But it is
THE WRITING PROCESS
also the most challenging and the most frustrating. We are
thrown relentlessly upon our own resources. The subject is
elusive, and the effect can be a kind of paralysis. And so people say, "I can't think of anything to write about." That's strange, because life is fascinating. The solution is to open yourself to experience. To look around. To describe
what you see and hear. To read. Reading takes you into other minds and enriches your own. A systematic way of enriching
your ideas and experiences is to keep a commonplace book
and a journal.
The Commonplace Book
A commonplace book is a record of things we have read or
heard and want to remember: a proverb, a remark by a writer
of unusual sensibility, a witty or a wise saying, or even something silly or foolish or crass: Sincerity always hits me something like sleep. I mean, if you try to get it too hard, you won't.
w. H. Auden
Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the . . . power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural Size. Virginia Woolf
I hate music—especially when it's played.
Shrouds have no pockets.
All this—and perhaps.
To keep a commonplace book, set aside a looseleaf binder.
When you hear or read something that strikes you, copy it,
identifying the source. Leave space to add thoughts of your
own. If you accumulate a lot of entries, you may want to
make an index or to group passages according to subject.
A commonplace book will help your writing in several
ways. It will be a storehouse of topics, of those elusive "things
LOOKING FOR SUBJECTS
to write about." It will provide a body of quotations (occasional quotations add interest to your writing). It will improve your prose. (Simply copying well-expressed sentences is one way of learning to write.) Most important, keeping a
commonplace book will give you new perceptions and ideas
and feelings. It will help you grow.
A journal—the word comes from French and originally
meant "daily"—is a day-to-day record of what you see, hear, do, think, feel. A journal collects your own experiences and thoughts rather than quotations. But, of course, you may
combine the two. If you add your own comments to the passages you copy into a commonplace book, you are also keeping a kind of journal. Many professional writers use journals, and the habit is a
good one for anybody interested in writing, even if he or she has no literary ambitions. Journals store perceptions, ideas, emotions, actions—all future material for essays or stories. The Journals of Henry Thoreau are a famous example, as are
A Writer's Diary by Virginia Woolf, the Notebooks of the
French novelist Albert Camus, and "A War-time Diary" by
the English writer George Orwell.
A journal is not for others to read. So you don't have to
worry about niceties of punctuation; you can use abbreviations and symbols like "&." But if a journal is really to help you develop as a writer, you've got to do more than compose
trite commonplaces or mechanically list what happens each
day. You have to look honestly and freshly at the world
around you and at the self within. And that means you have
to wrestle with words to tell what you see and what you feel: July 25, Thursday. . . . Today: clear, flung, pine-chills, orange needles underfoot. I myself am the vessel of tragic experience. I muse not enough
THE WRITING PROCESS
on the mysteries of Oedipus—I, weary, resolving the best and bringing, out of my sloth, envy and weakness, my own ruins. What do the gods ask? I must dress, rise, and send my body out.
But journals do not have to be so extraordinary in their
sensibility or introspection. Few people are that perceptive. The essential thing is that a journal captures your experience and feelings. Here is another, different example, also fresh and revealing. The writer, Rockwell Stensrud, kept a journal as he accompanied an old-time cattle drive staged in 1975 as part
of the Bicentennial celebration:
Very strict unspoken rules of cowboy behavior—get as drunk as you want the night before, but you'd better be able to get up the next morning at 4:30, or you're not living by the code of respectability. Range codes more severe than high-society ideas of manners—and perhaps more necessary out here. What these cowboys respect more than anything is ability to carry one's own weight, to perform, to get the job done well—these are the traditions that make this quest of theirs possible.
Exploring for Topics
Before beginning a draft, you need to explore a subject, looking for topics. (Subject refers to the main focus of a composition; topic to specific aspects of the subject. The subject of this book is writing. Within that subject grammar, sentence
style, and so on, are topics. Any topic, of course, can itself be analyzed into subtopics.)
Some people like to work through a subject systematically,
uncovering topics by asking questions. Others prefer a less
structured, less analytical approach, a kind of brainstorming. They just begin to write, rapidly and loosely, letting ideas tumble out in free association. Then they edit what they've
done, discarding some topics, selecting others for further
Neither way is "right"—or rather both are right. Which
you use depends on your habits of mind, how much you
already know about a subject, and of course the subject itself. If you are writing about something that is easily analyzed— why one candidate should be elected, for instance, rather than some other—and if you've already thought a good deal about the matter, the analytical, questioning approach is better. But if your subject is more nebulous—your feelings about war,
say—and you have not thought long and hard, you may get
stuck if you try systematic analysis. It might be better to
THE WRITING PROCESS
scribble, to get ideas on paper, any ideas, however far-fetched, in whatever order.
Finding Topics by Asking Questions
Why? What caused it? What were the reasons?
How can the subject be defined?
What does it imply or entail?
What limits should be set to it?
Are there exceptions and qualifications?
What examples are there?
Can the subject be analyzed into parts or aspects?
Can these parts be grouped in any way?
What is the subject similar to?
What is it different from?
Has it advantages or virtues?
Has it disadvantages or defects?
What have other people said about it?
These are general questions, of course; and they are not the only ones you might ask. Particular subjects will suggest others. Nor will all of these questions be equally applicable in every case. But usually five or six will lead to topics.
Suppose, for example, you are interested in how young
adults (20 to 30) in the 1990s differ from similar people in the 1960s. Try asking questions. Consider definition. What do
you mean by "differ"? Differ how? In dress style? Eating
habits? Political loyalties? Lifestyle? Attitudes toward love, sex, marriage? Toward success, work, money?
Already you have topics, perhaps too many. Another question suggests itself: Which of these topics do I want to focus on? Or, put another way: How shall I limit the subject? The
choice would not be purely arbitrary; it would depend partly on your interests and partly on your ambitions. In a book
you might cover all these topics. In a ten-page paper only one
EXPLORING FOR TOPICS
or two or three. We'll imagine a short paper and focus on
love, sex, and marriage.
Now you have three major topics. How to organize them?
Sex, love, and marriage seems a reasonable order. Next, each topic needs to be explored, which you do by again asking
questions. How do the attitudes of the sixties and the nineties differ? Why? Examples?—from friends, popular culture
(songs, advertisements, magazine articles, films), literature, sociological studies? Can you find useful quotations or stories or movies that support your points? Are there virtues in the attitudes of the nineties? Disadvantages? How do you evaluate those of the sixties? Was a comparable generational shift in values evident in other places and other times?
You're not going to get answers off the top of your head.
But at least you know what you're looking for. You can begin to collect information, interviewing friends, studying magazines and movies and television shows, reading novels and stories, looking into scholarly studies of changing social
You've got a lot to write about.
Finding Topics by Free Writing
Free writing simply means getting ideas on paper as fast as
you can. The trick is to let feelings and ideas pour forth. Jot down anything that occurs to you, without worrying about
order or even making much sense. Keep going; to pause is to
risk getting stuck, like a car in snow. Move the pencil, writing whatever pops into mind. Don't be afraid of making mistakes
or of saying something foolish. You probably will. So what?
You're writing for yourself, and if you won't risk saying
something foolish, you're not likely to say anything wise.
Here's how you might explore the different attitudes of the
1990s and the 1960s on sex, love, and marriage:
Sex—less permissive today. Herpes? AIDS? More conservative morality? Just a generational reaction, a swing of the pendulum?
THE WRITING PROCESS
Cooler about love and marriage. Less romantic. Harry and Ellen. Maybe feminism. If they have a chance at careers—prestige, money—women are harder-headed about marriage. Maybe more
demanding about men, less willing to accept them on men's own terms. Maybe men leery of modem women.
Economics? It's a tougher world. Fewer good jobs, more competition. Everything costs—education, cars, housing, kids. Materialism. Young people seem more materialistic. Concerned with money, worldly success. They want to make it. Be millionaires by thirty. Admiration for winners, fear being losers.
Less idealistic? Do disillusion and cynicism push toward selfinterest? But people in their twenties today aren't really cynical and disillusioned. Never been idealistic enough. They don't have to learn the lesson of The Big Chili They grew up in it.
Such jottings are not finely reasoned judgments. Many of
the ideas are speculative and hastily generalized; some are
probably biased. Still, topics have surfaced. The next task
would be to look at them closely, rejecting some, choosing
others; and then to gather information.
Thus both methods of exploration have led to topics, the
rudiments of an essay. But notice that while they cover the
same general subject, they have led in rather different directions. The analytical questions have stressed what—the nature of the changes in attitude; the free writing has stressed why—the reasons for the changes.
These different emphases were not planned. They just happened. And that suggests an important fact: it is profitable to use both methods to explore for topics. Questions have the
advantage of focusing your attention. But a focused attention sees only what is under the lens, and that is a severe limitation. Brainstorming can be wasteful, leading in too many directions. But it is more likely to extend a subject in unforeseen ways and to make unexpected connections.
The two methods, then, are complementary, not antithetical. Temperamentally, you may prefer one or the other. But it's wise to try both.
EXPLORING FOR TOPICS
D Below is a series of provocative quotations. Select one that >
appeals to you and explore it for topics. You don't have to agree with the idea. The goal is just to get your thoughts on paper. First, fill one or two pages with free writing. Put down everything that comes to mind. Then try the more analytical approach of asking questions. (A variation of this exercise is to work with several friends; group brainstorming can be more productive than working alone.)
Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.
"Know thyself?" If I knew myself I'd run away.
The business of America is business.
Business underlies everything in our national life, including our spiritual life.
In love always one person gives and the other takes.
Sex is something I really don't understand too hot. You never know where the hell you are. I keep making up these sex rules for myself, and then I break them right away.
j. D. Salinger
No man but a blockhead ever writes, except for money.
He's really awfully fond of colored people. Well, he says himself, he wouldn't have white servants.
If we wanted to be happy it w o u l d be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.
Wrest once the law to your authority:
To do a great right, do a little wrong.
A lawyer has no business with the justice or injustice of the cause which he undertakes, unless his client asks his opinion, and then
THE WRITING PROCESS
he is b o u n d to give it honestly. T h e justice or injustice of the cause is t o be decided by the j u d g e .
[College is] four years under the ethercone breathe deep gently n o w that's the w a y to be a g o o d boy one t w o three four five six get A's in some courses but d o n ' t be a g r i n d .
John Dos Passos
If a t h i n g is w o r t h d o i n g , it is w o r t h d o i n g badly.
c. K. Chesterton
Making a Plan
You've chosen a subject (or had one chosen for you), explored it, thought about the topics you discovered, gathered information about them. Now what? Are you ready to begin writing?
Well, yes. But first you need a plan. Perhaps nothing more
than a loose sense of purpose, held in your mind and never
written down—what jazz musicians call a head arrangement.
Head arrangements can work very well—if you have the right kind of head and if you're thoroughly familiar with the
But sometimes all of us (and most times most of us) require
a more tangible plan. One kind is a statement of purpose;
another is a preliminary, scratch outline.
The Statement of Purpose
It's nothing complicated—a paragraph or two broadly describing what you want to say, how you're going to organize it, what you want readers to understand, feel, believe. The
paragraphs are written for yourself, to clarify your ideas and to give you a guide; you don't have to worry about anyone else's reading them. Even so, you may find on occasion that composing a statement of purpose is difficult, perhaps
THE WRITING PROCESS
impossible. What that means is that you don't really know
what your purpose is. Yet even failure is worthwhile if it
makes you confront and answer the question: Just what am I
aiming at in this paper?
Not facing that question before they begin to write is one
of the chief causes people suffer from writing block. It's not so much that they can't think o/what to say, as that they
haven't thought about what they can say. Ideas do not come
out of the blue; as we saw in the last chapter, they have to be sought. And when they are found, they don't arrange themselves. A writer has to think about the why and how of using them.
Many of us think better if we write down our ideas. That's
all a statement of purpose is really, thinking out loud, except with a pencil. The thinking, however, is not so much about
the subject itself as about the problems of focusing and communicating it. Here's how a statement of purpose might look for a theme
about attitudes toward sex, love, and marriage in the 1990s: It seems to me that today people in their twenties feel differently about sex, love, and marriage than young people did in the 1960s. I'm not claiming the differences are universal, that every young adult today feels one way, while every young adult twenty years ago felt another. Just that the predominant tone has changed. I want to identify and describe these differences, focusing on the nineties, and to discuss why the changes came about. I see a problem of organization. Am I going to organize primarily around the differences themselves, first attitudes toward sex, then attitudes towards love and marriage? In this case, a discussion of causes would be subordinate. On the other hand, I could make the causes my main points of organization, beginning with a relatively detailed discussion of how attitudes today are different, but spending most of the paper in discussing how feminism, the hardening economy, and a tougher, more self-centered approach to life have combined to bring about the changes. I think I'll do it this second way. What I want readers to see is less of the facts about the new attitudes to-
MAKING A PLAN
ward sex, love, and marriage, and more of the social and cultural causes generating the change.
The Scratch Outline
An outline is a way of dividing a subject into its major parts, of dividing these in turn into subparts, and so on, into finer and finer detail. There are formal outlines, which are usually turned in with a composition and even serve as compositions
in their own right. And there are informal outlines, often
called "working" or "scratch" outlines. The formal variety
follows rules that prescribe the alternating use of numbers and letters and the way in which the analysis must proceed. But
formal outlines and their rules will not concern us here.
Our interest is in the scratch outline, which serves only the writer's use and may be cast in any form that works. Begin
by asking: What are the major sections of my composition?
II. How attitudes toward sex, love, and marriage in the 1990s differ from those in the 1960s
III. Why the differences occurred
Now apply a similar question to each major section:
A. Identify subject and establish focus—on the reasons for the change rather than on the change itself
B. Quality and limit: attitudes in question are the predominating ones, those which set the tone of a generation II. How attitudes toward sex, love, and marriage differ in the 1990s from those in the 1960s
A. Sex—less permissive, less promiscuous
B. Love—cooler, not so completely a preemptive good
THE WRITING PROCESS
C. Marriage—more calculating, rational; avoid early marriage, first get career on track
III. Why the differences occurred
A. Feminism—more job opportunities for women and greater
independence; also stronger sense of their own worth—all
this weakens the allure of love and marriage
B. Tighter economy—future has to be planned more carefully, less room for romantic illusions
C. More self-centered view of life—partly a result of the two conditions above, but becomes a cause in its own right
A. The attitudes of the nineties more realistic, less prone to disillusion
B. But perhaps idealism has been sacrificed, or weakened, and the prevailing materialism is too ready to sell the world short
Thus the analysis could go on: the A's and B's broken
down, examples introduced, comparisons offered, and so on.
Generally, it is better to proceed with the analysis one step at a time, as in the example above. This keeps the whole subject better in mind and is more likely to preserve a reasonable
balance. If you exhaustively analyze category I before moving on to II, then carry II down to fine detail before tackling III, you may lose sight of the overall structure of the composition. How far you take a scratch outline depends on the length
of your composition and obviously on your willingness to
spend time in planning. But the more planning you do, the
easier the actual writing will be. A good scratch outline suggests where possible paragraph breaks might come, and the ideas you have jotted down in the headings are the germs of
topic statements and supporting sentences.
But however you proceed and however far you carry the
scratch outline, remember that as a plan it is only tentative, subject to change. And the odds are that you will change it. No matter how much you think about a subject or how thoroughly you plan, the actuality of writing opens up unforeseen possibilities and reveals the weakness of points that seemed
MAKING A PLAN
important. A scratch outline is a guide, but a guide you should never hesitate to change.
D Imagine you are going to write an essay of eight or ten pages, >
using the topics you arrived at by exploring one of the quotations at the end of the preceding chapter. First, compose a statement of purpose for that essay in one or two paragraphs totaling about 250 words. Second, make a scratch outline for the theme, indicating the primary divisions and the major subdivisions within these.
Drafts and Revisions
A draft is an early version of a piece of writing. Most of us cannot compose anything well at the first try. We must write and rewrite. These initial efforts are called drafts, in distinction from the final version. As a rule, the more you draft, the better the result.
For drafting, the best advice is the same as for the free writing we discussed in Chapter 5: keep going and don't worry about small mistakes. A draft is not the end product; it is
tentative and imperfect. Writing becomes impossible if you
try to do it one polished sentence at a time. You get lost
looking for perfection. Rough out your report or article, then develop and refine, keeping the total effect always in mind. Accept imperfections. Don't linger over small problems. If
you can't remember a spelling, get the word down and correct it later. If you can't think of exactly the term you want, put down what you can think of and leave a check in the margin
to remind yourself to look for a more precise word. Your
main purpose is to develop ideas and to work out a structure. Don't lose sight of major goals by pursuing minor ones—
proper spelling, conventional punctuation, the exact word.
These can be supplied later.
DRAFTS AND REVISIONS
There is a limit, however, to the similarity between drafting and free writing. Free writing involves exploration and discovery; your pencil should move wherever your mind pushes it. A draft is more reined in. You know, more or less, what
you want to do, and the draft is an early version of an organized composition. Therefore you are not as free as in the exploratory phase. If you get into blind alleys in a draft, you must back out and set off in a new direction. The mistake will not be unproductive if it tells you where you don't want to
Some people prefer to draft with a pen or pencil; others can work successfully on a typewriter or word processor. If you
draft in longhand, skip every other line and leave adequate
margins: you will need the space for revisions. If you type, double space. Use only one side of the paper, reserving the
other side for extensive changes or additions. When you number the pages of your draft, it's a good idea to include a brief identifying title: "First draft, p. 1," "Second draft, p. 3." In a composition of any length, consider stopping every so
often at a convenient point. Read over what you've written,
making corrections or improvements; then type what you've
done. Seeing your ideas in print will usually be reassuring. If you don't have a typewriter or word processor, copy the section neatly in longhand; the effect will be much the same. Turn back to the draft; work out the next section; stop again and type. The alternation between drafting and typing will
relieve the strain of constant writing and give you a chance to pause and contemplate what you have accomplished and
what you ought to do next.
But this is advice, not dogma. People vary enormously in
their writing habits; what works for one fails for another. The best rule is to find a time and a place for writing that enable you to work productively and to follow a procedure you find
congenial. You may like to draft in green or purple ink, to
listen to music as you write, to compose the entire draft of a ten-page essay and then retype the whole thing instead of
doing it section by section. Do what works for you.
THE WRITING PROCESS
As a brief sample, here is a draft of the beginning of the
composition we've been discussing for the last several chapters—how young people in the 1990s feel about sex, love, and marriage.
I have some friends in their late twenties. They live in Chicago, where he is starting out as a lawyer and she as an accountant. Both are presently junior members of large firms, but they are ambitious and hope eventually either to track upward in their companies or to get out on their own. They live together; they say they are in love, and they seem to be. But they are surprisingly cool about it and about the prospect of marriage. " W e l l , " Dee says, "I have my career and Jack has his. It's good we're together, but who knows where we'll be in two years or how we'll feel?" Their coolness surprises me. I find it admirable and yet a bit repelling. I admire their good sense. Still, I think to myself, should young love be so cool, so rational, so pragmatic? Is such good sense at so youthful an age perhaps purchased at too great a price? My friends are not, I believe, unusual, not certainly among young, college-educated professionals. The lack of emotional intensity and commitment— about love, at least—seems the dominant tone of their generation. How is it different from the attitudes I grew up with, the attitudes of the sixties? And why is it different? These are the questions I want to consider.
A good deal of improvement can be made in that draft.
First, though, it would help to say something about revision in general.
Both drafting and revising are creative, but they differ in emphasis. Drafting is more spontaneous and active; revision, more thoughtful and critical. As a writer of a draft you must keep going and not get hung up on small problems. As a
reviser you change hats, becoming a demanding reader who
expects perfection. When you write you see your words from
inside; you know what you want to say and easily overlook
DRAFTS AND REVISIONS
lapses of clarity puzzling to readers. When you revise you put yourself in the reader's place. Of course you cannot get completely outside your own mind, but you can think about what readers know and do not know, what they believe and consider important. You can ask yourself if what is clear to you will be equally clear to them.
To revise effectively, force yourself to read slowly. Some
people hold a straightedge so they read only one line at a time, one word at a time if possible. Others read their work aloud. This is more effective (though you cannot do it on all occasions). Reading aloud not only slows you down, it distances you from the words, contributing to that objectivity which
successful revision requires. Moreover, it brings another sense to bear: you hear your prose as well as see it. Ears are often more trustworthy than eyes. They detect an awkwardness in
sentence structure or a jarring repetition the eyes pass over. Even if you're not exactly sure what's wrong, you hear that
something is, and you can tinker with the sentences until they sound better. It also helps to get someone else to listen to or to read your work and respond.
Keep a pencil in hand as you revise (some like a different
color). Mark your paper freely. Strike out imprecise words,
inserting more exact terms above them (here is the advantage of skipping lines). If you think of another idea or of a way of expanding a point already used, write a marginal note, phrasing it precisely enough so that when you come back to it in an hour or a day it will make sense. If a passage isn't clear, write "clarity?" in the margin. If there seems a gap between paragraphs or between sentences within a paragraph, draw an
arrow from one to the other with a question mark. Above all, be ruthless in striking out what is not necessary. A large part of revision is chipping away unnecessary words.
As we study diction, sentences, and paragraph structure,
you will become aware of what to look for when you revise,
but we shall mention a few basics here. Most fundamental is
clarity. If you suspect a sentence may puzzle a reader, figure out why and revise it. Almost as important is emphasis.
THE WRITING PROCESS
Strengthen important points by expressing them in short or
unusual sentences. Learn to position modiners so that tHey
interrupt a sentence and throw greater weight on important
ideas. Look for unsupported generalizations. Even when it is clear, a generalization gains value from illustrative detail. Sharpen your diction. Avoid awkward repetitions of the
same word. Replace vague abstract terms with precise ones
having richer, more provocative connotations. Watch for failures of tone: don't offend readers and don't strike poses. Be alert for errors in grammar and usage and in spelling
and typing. Make sure your punctuation is adequate and conventional, but no more frequent than clarity or emphasis requires. Guard against mannerisms of style. All of us have them: beginning too many sentences with "and" or "but";
interrupting the subject and verb; writing long, complicated sentences. None of these is wrong, but any word or sentence
pattern becomes a mannerism when it is overworked. One
"however" in a paragraph may work well; two attract a
reader's notice; three will make him or her squirm.
As an example of revision let's look again at the opening
of our imaginary essay.
Dull opening. Perhaps:
"Dee and Jack are an attractive c o u p l e . . . . "
Not important enough for a
I have some friends in their late twenties.
n e y
| j v e j n Chicago, where he is starting
out as a lawyer and she as an accountant.
Both are presently junior members of large
firms, but they are ambitiouo and hope
Poor emphasis and wordy
committed to their careers, eager to move ahead
eventually either to track upward in their
companies or to get out on their own. They
live together; they say they are in love,
DRAFTS AND REVISIONS
and they seem to be. But they are surprisingly cool about it and about the
The point is that marriage
is not a likely prospect.
prospect of marriage. "Well," Dee says, "I
have my career and Jack has his. It's good
New sentence for emphasis
we're together, but who knows where
we'll be in two years ef how we'll feel?"
1 I find
Their coolness surprises me. I find it admiWordy
"Repelling" is too strong.
rable and yet a bit repelling. I admire their
good sense. Still, I think to myself, should
young love be so cool, so rational, so pragmatic? Is such good sense at so youthful an age purchased at too great a price?
1 Dee and Jack
My friends are not, I believe, unusual,
not certainly among young, collegeLow-key ed
educated professionals. The lack of
Wordy and awkward
emotionalism seems the dominant tone of their song of
emotional intensity and commitment—
about lovo at least seems the dominant tone
Rework these rhetorical
questions; they seem heavyhanded and jar the informal tone.
of their generation. How is it different from
the attitudes I grew up with, the attitudes of
the sixties? And why is it different? These
are the questions I want to consider.
THE WRITING PROCESS
Here now is the revision:
Dee and Jack are an attractive couple in their late twenties— bright, well-educated, ambitious. He is starting out as a lawyer, she as an accountant, junior members of large firms, they are committed to their careers and eager to move ahead. They live together. They say they are in love, and they seem to be. But they are cool about it, and about the possibility of marriage. " W e l l , " Dee says, "I have my career and Jack has his. It's good that we're together, but who knows where we'll be in two years? Or how we'll feel?"
I find their coolness admirable, and yet a bit unsettling. Should young love, I think to myself, be quite so cool, so rational, so pragmatic? Is good sense at so youthful an age purchased at too high a price?
Dee and Jack aren't unusual, not among college-educated young professionals. Low-keyed emotionalism seems the dominant tone of the contemporary song of love. It's all very different from the attitudes I shared in the sixties. It occurred to me to wonder why. I don't think there is any single, simple reason.. . .
Probably you wouldn't write such extensive marginal notes
to yourself, but those in the example suggest how you should be thinking. The revisions are toward precision, emphasis,
How many drafts and revisions you go through depends
on your energy, ambition, and time. Most people who publish
feel they stopped one draft too soon. Many teachers and editors are willing to accept corrections so long as they are not so numerous or messy that they interfere with reading. Some, on the other hand, do want clean copy—that is, pages with
no corrections, additions, or deletions.
Whether or not you are allowed to revise it, your final copy should always be neat and legible. Keep margins of an inch
or more. If you type, use standard typing paper and type on
DRAFTS AND REVISIONS
only one side. Double space and correct typos by erasure or
tape, not by overstriking. Keep the keys clean and invest now and then in a new ribbon. If you write in longhand, use conventional, lined composition paper. Unless directed otherwise, skip every other line and write only on one side. Leave adequate margins for corrections and comments. Take time
to write legibly. No one expects a beautiful copperplate hand, but it is fair to ask for readability.
P A R T
An essay is a relatively short composition. It does not claim scholarly thoroughness (that belongs to the monograph), but
it does exhibit great variety. Essays can be about almost anything; they can be speculative or factual or emotional; they can be personal or objective, serious or humorous. The very
looseness of the term is a convenience; it would be a mistake to define it precisely. Here essay really will simply mean a short prose piece. There are differences among articles and
reports and essays. But they have much in common, and what
we say about the essay—its beginning, closing, structure, and so on—applies to compositions generally.
Readers approach any piece of prose with a set of questions. What is this about? Will it interest me? What does the writer intend to do (or not do)? What kind of person is the writer? To begin effectively you must answer these questions, one
way or another. From the writer's point of view, beginning
means announcing and limiting the subject, indicating a plan, catching the reader's attention, and establishing an appropriate tone and point of view. Not all of these matters are equally important. Announcing
and limiting the subject are essential. Laying out the plan of the paper and angling for the reader's interest, on the other hand, depend on your purpose and audience. Tone and point
of view are inevitable: whenever you write you imply them.
In the beginning, then, you must establish a tone and point
of view conducive to your purpose.
The length of the beginning depends on the length and
complexity of what it introduces. In a book the opening might take an entire chapter with dozens of paragraphs. In a short article a single sentence might be adequate. For most essays a single paragraph is enough. Whatever their length, all effective openings fulfill the same functions.
Announcing the Subject
In announcing a subject you have two choices: (1) whether
to be explicit or implicit, and (2) whether to be immediate or to delay.
Explicit and Implicit Announcement
In explicit announcement you literally state in some fashion or other, "This is my subject." The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead begins Religion in the Making like this:
It is my purpose to consider the type of justification which is available for belief in the doctrines of religion.
The words "It is my purpose" make this an explicit announcement. It would have been implicit had Whitehead begun:
Belief in the doctrines of religion may be justified in various ways.
This sentence does not literally tell readers what the subject is, but the subject is clearly implied.
Because of its clarity, scholars and scientists writing for
their colleagues often use explicit announcement. On less formal occasions it may seem heavy-handed. A school theme,
for instance, ought not to begin "The purpose of this paper
is to contrast college and high school." It is smoother to establish the subject by implication: "College and high school differ in several ways." Readers don't have to be hit over the head. Implicit announcements may appear as rhetorical questions, as in this essay about historians: What is the historian?
The historian is he who tells a true story in writing.
Consider the members of that definition.
Similarly the theme on college and high school might have
In what ways do college and high school differ?
Opening questions, however, can sound mechanical. While
better than no announcement at all, or the clumsiness of "The purpose of this paper is," rhetorical questions are not very original. Use them for announcement only when you can do
so with originality or when all other alternatives are less
The same advice holds for opening with a dictionary definition, another way of announcing subjects implicitly. Nothing is inherently wrong in starting off with a quote from a reputable dictionary, but it is trite. Of course a clever or an unusual definition may make a good opening. John Dos Passos's definition of college as "four years under the ethercone" is certainly novel and provocative and might make a fine
When the purpose of an essay is to define a word or idea,
it is legitimate to start from the dictionary. But these exceptions admitted, the dictionary quotation, like the rhetorical question, has been overworked as a way of implying the
Immediate and Delayed Announcement
Your second choice involves whether to announce the subject
immediately or to delay. This opening line of an essay called "Selected Snobberies" by the English novelist Aldous Huxley
falls into the first category:
All men are snobs about something.
Letting readers in on the subject at once is a no-nonsense,
businesslike procedure. But an immediate announcement may
not hold much allure. If the subject is of great interest, or if the statement is startling or provocative (like Huxley's), it will catch a reader's eye. Generally, however, immediate announcement is longer on clarity than on interest. So you may prefer to delay identifying the subject. Delay
is usually achieved by beginning broadly and narrowing until you get down to the subject. The critic Susan Sontag, for
instance, uses this beginning for an essay defining "Camp" (a deliberately pretentious style in popular art and entertainment): Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility—unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it—that goes by the name of "Camp."
Less commonly the subject may be delayed by focusing
outward, opening with a specific detail or example and broadening to arrive at the subject. Aldous Huxley opens an essay on "Tragedy and the Whole Truth" in this manner:
There were six of them, the best and the bravest of the hero's companions. Turning back from his post in the bows, Odysseus was in time to see them lifted, struggling, into the air, to hear their screams,
the desperate repetition of his own name. The survivors could only look on, helplessly, while Scylla "at the mouth of her cave devoured them, still screaming, still stretching out their hands to me in the frightful struggle." And Odysseus adds that it was the most dreadful and lamentable sight he ever saw in all his "explorings of the passes of the sea." We can believe it; Homer's brief description (the too-poetical simile is a later interpolation) convinces us. Later, the danger passed, Odysseus and his men went ashore for the night, and, on the Sicilian beach, prepared their supper—prepared it, says Homer, "expertly." The Twelfth Book of the Odyssey concludes with these words: "When they had satisfied their thirst and hunger, they thought of their dear companions and wept, and in the midst of their tears sleep came gently upon them."
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth—how rarely the older literatures ever told it! Bits of the truth, yes; every good book gives us bits of the truth, would not be a good book if it did not. But the whole truth, no. Of the great writers of the past incredibly few have given us that. Homer—the Homer of the Odyssey—is one of those few.
It is not until the third paragraph that Huxley closes in on his subject, of which the episode from the Odyssey is an example. Delayed announcement has several advantages. It piques
readers' curiosity. They know from the title that the opening sentences do not reveal the subject, and they are drawn in to see where they are headed. Curiosity has a limit, however;
you can tease readers too long.
A broad beginning can also clarify a subject, perhaps supplying background or offering examples. Finally, delayed announcement can be entertaining in its own right. There is a pleasure like that of watching a high-wire performer in observing an accomplished writer close in on a subject. More immediate announcement, on the other hand, is
called for in situations where getting to the point is more
important than angling for readers or entertaining them. How you announce your subject, then, as with so much in writing, depends on purpose—that is, on your reason for addressing
Limiting the Subject
In most cases a limiting sentence or clause must follow the
announcement of the subject. Few essays (or books, for that
matter) discuss all there is to say; they treat some aspects of a subject but not others. As with announcement, limitation
may be explicit or implicit. The first—in which the writer says, in effect, "I shall say such and so"—is more common
in formal, scholarly writing. The grammarian Karl W. Dykema begins an article entitled "Where Our Grammar Came From":
The title of this paper is too brief to be quite accurate. Perhaps with the following subtitle it does not promise too much: A partial account of the origin and development of the attitudes which commonly pass for grammatical in Western culture and particularly in English-speaking societies.
On informal occasions one should limit the subject less literally, implying the boundaries of the paper rather than literally stating them: Publishers, I am told, are worried about their business, and I, as a writer, am therefore worried too. But I am not sure that the actual state of their affairs disturbs me quite so much as some of the analyses of it and some of the proposals for remedying what is admittedly an unsatisfactory situation. Joseph Wood Krutch
Without literally saying so, Krutch makes it clear that he will confine his interest in the problems publishers face to criticizing some of the attempts that have been made to explain and solve those problems.
Besides being explicit or implicit, limitation may also be
positive or negative (or both). The paragraphs by Dykema
and Krutch tell us what the writers will do; they limit the
subject in a positive sense. In the following case the English writer and statesman John Buchan tells what he will not do
(the paragraph opens the chapter "My America" of his book
The title of this chapter exactly defines its contents. It presents the American scene as it appears to one observer—a point of view which does not claim to be that mysterious thing, objective truth. There will be no attempt to portray the "typical" American, for I have never known one. I have met a multitude of individuals, but I should not dare to take any one of them as representing his country—as being that other mysterious thing, the average man. You can point to certain qualities which are more widely distributed in America than elsewhere, but you will scarcely find human beings who possess all these qualities. One good American will have most of them; another, equally good and not less representative, may have few or none. So I shall eschew generalities. If you cannot indict a nation, no more can you label it like a museum piece.
Some limitation—explicit or implicit, positive or negative— is necessary at the beginning of most essays. Term papers,
long formal essays whose purpose is to inform, technical and scholarly articles, all may have to engage in extensive boundary fixing to avoid misleading or disappointing the reader. Shorter themes, however, do not require much limitation.
Readers learn all they really need to know by an opening
sentence like this:
College is different from high school in several ways—especially in teaching, homework, and tests.
The final phrase conveys the limitations, following the announcement in the first clause of the sentence. The subject is a contrast between college and high school, the focus is on
college, and the contents are limited to three specific points of difference. That is limitation enough for a brief, informal essay, and the writer can get on with the discussion without a heavy statement like this:
I shall limit the contrast to teaching methods, homework, and tests.
There is no rule to test whether you have limited a subject
sufficiently. Just put yourself in the reader's place and ask if it is clear (whether by direct statement or by implication)
what the essay will do and what it will not do.
Indicating the Plan of the Essay
Another function of the beginning, though not an invariable
one, is to clarify how the essay will be organized. The writer has the plan in mind when composing the beginning paragraph (or revising it). The question is: Should the plan be revealed to the reader?
Writers often do consider it necessary. Harold Mattingly
begins his book Roman Imperial Civilization with this
The object of this first chapter is to give a sketch of the Empire which may supply a background to all that follows: to explain what the position of Emperor from time to time was, how it was defined in law, how it was interpreted by the subjects; then, around the Emperor, to show the different parts of the State in relation to one another and to him. Later chapters will develop particular themes. We shall have to consider at the close how far the constitution of the Empire was satisfactory for its main purposes, how much truth there is in the contention that imperfections in the constitution were a main cause of Decline and Fall.
The paragraph indicates not only the plan of the first chapter and that of the whole book, but also how the opening chapter fits into the larger organization.
Even with subjects less complex and grand than the Roman
Empire, writers may wish to tell us how they intend to develop their essays: I want to tell you about a woodsman, what he was like, what his work was, and what it meant. His name was Alfred D. Teare and he came originally from Nova Scotia, but all the time I knew him his home was in Berlin, New Hampshire. Probably the best sur-
veyor of old lines in New England, he was—in his way—a
This straightforward paragraph not only announces and
limits the subject but also reveals something about the organization of the essay. Readers are prepared for a three-part structure: Teare as a person, the nature of his work, and the significance of that work. Assuming that the writer knows his craft—as in this case he does—we know the order in which he mentions these aspects of his subject reflects the order in which he will treat them. The plan has been clarified implicitly and effectively.
Establishing your plan in the beginning has several virtues. It eases the reader's task. Knowing where they are headed,
readers can follow the flow of ideas. An initial indication of the organization also simplifies later problems of transition. When a writer can assume that readers understand the general scheme of the essay, it is easier to move them from point to point.
As with limiting the subject, one cannot set down clear-cut
rules about when to reveal the plan. Generally it is wise to indicate something about the organization of compositions
that are relatively long and that fall into several well-defined parts. Shorter, simpler essays less often require that their plan be established in the opening paragraph.
When you must indicate your plan, do so as subtly as you
can. The imaginary theme about high school and college that
College is different from high school in several ways—especially in teaching methods, homework, and tests.
clearly implies the three parts of the essay and their order. In longer work you may occasionally feel it desirable to indicate organization explicitly. But be sure that your subject is substantial enough and your purpose serious enough to support such a beginning.
Interesting the Reader
Sometimes you can take readers' interest for granted. Scholars and scientists writing for learned journals, for instance, do not have to make much effort to catch their readers' attention.
More commonly a writer's audience includes at least some
people whose interest must be deliberately sought. Several
strategies for doing this are available.
Stressing the Importance of the Subject
Treat the reader as a reasonable, intelligent person with a desire to be well informed and say, in effect: "Here is something you should know or think about." The American poet and
critic John Peale Bishop begins an essay on Picasso with this sentence:
There is no painter who has so spontaneously and so profoundly reflected his age as Pablo Picasso.
This is usually a more effective strategy than stressing the importance of the subject. You may play upon curiosity by
opening with a short factual statement that raises more questions than it answers. Astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington begins a chapter in his book The Philosophy of Science with this statement:
I believe there are 15,747,724,136,275,002,577,605,653,691,
181,555,468,044,71 7,914,527,116,709,366,231,425,076,185,631, 031,296 protons in the universe and the same number of electrons.
It would be a curiously incurious reader who would not boggle at this and read on to learn how the writer arrived at so precise a figure.
A short step from such interest-arousing factual openings
is the cryptic beginning, that is, a mysterious or not quite clear statement. Charles Lamb opens an essay with
I have no ear.
We soon learn that he means "no ear for music," but for a
moment we are startled.
To be effective a cryptic opening must not simply be
murky. It must combine clarity of statement with mystery of
intent. We know what it says, but we are puzzled about why.
The mystery has to be cleared up rather quickly if the reader's interest is to be retained. For most of us curiosity does not linger; without satisfaction it goes elsewhere.
Carrying mystification a little further, you may open with
a rhetorical paradox—a statement that appears to contradict reality as we know it. Hilaire Belloc begins his essay "The
Barbarians" this way:
It is a pity true history is not taught in the schools.
Readers who suppose true history is taught may be annoyed,
but they are likely to go on.
Sometimes mystification takes the form of a non sequitur,
that is, an apparently nonlogical sequence of ideas. An enterprising student began a theme: I hate botany, which is why I went to New York.
The essay revealed a legitimate connection, but the seeming
illogic fulfilled its purpose of drawing in the reader.
Amusing the Reader
Aside from arousing their curiosity, you may attract readers by amusing them. One strategy is to open with a witty remark, often involving an allusion to a historical or literary
figure. Francis Bacon opens his essay "Of Truth" with this
What is truth? said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer.
A contemporary writer alludes both to Pontius Pilate and to
Bacon by adapting that beginning for the essay "What, Then,
"What is truth?" said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.
"What is culture?"said an enlightened man to me not long since, and though he stayed for an answer, he did not get one.
Another variety of the entertaining opening is the anecdote. Anecdotes have a double value, attracting us once by their
intrinsic wittiness and then by the skill with which writers apply them to the subject. In the following opening Nancy
Mitford describes the history of the French salon, a social
gathering of well-known people who discuss politics, art, and so on:
"What became of that man I used to see sitting at the end of your table?" someone asked the famous eighteenth-century Paris hostess, Mme. Geoffrin.
"He was my husband. He is dead." It is the epitaph of all such husbands. The hostess of a salon (the useful word salonniere, unfortunately, is an Anglo-Saxon invention) must not be encumbered by family life, and her husband, if he exists, must know his place. The salon was invented by the Marquise de Rambouillet at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
Mitford's story is amusing, in a cynical fashion. More important, it leads naturally into her subject. Naturally—that is important, for an opening anecdote fails if forced upon the subject from the outside.
Still another entertaining opening strategy is the clever and apt comparison. It may be an analogy, as in the following
passage by Virginia Woolf, the first part of the opening paragraph of her essay "Reviewing": In London there are certain shop windows that always attract a crowd. The attraction is not in the finished article but in the wornout garments that are having patches inserted in them. The crowd is watching the women at work. There they sit in the shop window putting invisible stitches into moth-eaten trousers. And this familiar sight may serve as an illustration to the following paper. So our poets, playwrights, and novelists sit in the shop window, doing their work under the eyes of reviewers.
Notice, incidentally, the skill with which Woolf focuses down upon the subject.
A comparison calculated to arouse interest may be a simile
or metaphor. G. K. Chesterton wittily begins an essay "On
Monsters" with this metaphorical comparison:
I saw in an illustrated paper—which sparkles with scientific news— that a green-blooded fish had been found in the sea; indeed a creature that was completely green, down to this uncanny ichor in its veins, and very big and venomous at that. Somehow I could not get it out of my head, because the caption suggested a perfect refrain for a Ballade: A green-blooded fish has been found in the sea. It has so wide a critical and philosophical application. I have known so many green-blooded fish on the land, walking about the streets and sitting in the clubs, and especially the committees. So many green-blooded fish have written books and criticism of books, have taught in academies of learning and founded schools of philosophy that they have almost made themselves the typical biological product of the present age of evolution.
Chesterton uses "green-blooded fish" as a metaphor for all
self-centered, dehumanized people, and the metaphor attracts us by its originality.
A Word About Titles
The title of an essay precedes the beginning and should clarify the subject and arouse interest. The title, however, does not take the place of a beginning paragraph. In fact it is good
practice to make an essay self-sufficient so that subject, purpose, plan (if needed) are all perfectly clear without reference to a title.
As to titles themselves, they should ideally be both informative and eye-catching. It is difficult in practice to balance these qualities, and most titles come down on one side or the other; they are informative but not eye-catching, or unusual and attractive but not especially informative. In either case a title ought to be concise.
If you start your essay with a title in mind, be sure it fits the theme as it actually evolves. In the process of composition, essays have a way of taking unexpected twists and turns. For this reason it may be well not to decide on a final title until you see what you have actually written.
When composing beginnings, inexperienced writers are likely
to err at either of two extremes: doing too little or doing too much. In doing too little they slight the opening, jumping too suddenly into the subject and piling ideas and information in front of the reader before he or she has time to settle back and see what all this is about.
In doing too much they make the beginning a precis of the
essay and anticipate everything they will cover. The function of an opening is to introduce an essay, not to be a miniature version of it. To make it so is to act as inappropriately as the master of ceremonies at a banquet who introduces the main
speaker by anticipating everything he or she is going to say. The effective beginning stays between those extremes. It
lets readers know what to expect, but it leaves them something to expect.
> In about 100 words, compose a beginning paragraph either for the theme you outlined at the close of the preceding chapter or for one or another topic of interest. Make sure that readers understand your general subject, the limitations of your treatment, and your organization. Be implicit: do not write, "The subject will be . . ."; "The plan to be followed is. . . ." Try to interest your readers and to establish a point of view and a tone appropriate to your purpose. > In conjunction with the exercise above, answer these questions, devoting several sentences or a brief paragraph to each:
A. What strategy did you use to interest your readers?
B. What tone were you seeking to establish—specifically, how did you feel about the subject, how did you wish readers to view you, and what kind of relationship did you hope to establish with them? Explain also how these aspects of tone led you to choose certain words in your beginning paragraph.
Like the opening of an essay, the closing should be proportional to the length and complexity of the whole piece. Several paragraphs, or only one, or even a single sentence may be
sufficient. But whatever its length, a closing must do certain things.
The most obvious function of a closing is to say, "The end." There are several ways of doing this.
The simplest is to employ a word or phrase like in conclusion, concluding, finally, lastly, in the last analysis, to close, in closing, and so on. Adverbs showing a loose consequential relationship also work: then, and so, thus. Generally it is best to keep such terminal words unobtrusive. In writing, the best
technique hides itself.
This strategy works on the analogy of a circle, which ends
where it began. The final paragraph repeats an important
word or phrase prominent in the beginning, something the
reader will remember. If the strategy is to work, the reader has to recognize the key term (but of course you cannot hang a sign on it—"Remember this"). You must stress it more subtly, perhaps by position or by using an unusual, memorable word. In an essay of any length it may be wise to repeat the phrase now and again, and sometimes writers emphasize the
fact of completion by saying something like, "We return,
then, t o . . . . "
In a sketch of a famous aristocrat, Lady Hester Stanhope,
the biographer Lytton Strachey opens with this paragraph:
The Pitt nose [Lady Stanhope belonged to the famous Pitt family] has a curious history. One can watch its transmigrations through three lives. The tremendous hook of Old Lord Chatham, under
whose curves Empires came to birth, was succeeded by the bleak upward-pointing nose of William Pitt the younger—the rigid symbol of an indomitable hauteur. With Lady Hester Stanhope came the final stage. The nose, still with an upward tilt in it, had lost its masculinity; the hard bones of the uncle and grandfather had disappeared. Lady Hester's was a nose of wild ambitions, of pride grown fantastical, a nose that scorned the earth, shooting off, one fancies, towards some eternally eccentric heaven. It was a nose, in fact, altogether in the air.
And here are the final three sentences of Strachey's sketch: The end came in June, 1839. Her servants immediately possessed themselves of every moveable object in the house. But Lady Hester cared no longer: she was lying back in her bed—inexplicable, grand, preposterous, with her nose in the air.
Not only does Strachey's phrase latch the end of his essay
to its beginning, it also conveys his attitude toward Lady Hester Stanhope. The expression that completes the circle necessarily looms large in the reader's mind, and it must be genuinely important.
Prose rhythm is complex. Here it is enough to understand
that, however it works, rhythm is inevitable and important.
Because it is, you can use it to signal the closing by varying the movement of the final sentence or sentences.
Usually the variation is to slow the sentence and make its
rhythm more regular. A famous example is the end of Lewis
Carroll's Alice in Wonderland:
Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the aftertime, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with her dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child life, and the happy summer days.
The passage is slowed by interrupting constructions (for example, "in the aftertime") and regularized by repeating similar constructions ("and how," for instance) to create an almost poetic rhythm (the X marks unstressed syllables and the / denotes stressed):
and the happy summer days.
Occasionally writers take the other tack and close with a
short, quick sentence rather than a long, slow, regular one. Such an ending is most effective played against a longer statement, as in this passage, which concludes Joan Didion's essay "On Morality":
Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is
when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I think we are already there.
Failing to use a brief sentence as a way of ending sometimes wastes a potentially good closing:
At last the hardworking housewife is ready to watch her favorite television program, but before fifteen minutes are up she is sound asleep in her chair and before she realizes it the 6:30 alarm is going off and it is time to start another day.
It is better like this:
Before she realizes it the 6:30 alarm is going off. Another day.
Natural Point of Closing
A final way of signaling the end is simply to stop at a natural point, one built into the subject. For example, in a biographical sketch of someone who is dead the obvious place to end is with the death scene, as in the passage quoted earlier by Lytton Strachey about Lady Hester Stanhope. Another instance is this paragraph, the end of Llewelyn Powys's essay "Michel de Montaigne":
On 13 September, 1592, Michel de Montaigne, having distributed certain legacies to his servants, summoned his parish priest to his bedside, and there in his curious room with the swallows already gathering on the leaden gutters outside, he heard Mass said for the last time in the company of certain of his neighbors. With due solemnity the blessed sacrament was elevated, and at the very moment that this good heretical Catholic and Catholic heretic (unmindful for once of his nine learned virgins) was raising his arms in seemly devotion toward the sacred which in its essence—que sgais-je— might, or might not, contain a subtle and crafty secret, he fell back dead.
Here the effectiveness of closing with the death scene is
reinforced by the careful construction of the last sentence, which does not complete its main thought until the very final word. "Dead" falls into place like the last piece of a puzzle. Natural closings are not restricted to deathbed descriptions. Writing about your daily routine, for instance, you might well end with some variation of the phrase the diarist Samuel
Pepys made famous: "And so to bed." Even when a subject
does not have a built-in closing, a comparison or figure of
speech can provide one.
These, then, are some of the ways of making clear that you
are through. The various techniques do not exclude one another; they are often combined. Nor are these the only devices of closing. Inventive writers tailor their endings to subject and purpose. The poet Dylan Thomas wittily concludes his essay
"How To Begin a Story" by doing what inexperienced writers should not do—simply stopping in mid-sentence: I see there is little, or no, time to continue my instructional essay on " H o w To Begin a Story." "How To End a Story" is, of course, a different matter. . . . One way of ending a story is. . . .
And Virginia Woolf closes an essay called "Reading" with
Some offering we must make; some act we must dedicate, if only to move across the room and turn the rose in the jar, which, by the way, has dropped its petals.
It is difficult to say why this works. The rhythm is important. But so is the image. The flower that has dropped its petals is perhaps a metaphor of ending. And the seeming irrelevancy
of the final clause also signals finality, like the gracious closing of a conversation. In any case, the passage ends the essay
neatly and unmistakably. That is the important thing.
Summation and Conclusion
Termination is always a function of the closing paragraph or sentence. Sometimes, depending on subject and purpose, you
may need to make a summary or to draw a conclusion, in the
sense of a final inference or judgment.
Summaries are more likely in long, complicated papers.
Usually they are signaled by a phrase like in summary, to sum up, summing up, in short, in fine, to recapitulate. The label may be more subtle: "We have seen, then, t h a t . . . , " and subtlety is usually a virtue in such matters. Logical conclusions or judgments may be necessary even
in short essays. Certain subjects make them obligatory. Here the journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams concludes an article on
the controversial Warren Harding (the twenty-ninth president, who served from 1921 to 1923): The anomaly of Warren Gamaliel Harding's career is that without wanting, knowing, or trying to do anything at all unusual, he became the figurehead for the most flagrantly corrupt regime in our history. It was less his fault than that of the country at large. Maneuvered by the politicians, the American people selected to represent them one whom they considered an average man. But the job they assigned him is not an average job. When he proved incapable of meeting its requirements, they blamed him and not themselves.
That is the tragedy of Harding.
On occasion it may not be the best strategy, or even be
possible, to round off an essay with a neat final judgment.
The novelist Joseph Conrad once remarked that the business
of the storyteller is to ask questions, not to answer them. That truth applies sometimes to the essayist, who may wish to suggest a judgment rather than to formulate one. The strategy is called an implicative closing. The writer stops short, allowing the reader to infer the conclusion. In effect the final sentences
open a door instead of closing one. Here, for instance, is the ending of an essay about a teenage hangout:
The old lady who lives across the street from the place says that the most striking thing is the momentary silences which, now and again, break up the loud, loud laughter.
Organizing the Middle
Just as an essay must begin and end well, so it must be clearly organized in between. An important part of a writer's job is assisting readers in following the organization. It can be done in two ways, which are often used together. One is by signposts—words, phrases, sentences (occasionally even a short paragraph) which tells readers what you have done, are doing, will do next, or even will not do at all. The other way is by interparagraph transitions, that is, words and phrases that tie the beginning of a new paragraph to what precedes it.
The most common signpost is an initial sentence that indicates both the topic and the general plan of treating it. For instance, the scientist J. B. S. Haldane organizes a five-paragraph section of a long essay like this: Science impinges upon ethics in at least five different ways. In the first place . . .
Thirdly . . .
Fourthly . ..
Fifthly . . .
Sequence may be signaled by actual numbers or letters—
usually enclosed in parentheses—rather than by words like
first, second, in the first place, and so on. The poet W. B. Yeats explains why he believes in magic:
I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed; and I believe in three doctrines, which have, as I think, been handed down from early times, and been the foundation of nearly all magical practices. These doctrines are— 1. That the borders of our mind are ever shifting, and that many minds can flow into one another, and create or reveal a single mind, a single energy.
2. That the borders of our memories are as shifting, and that our memories are a part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.
3. That this great mind and great memory can be evoked by
Numbers, however, and number words like first, second,
third, must be handled cautiously. Overused, they confuse
readers, losing them in a labyrinth of (l)s and (2)s and (a)s and (b)s.
Rather than using numbers, it is better, if possible, to set up an analysis by employing key terms. These identify the
major points and can be repeated at the beginning of the appropriate paragraph or section. For example, the television critic Edith Efron, discussing soap operas, writes:
Almost all dramatic tension and moral conflict emerge from three basic sources: mating, marriage and babies.
She begins the next paragraph by picking up the key word
The mating process is the cornerstone of the tri-value system.
ORGANIZING THE MIDDLE
And the following paragraph she opens by using the loose
synonym "domesticity" to link "marriage and babies":
If domesticity is a marital "good," aversion to it is a serious evil.
Signposts demand consistency. Once you begin using them
you must carry through. Some writers make the mistake of
starting off with something like this:
There were three reasons why the pact was not satisfactory. First.
But then they fail to introduce the next two reasons with the obligatory second or third (or secondly, finally). The lack of signals may confuse readers who fail to recognize when the
writer passes from one reason to another.
Aside from setting up a group of paragraphs, signposts may
also anticipate future sections of an essay or make clear what will not be treated. Few subjects divide neatly into watertight compartments. As you develop one point, you touch upon
another that you do not plan to discuss fully until later or perhaps not to discuss at all. When this happens you may wish to give a warning.
Signposts may also point backward, reminding readers of
something treated earlier wh...