ATTENTION GRABBERS: OPENING AND CLOSING
GAMBITS FOR WRITING
Johnie H. Scott, M.A., M.F.A.
Associate Professor of Pan African Studies
4) thesis statement
I’ve prepared this with three purposes in mind that are all related to improving the ability of aspiring writers to (1) capture the audience’s attention from the onset with effective, clearly-written and articulated openings for paragraphs and longer compositions, (2) present cleanly-written and carefully-formulated thesis statements, and (3) finish compositions with strong, forceful conclusions that leave the reader talking and with something to think about.
I want to acknowledged a scholarly debt of gratitude to John Langan (i.e., College Writing Skills), Ronald S. Lunsford and Bill Bridges (i.e., The Longwood Guide to Writing), Philip Eggers (i.e., Process & Practice), and Tammy L. Boeck and Megan C. Rainey (Connections: Writing, and Critical Thinking) for their own work in the area of opening and closing essay stratagems. At the same time, credit must also be given to Deanne K. Milan (i.e., Developing Reading Skills) and John Roloff (i.e., Paragraphs) for the extensive attention they gave to improving the reading and basic writing skills of young writers.
Finally, a sincere note of appreciation has to be extended to my colleagues and associates in the Writing Program of the Pan African Studies Department at California State University, Northridge from the time this was first written some 15 years ago in 1986: Dr. Rosentene B. Purnell (Professor Emeritus and founder of the PAS Writing Program as well as author of Bridges: Ways of Approaching Written Discourse), Dr. Tom Spencer-Walters (Chairperson of the Department and founding editor of Kapu-Sens), and Professors King Edward Carter, Professor and author Herbert A. Simmons (i.e., Man Walking On Eggshells, Corner Boy and Tough Country), and Eric Priestley (i.e., author of Raw Dog and Abracadabra). I thank each for the insights and observations over the years of commitment to developing voices among the students matriculating through the PAS Writing Program. To Simmons and Priestley, in particular, I give a heartfelt thanks for continuing the Watts Writers Workshop tradition of which we were all part of.
Much has been made over the years about the importance of experience – very simply, of working at one’s craft…whatever that craft might be. In Robert Townsend’s critically-acclaimed feature film The Five Heartbeats, the central character is an aspiring writer. We hear the statement made by this character (played by Townsend), “To be a true writer, you have to suffer before learning what writing really is.”
Well, my mother, who was not a writer, was not nearly so fanciful in saying to me during my grade school years that I would “have to pay a lot of dues before amounting to anything in this world.” For those reading this, I am saying that writing is not something to be mastered in five easy lessons. Writing has to be worked at – and worked at constantly, every single day. You have to read along the way – whether that reading take the form of newspapers, news magazines, comic books, popular fiction like Walter Mosley’s Walkin’ the Dog, cultural criticism such as that done by Michael Eric Dyson with Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line, or major writers like Toni Morrison with Paradise or Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth. The point I’m making is that a person reads in order to develop, expand and appreciate the power of the word, of vocabulary, of being able to express themselves without stretching for meanings beyond their grasp.
Having said that, my intent is to present another approach to writing. This article is based upon my own experiences as a writer and in the classroom – and I do this as someone whose ability and love for writing enabled me to move up out of the Jordan Downs Housing Projects in South central Los Angeles, pass through Harvard, Stanford and Antioch Universities, and settle into a position where I can now share my love for the craft and love of writing itself with others. For those of you concerned solely with writing better paragraphs and essays, what I have to say should offer some insights on accomplishing that task. For those of you, though, who see writing as a means to affect social attitudes and change the way people view issues (and one another), perhaps what I have to say will help jar some now thoughts into existence. I certainly hope so.
“The Hook”: Getting the Reader’s Attention
How many times have you opened your mailbox to see one of those large, brown envelopes with large lettering boldly announcing that you have been “Pre-Approved” and stand to be “An Instant Winner!” It doesn’t matter that the letter may have come from some publishing clearinghouse. You take a seat in your living room, perhaps at the breakfast nook in your kitchen where you then pause for a moment or two while hefting the envelope from one hand to the other. In your mind, you imagine what it would be like to be a sweepstakes winner – and think back to that happy face of the person who hit the Super Lottery for $70 million. You find yourself thinking of what being an “instant winner” could do in changing your own personal fortunes: payoff outstanding loans, clear past due accounts from your credit report, make it finally possible to take that “Dream Vacation.” Perhaps you even call in family, or a close friend, telling them about this strange letter – wanting them present when you open the envelope.
You do so very carefully, removing the contents which include the facsimile of a $100,000 check bearing your name and a series of numbers --- one of which, you are told, is yours “to keep” and follow in the hope that it will be drawn at a lottery sometime in the not-so-distant future. Excited now with the adrenalin pumping, you put the number series to the side and read on. This is when you get “the pitch” from the company sponsoring the lottery: purchase one or more of their products with the notation that “failing to do so will not detract from your ability to win the $100,000 Grand Sweepstakes Prize!”
In marketing circles, this is referred to as “The Hook”: it is a 20-second window of opportunity wherein marketers gain your attention and make their sale. That 20-second window of opportunity is true for all audiences. Knowing that it exists and how to make the most effective use of that window is one of the reasons why good writers use strategies to immediately gain the reader’s attention. Good writers know that one of the most serious errors that can be made is by opening up right away with the main purpose of the writing – this is an automatic turnoff for the reader!
Think back to that brown, “Pre-Approved Instant Winner” envelope with the facsimile check! Imagine that same envelope in your mailbox, opening it up and immediately being hit on the head with “Buy this.” Without a doubt, that envelope would go sailing into the trash can. With today’s audiences becoming increasingly sophisticated and demanding, there is a premium on the attention span available. You have to make the most of that time. Knowing about and being able to make effective use of the various opening strategies can only enhance your skills as a writer.
There are, as a matter of fact, seven (7) proven opening gambits or strategies for one’s paragraphs and/or longer compositions:
1) Begin with a broad, general statement that you narrow down to your thesis statement. Keep in mind that the thesis provides the main idea for the entire composition;
2) Use a question or series of thought-provoking questions. When using this gambit, it is very effective to state these questions as a series of one-liners (i.e., paragraphs) before getting to the thesis. Just keep in mind at all times that the questions you raise do more than merely set a tone for your paper, those questions sooner or later must be answered;
3) Use quotations. The best quotes are those drawn from popular culture, from the social literature the general public (i.e., your targeted audience) is acquainted with. If you are writing to a politically conservative audience, then you might want to open with a quote from a noted conservative. If the audience is perceived as a hip, upwardly-mobile group of African-American women, then you might want to open with a statement from someone like Joan Morgan, bell hooks, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker or SistahSouljah.If, on the other hand, you are directing your message to a teenaged readership based in the urban core, you might want to open with a quote from the socially conscious lyrics by one of the leading rap artists or groups. Who would you use, for instance, if the paper was centered on the problems caused by gang violence? Use quotes, in other words, that connect with your audience!
4) Use an anecdote. All audiences enjoy a story, particularly those with human interest. In this instance, you are putting a face (or faces) to your composition by drawing upon an incident containing a moral center, one that you can then use in leading your audience to the thesis statement. Here again, the best anecdotes are those coming from popular culture: from stories and events that people are aware of and talking about.
5) State the importance of the topic. You do this by presenting statistical data, facts, figures that underscore the issues about to be discussed. The data must be pertinent, validated and presented in an objective manner free of any editorializing – the facts speak for themselves;
6) Use the opposite of what you plan to write about. This is done for dramatic effect, as in “What if the world were like this instead of what the world, or situation about to be discussed, truly is?” Readers are often fascinated, intrigued by this type of approach; And lastly,
7) Use a combination of the strategies. This is best done by using two of the six gambits. Your more skilled writers frequently make use of this, the seventh and final opening gambit.
The Thesis Statement
All of these opening strategies, or essay gambits, have one purpose and that is to focus the audience on your purpose for writing: your thesis statement. This statement is best seen as a single, complete sentence containing the main idea of the entire composition with at least three (3) patterns by which you intend to develop and support that subject. You could not write a very good or insightful essay, for example, if your thesis was “The Hyundai is a great car.” That statement by itself is both vague and general. It has no focus and fails to give the audience anything in terms of where the composition is going. On the other hand, the audience receives a clear sense of direction from a thesis statement that reads “Because of its great gas mileage, low maintenance, and outstanding road handling on highways and city streets, the Hyundai is a great car.”
From this thesis statement, we know that you are going to write about (1) the great gas mileage a Hyundai gets in comparison to other cars, (2) the low maintenance and monies saved in repairs with the Hyundai in contrast to other vehicles, and (3) the responsive way the Hyundai handles on the road in relationship to other cars on the highways and city streets. Those three patterns of development all contribute to and support the main idea, which is that the Hyundai is a great car. They do so in a logical, orderly fashion which is what your readership expects in a well-organized composition.
By the same token, you need to now about the four (4) most common errors made when fashioning thesis statements:
- Do not make announcement. One of the sure signs of the struggling writer is the telltale “In this paper I am going to write about” or the even more deadly (and monotonous) “The purpose of this paper is…” Announcements are a sure way of insulting the intelligence of your readership. Don’t make announcements (“For the next 750 words I am going to…” which leads the reader to start counting your words rather than concentrating on what you are trying to communicate!) or tell the reader what you plan to write about – allow the writing to communicate the story!
- Do not make the thesis too broad. This happens when the writer has failed to carefully think out or plan what the actual subject is going to be. Imagine a thesis statement that asserts “The Civil War was the turning point in American race relations.” Scholars, historians, and many others have written volumes on that subject! This is not the sort of thesis statement you would put forth for a research paper or essay topic due the following week. It is entirely too broad and general.
- Do not make the thesis statement too narrow or specific. Again, this is a result of failing to fully think through what one is going to write about. It is very much like painting oneself into a corner, away from any exit, and being left with no way out. Imagine, for example, having to write a paper with the thesis being “This table is made out of wood.” While such a sentence might lend itself to a few sentences (at best), one certainly could not hope to go any further than that. By always incorporating those three (3) patterns of development into your thesis statement, the error of being too narrow or specific will be avoided; and finally,
- Do not make your thesis statement too vague. This error usually results from fuzzy, unclear thinking. If the thesis is unclear to you, then it will be unclear and, even worse, confusing to your readers. “The California Condor is an interesting bird” does nothing for the reader. It invites confusion by raising too many questions. “Interesting” meaning what? To who? Why? Here, once again, the confusion can be avoided by incorporating those three (3) patterns of development into the thesis statement.
Synergy – Bringing Everything Together:
Effective writing comes, first of all, from being precise and logical in one’s thinking process. When structuring paragraphs, essays and other compositions that work for the reader – and keep in mind that when writing for the public, that audience always comes first! – consideration must be given to capturing and then holding the attention of the reader. You accomplish this by using the opening gambits or strategies that I have identified here, each of which leads the reader to what hopefully will be a well-formulated, clearly-articulated thesis statement (i.e., the main idea of the entire composition). Your reader(s) should be able to follow that thesis in a logical and orderly fashion to the conclusion.
I like telling my students, however, that concluding or wrapping up a paper is just as important as getting the reader’s attention in the first place. You want to writer something that leaves an impression in the mind of your audience, a belief that they have been given something of considerable worth. This is best achieved by using any one of the following six (6) closing gambits (Again, there are actually eight but students who follow-through with me into 155 Freshman Composition will pickup the remaining two at that level):
1) Restate the main points raised in the paper. What you are doing here is to repeat for your readers those patterns of development first articulated in the thesis statement; in effect, you are now tying the package together.
2) Close with a quotation. This can be a very effective means for closing out an essay. It adds style and grace to the writing. The best quotes, again, come out of popular culture or wisdom. The quote(s) should be directly related to the subject matter. Using quotes definitely gives your audience the impression that you are in control of the material.
3) Close with an anecdote. Once more, we are dealing with readability. Audiences love good stories, those that have a core, a sensibility. The writer who can close a composition with a brief story is certainly going to leave a memorable impression on the readers.
4) Restate the main point and end with a thought-provoking question. Anytime you can focus the audience on the main point of your writing, then leave them with something to mull over once they have finished the reading, then you have succeeded.
5) End with a prediction or recommendation based upon the subject matter. Remember that the prediction reflects what might or will take place if the assertion in your thesis is not followed through or acted upon. This engages the audience into actions which is always a positive effect. In the same vein, giving the audience a recommendation or series of recommendations is effective in that you are providing them with a list of actions they can take. This moves the audience from passive readers to active doers.
6) End with a Call for Action. This is proactive, engaging writing that makes your audience aware that what they have read is not merely brain candy, but a serious call by the writer for them to act upon what has been put on the table. This conclusion keeps your readership stimulated.
7) Close with a thought-provoking question, one that stands by itself and leads the reader to wonder, “What if?”
Good writing calls for practice and commitment. One of the keys to being an effective writer is remembering your audience, keeping them in mind, understanding that the best audience is one that takes an active rather than passive role in reading what it is that you are trying to get across. The opening and closing strategies that have been discussed here are proven means for accomplishing that exact purpose. At the same time, you have been given a list of the do’s and don’ts in developing thesis statements. To become really adept at writing, though, you have to read: widely and broadly. Reading will give you access not only to new information but, even more, will expose you to different writing styles and ways of expression that can only enhance and improve your own.
1) The author provides seven (7) different gambits or strategies for starting one’s paper. What are those seven and provide your own original example(s) in explaining each one.
2) What is a thesis statement? The author lists the four most common errors in the construction of thesis statements. What are those errors and which one(s) give you the greatest difficulty? Why?
3) In this essay, you have been provided with eight different techniques for concluding one’s paragraphs and longer compositions. Identify each of the eight techniques and briefly give your own, original examples and illustrations in explaining each one.
4) What has been the greatest value or insight this particular assignment has given you? Why? In what way(s) has it expanded on your previous knowledge and awareness of ways in which to open and close your writing.
The most important words in any blog post, article or essay are the first ones. These are where you grab your reader’s attention or lose them. And in case you were wondering, these words you’re reading right now? They’re not the ones I’m talking about. I’m talking about the ones that formed reason you’ve clicked on this link and read this far. The words I’m talking about are the title.
Now I’ll immediately admit the title of this article was clickbait. I personally don’t like them. At the same time, I can’t deny that listicles work. Even though every time I see them they annoy me, I can’t help being curious. What five things, I wonder, will grab my attention? Will reading this article improve my writing? Will I learn something new?
And that is immediately tip number one.
1) Your title needs to provoke your reader’s curiosity
Now you might be able to be more subtle about it than this. Or you can go the other way and be even more obvious. The “And you can’t believe what happened next,” or, “What happened then nearly made me cry” variety of clickbait seems quite effective. Now I truly loathe these and have stopped clicking on them out of principle (and seeing how quickly they vanished after initially appearing, so it seems have many other people). Still, the underlying idea is sound. Your title doesn’t need to just inform, it needs to intrigue. Manage that and your post will at least provoke plenty of clicks.
2) If you’re fishing you don’t just need bait
If you’ve only got bait you’re just feeding the fish. To make fishing work you need a hook. That’s what your first paragraph is for. And it needs to work fast. These days the average attention span is a little over 8 seconds. So you’ve got to spend almost as much time on your first few lines as on your title. Paint a picture, make a claim, surprise them, or amaze them. Whatever you do, don’t bore them. They’ve probably got another eight pages to click through if you do.
3) Make It worth Their While
And now the information comes in. This is where you actually tell people stuff about whatever you used to draw them in with. Obviously, your information has to be interesting. That can mean it is informative, that your style is engaging, or – preferably – both.
4) Use the right style
The internet has its own style. “One style,” I hear you cry, “Aren’t there thousands?” And obviously you’re right there. The thing is, some of those styles are successful and many of them are not. The ones that generally don’t do well use complicated language, long sentence and speak in the third person. Want to know what works better? Short sentences, accessible vocabulary, first and second person (as in “I” and “You”) and making the reader feel like they’re part of the conversation.
How do make them feel like that? One way is to ask questions. Don’t you feel engaged? Okay, you might not want to overdo it. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Another strategy, of course, is to pretend the reader is talking with you, like I did at the beginning of this section. That’s right, only writers and prophets get to pretend people who aren’t there are talking to them. Everybody else gets locked up.
5) The image is more important than you think
I suffer from this one myself. I’m not good with images. They’re not my thing. I use my words to paint pictures. I don’t want to go through the trouble of finding an image to go along with it! But that’s a poor person’s strategy (as in, if you use that strategy, you’ll remain poor). We writers might be word-oriented, but most people are not. They are visual creatures and appreciate a well-chosen image. And let’s be honest, an image can really enhance an article. Add to that that most sites use a photo that you’ve used in your article to promote your post and you can see how vital they are.
So don’t select it last and don’t rush it. Take the time to find an image that compliments your words, because otherwise chances are no matter how good your words might be, they’ll end up collecting dust in one of the dark corners of the internet.
I hope that I have not made you regret giving in to my blatantly manipulative clickbait title. Though chances are that if you’d have been long gone by now if you did, in which case my moment of vulnerability is far too late.
‘Vulnerability’, by the way, would have been my sixth listicle item had I had the space for it. I would have talked about how as a writer you need to be human, humble and down to earth if you truly want to connect with your audience. But since I don’t, I’ve cheekily hidden it in my conclusion. I wonder if my editor will notice, or if she has already clicked on to the next tab instead.