Even with detailed prewriting organizers, many students have no idea how to begin an essay. They stare at that empty notebook page for ten or twenty minutes. Then, in desperation, they either introduce themselves (“Hi. My name is Sid. I’m going to tell you about my pet dog.”) or they write a question (“Do you want to know about my pet dog?”).
When I see a student having difficulty beginning an essay, I suggest several options. “My pet dog just had a litter of puppies. Two of them are black, one is brown and one is spotted. We named the spotted one Spot but we are still thinking about what to name the others.” Or, “Spot is such a dumb name for a dog, but that is what my little sister called one of our new puppies. I wanted to call the puppy ‘Blob’ but my mother said no.” Or, “If you name a puppy, does that mean you get to keep it? My little sister wants to keep one of the puppies from our big dog’s litter, so she named it Spot.”
Sometimes students use one of my suggestions, but more often they modify one of them. I never write down the introduction for them; they need to listen to my suggestions, and write their own introduction. My job is to get them thinking of options. Their job is to write the introduction.
In upcoming blogs, I will talk about various kinds of introductions, but for now I hope to point out how difficult writing an introduction is for some students. Think of it this way: You go to a party and you don’t know anyone. How do you begin a conversation? Do you wait for someone else to start? Do you move around the fringes of groups and listen for a topic you know something about? Do you head for a shadowy corner?
Beginning the essay, even armed with a detailed prewriting organizer, can be daunting. But when students have written a handful of essays, this task usually eases. Sometimes they write an introduction and then call me over to ask my opinion. I see this as a giant step forward for a student since he has taken the initiative to begin.
What if the student writes, “Hi. My name is Sid. I’m going to tell you about my pet dog.” I let it go until later, after the essay is complete. Then I explain that sometimes we need a crutch to begin writing, and that this kind of beginning is a crutch. I say, “What if we cross out ‘Hi. My name is Sid. I’m going to tell you about my dog.’ Instead, what if we start the essay with what comes next?” Almost always what follows is a better beginning, and almost always the student can see that. I have seen students begin essays with “Hi. My name is. . .” and then cross those words out themselves once they understand those words are a crutch they need to use to get themselves going.
And what about boring question beginnings? Students need to know that there is nothing wrong with a question, but it needs to be a question that sparks interest. Instead of, “Do you want to know about my dog?” I help students change the question into one which might get “yes” for an answer. “Do you want to know what it’s like to watch a dog have babies?” “Do you know what a mother dog does right after her puppies are born?” “Do you think having five kids at a time is normal? Well, it is for my dog.”
In our next blog, we will talk about useful types of introductions.