Most writers agree that it is impossible to compose sophisticated discourse in a first pass, to be successful at one-shot writing. The majority of complex written discourses requires thinking and rethinking, forming and reforming, structuring and restructuring. Acting and reflecting on that action is one of the luxuries of cognition itself. As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once said: “In the realm of mind, one has the right to begin again.”
Every writer, beginning or experienced, feels at least some small twinge of anxiety and anticipation when it comes time to write the first sentence of a paper. That’s why some writing instructors advise you to compose your introduction last. What they mean, of course, is that after you finish a draft, you need to go back and rewrite your introduction. Once you know what you’ve set forth in the whole draft, you can write a much better introduction to it. So in that sense, you will have written the real introduction only after you’ve written the draft: you’ll have written the introduction last. Blueprints are the last things architects produce when working on a project. But even first drafts need introductions of some kind, so no one escapes that initial moment of uncertainty.
It is useful to spend more than a moment or two thinking about even this first draft introduction because it has a way of so entrenching itself in your paper that you will have a hard time getting rid of it when you get to your last draft. You may be resolved to get rid of your first draft introduction later, but such a resolution can fade as your deadline approaches—especially if sunrise is approaching at the same time. It is not a bad idea even from the beginning to take some steps to avoid last minute trouble
Introductory Strategies to Avoid
First, here are some introductory strategies to avoid even in the first draft. If they survive into your last draft, you can be sure that your professor will judge them as amateurish.
- Avoid simply echoing the language of the assignment. If the assignment says “Discuss the logical structure of the Declaration of Independence, particularly those assumptions on which Jefferson based his argument,” do not start with something like, “In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson based his argument on assumptions that are part of its logical structure.” You’re very likely to need some language from the assignment, but you should leave room, even in your first draft, for language of your own, so your readers will understand your unique approach to the question.
- Avoid offering a history of your thinking about the assignment. Don’t begin, “In analyzing the logical structure of the Declaration of Independence, it is first necessary to define the assumptions that Jefferson worked with. In my analysis, I found that Jefferson began with one assumption, which was that. . . .” Such a discussion of your own thought processes forces readers to wait a bit too long to find out what the paper will actually be about.
- Avoid beginning with “Webster defines xxx as. . .” If a concept or key terms is so important to your paper that you find it useful to specify its meaning, its dictionary definition will be too generic for your purposes. A somewhat better strategy here is to cite a definition by a specialist in a particular field (you can consult a specialized encyclopedia written by disciplinary scholars in the Gale Virtual Reference Library website, available under the “Research” tab on the Library’s homepage). If you wish to explore “generosity,” for example, you are unlikely to find a good starting point for your paper in a dictionary’s definition, but you are more likely to find one in a a philosopher’s definition, or a psychologist’s, or an economist’s, or a political theorist’s, or a sociobiologist’s, or even Mother Theresa’s. The reason for this is that those who write everyday dictionaries and disciplinary scholars are doing quite different things when they define: standard dictionaries merely establish a baseline of situations in which a term may be applied, while scholars participate in an ongoing intellectual conversation about a concept. And it is this conversation that your paper seeks to join, by acknowledging this definition, adding to it, or calling it into questions. What if you’re not sure who counts as a participant in this conversation? In that case, you have two choices: you may ask someone, such as your professor or a more advanced student in the discipline, or you may choose to avoid this opening strategy altogether until you are more familiar with the field.
- Avoid beginning with grandly banal statements. “The Declaration of Independence is the greatest and most logical document in American history. . .” The danger here is threefold: 1) Readers may find the statement too obvious to be worth reading; 2) they may think that it oversimplified a complex matter, so much so that it cannot function as the beginning of an intellectually respectable argument; and 3) terms like “greatest” and “most logical” overreach. They are called absolutes. Superlatives like “never” or “always” may at first glance seem strong and steady, but they are dangerous assertions since a detractor needs only one counterexample to disturb such an assertion.
- Avoid “Since the dawn of time. . .” openers. “Humans have always benefitted from positive reinforcement.” “Ever since societies first came into being, they have struggled with political freedoms.” “Since dinosaurs roamed the earth, biological adaptation has been in process.” Such assertions may seem to give historical weight to an observation, but readers will receive them as silly or naïve.
Two Styles of Drafting: Fast vs. Slow
There are two extremes in drafting styles. Some writers draft as fast as they can make keys move. Not worrying about style or correctness, or even clarity (least of all spelling and punctuation), they try to keep the ideas flowing. If they bog down, they note why they got stuck, refer to their outline for their next move, and push on. If they are on a roll, they do not type out quotes or footnotes; they insert just enough information to attend to these later (obviously, complete citation will eventually be mandatory). Then if they freeze up, they have things to do: fiddle with wording, add direct quotes, play with the introduction, review what they’ve drafted, in a sentence or two summarize the ground they have covered. As a last resort, they correct errors and infelicities in spelling, punctuation, and the like—anything that diverts their minds from what is blocking them, but keeps them generally on task, giving their subconscious a chance to work on the problem. Or, they may go for a walk or grab another cup of coffee.
There are others, though, who cannot work with such “sloppy” methods, but only “word-by-perfect-word,” “sentence-by-polished-sentence.” They cannot start a new sentence until the one they are working on is dead right. If this sounds like you, if you cannot imagine a quicker but rougher style of drafting, do not fight it. But remember: the more you nail down each small piece, the fewer alternatives you have thereafter. For this reason, if you are as “sentence-by-sentence” drafter, you must have a detailed outline or sketch that tells you where you are going and how you will get there.
Neither of these styles is the correct one; both can lead to excellent papers. Both also have built-in pitfalls of which you should be aware. The faster style can lead to careless errors in the final draft if you fail to proofread rigorously, and it may also degenerate into a history of your thought process rather than a carefully structured argument if you fail to revise it with readers’ needs in mind. The slower style can become overly focused on sentence-level correctness and neglect the paper’s overall structure; you must, therefore, use outlines and sketches and frequent rereadings to remind yourself of the role each part should play in the whole.
Whichever style is yours, establish a ritual for writing and follow it. Some writers choose a particular physical space to write in; others want some creature comforts nearby; still others ritualistically straighten up their desks, do a mini-mediation, sharpen pencils, wipe off the keyboard, get the light just right, knowing that they will be sitting there for a time. If you sit staring, not an idea in your head, write a quick summary: So far, I have these points. . . . Or look at the last few paragraphs you wrote, and treat some important bit of evidence as a claim in a subordinate argument. Be mindful of your rhythms of attention. Some writers need to turn off phones, or to disable that annoying email notification signal.
Letting a First Draft Cool
When you have finished your first draft, you should have enough time left for substantive revision, editing, and proofreading. You should leave enough time to put the draft aside (at least an hour or two) so that you can forget at least some of what you were thinking when you drafted, and return to the document with fresh eyes. The worst time to revise a draft is right after you have finished it. At that moment you are the worst possible editor. You know too much about what you have written and are thereby constitutionally incapacitated from reading your essay as your readers will. You will be too close to it, and it will be too hot to handle.
Some research at Carnegie-Mellon University suggests why. A group of researchers created a passage on a technical subject and inserted into it problems of organization, sentence structure, clarity, etc. They asked two groups of reviewers to read the passage and indicate where they had trouble understanding. One group, however, was given background reading on the subject of the passage before they read it. Which group was better able to identify those deliberately-inserted problems? The readers without the background reading, of course: when the ones with the better knowledge hit a passage with errors, they were able to bring up from memory what they already knew. They didn’t spot the errors in the writing because they were not relying on the writing to understand the ideas—they already understood. The ones without previous knowledge were much effective at spotting flaws because they were much more attentive to the text. They had to be—without the background reading, the only way they could understand the material was to concentrate on the text. This, incidentally, is why Writing Center tutors are such effective reviewers of your work.
At the moment you finish writing something, who knows more about it than you do? When you reread your own writing, you aren’t really reading it; you’re only reminding yourself of what you wanted to mean when you wrote it. That means two things:
- The longer you can set aside something you have written before you revise it, the more you will have forgotten what you were thinking when you wrote it. This amnesia is a blessing; it will enable you to read what you have written more efficiently and effectively.
- Even then, you still know too much. In the section entitled “Revising” you’ll discover ways to analyze, diagnose, and revise your own writing in a way that sidesteps your too-good memory of it.