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.
It’s the last day of my first semester of college. The temperature has dipped, and the night is icy. The river—the Potomac—gushes wide and bitterly cold, flanking the capital city. It pulses towards the Atlantic; dragging along that West Virginia mountain water so fast it can’t catch its breath long enough to freeze.
Campus is repose, frostbitten. Everyone in Thurston dorm has bolted home except for Sara—a girl I know from class—and me. We both fly out in the morning and find ourselves together in the blazing-hot dorm, stir-crazy and bored. There’s a movie playing that neither one of us has seen, so we’re off.
The quickest way to the movie theater is to walk down Virginia Avenue and cross over the little bridge that connects us to Georgetown. We walk and chat about the frozen wind blasting our faces. I’m excited to escape my first eastern cold snap and return to the warmth of southern California. Sara is headed back to Florida. We are, neither of us, children built for frozen nights.
We stride in the brisk air and discuss our classes and the final we’ve both just taken for Introduction to International Affairs, and Sara makes fun of me for being the kid in class whose hand is always up. Looking to the left as we pass the monstrous Watergate Building—so ugly and comatose—we try to remember details about it but come up with only the obvious one. This is before the summer I will spend as a tour guide, before I learn that this part of the Capital used to be the gateway to the city. It was here, long ago, that people arrived by ship. The water’s gate. Sara and I talk of the water, of the beaches where we hope to spend time over vacation, of warmth and family.
Thompson Boat Center occupies that little strip of land east of what’s now the Georgetown Waterfront, between the main seam of the Potomac and the tiny spits of Rock Creek and the C&O Canal that feed it. As we cross over the strip of the tributary from the Watergate side to the Thompson’s side, I glance down at the cascade of whitewash. The water level is high, and it seems to be rushing at the pace of a rapid. Or perhaps that is only how it seems to me now—after everything that happened.
Below in the darkness, the water appears more vapid gray than midnight blue.
We are nearly across the bridge when I hear the splash. I flinch and look at Sara, whose face shows no alarm. She’s talking and I’m listening, but I stop, and she pauses her chatter.
“Did you hear that?” I ask.
“The splash. You didn’t hear the splash?”
“I didn’t hear anything.”
We listen, and it’s so very faint. “Help,” and then a second later, once more, “Help.”
“Did you hear that?” I ask again. It sounds like a person groaning—like a ghost with a raspy sore throat: faint, eerie, distant. “I think someone fell in.”
“It’s nothing. Let’s just keep going,” Sara presses.
They say you’re less decisive when you’re with someone else. The burden, the sense of responsibility to act, is shared and therefore weakened. We feel less brave—less responsible. I know now that they call it the bystander effect.
My mind says someone is in the water. I’m frozen, and all I want to hear from Sara is that I’m not crazy, that she hears it, too.
“Sara,” I start again, “There’s someone in there.”
We both have phones, yet I’m waiting for her to tell me to call 9-1-1. I can’t explain why at the time, but I need her to tell me its okay. She doesn’t, though, and we hear it once more.
“Did you hear that? I think someone is saying ‘help.’
Her face is drawn still and pensive. She doesn’t disagree this time.
We stand at the railing looking down into the racing, tumbling water. We are looking for something—anything—any rising hand or flailing limb. We see nothing human in the darkness. The rushing sound of water pulses through my mind as we stand there waiting for movement—from the voice in the water or from each other.
Is it all in my mind? Is it a voice caught in the wind? The ensuing silence is a hush of relief. We are forgiven the need to act, to decide, to participate in a rescue. We don’t hear any voice coming from the water now, a mere ten seconds since the splash. Maybe it was never there, we hope.
We want to think that decisions are made in two speeds: fast and resolute or slow and deliberate. At the game-speed of life, though, it’s never that simple.
“Come on. Let’s go,” Sara says and tries to pick up our conversation again. I’m fighting with myself as we resume our walk, looking for some courage to acknowledge what I know: that someone fell in that water and we should do something about it.
It’s eerie turning the corner from the bridge and seeing a police cruiser sitting, pointed at the harbor. Its lights are on, its engine quietly humming, bleeding steam from the hood.
“I’m going to talk to the cop,” I declare; Sara nods her head and seems to be thinking about what I’m saying. She nods once more, confirming her participation in my decision.
The window is rolled up, and I’m afraid to startle the police officer inside. I bend over and motion for her to roll down her window. She does, with a look of slight hesitation, a look that says, “It’s cold. Please, let this be nothing.”
“Excuse me, officer,” I say. “I just heard something. It sounded like someone fell in the canal there.”
“It sounded like…or someone did?” She responds. There’s a crease on her forehead that tells me she is trying to decide if this is plausible.
It’s this moment that haunts me.
“I’m not sure,” I begin and look at Sara before looking back at the policewoman. “There was a splash. It sounded like someone asking for help. But it was dark. We never saw anyone.”
“Okay,” she starts, then after a second, “I’ll radio it in.” She reaches for her radio and un-clicks it as we walk on, not waiting to see what happens.
When we walk back after the movie, the police car is gone. There’s no ambulance or swift-water rescue team; there’s no fire truck or yellow caution tape. There’s just the sound of the water and the wind, the noise of the stream surging under the bridge as we cross back onto Virginia Avenue.
“It must have been our imagination,” Sara says. We don’t speak much the rest of our walk back to campus or, for the matter, the rest of our four years at GW.
I check the news each day to see if they’ve found a body. A few days later I send Sara a message asking if she has seen anything in the news. “It was nothing. I’ve been busy. Have a good break,” her reply says.
On the fifth day, I come across an article: John Doe washes up dead in Maryland. It’s so far, the distance from Georgetown so great, the route so improbable, that it can’t be the same person, I think. But somehow I know it is the person with the faint voice asking me to help him. I don’t tell anyone, but I pick up the phone and call the number in the article that follows a request for information.
I leave a message and hear back a few days later. I talk about the splash and the faint voice and the police car. The person on the other end thanks me. I want to know who he was, this boy who died, what he was doing by the water, how he came to be caught up in it. I want to know why this happened.
The detective calls me again; my information was helpful. The police find a wallet and pants at the edge of the tree line where the hill drops sharply down to the water’s edge. He was walking home, the detecti
ve tells me, and he had to urinate.
He died because he was too drunk to see the edge in the dark night, to know his life hung on his balance, to know what a fine line he was walking. His pants around his ankles, he fell down the hill and tumbled into the canal.
I think about him and his family every cold December, as I join my loved ones and open Christmas presents, when we sit in the movie theater and watch the latest big holiday blockbuster. I think of where he’d be now if he’d taken a cab home or even left with a stranger from the bar or peed before leaving his friends there. I think of Sara, too. I wonder if she’s still chased by the shadow of that night.
The detective calls me once more. A few days after I get back, he picks me up in an unmarked car. We talk about the policewoman, and he tells me there is no record of the call we thought she’d made. He meets with Sara as well, separately, and has us each look through a collection of photos—to see if we can identify the officer. Really, we’re just looking for someone to blame.
All I remember of the police officer is her skin color, the look of weariness on her face as she rolled down the window, and the final image of her hand un-clicking the radio from its latch.
I don’t know if she made a call or ever got out of her car, walked to the bridge, and looked down. I don’t think it matters if she did or not. There was no way anyone could have survived in that water for more than a minute. It was too cold, too fast, too deep. It was a night when the river would refuse to spit out anything it could have swallowed.
I don’t think we could have done anything to save him. I doubt that the officer’s call could have helped. I could have jumped in, as some courageous part of me felt the urge to, but it would’ve been for nothing.
I grew up in the ocean. I spent my summers at the beach—surfing, swimming, and going to summer camp as a junior lifeguard—but I’ve always felt fearful of the unchecked power of the water. My inner thirteen-year-old junior lifeguard called out to me to be a hero that night, but I’m not a hero. Somehow I knew I couldn’t jump in and save the man that asked for my help, that the water’s power would have caused both of us to drown.
There will always be the guilt of knowing Sara and I were the last people to ever hear that man’s voice, the guilt of hearing a call for help and doing nothing.
His name was Chris. He was 26—not much younger than I am now—and from a beach community in California, too. In truth, he washed up only a mile down the river, not far from the Jefferson Memorial. A jogger found his body two days later.
In my memory, he had traveled so much further from the spot where we heard his voice. Perhaps this is just how I needed to remember that night and his death: distant, impersonal, remote, miles and miles away.
I’ve walked over that little bridge and others like it too many times to count over the last ten years. And each time I do, some part of my mind drifts to that frozen night. I think of what I would do differently, of what went through Chris’s mind, of whether he knew we were there. And then I stop myself. Some things are better to tuck away, to not think about; some things are better left where they lie. Some things we should try not to hold onto forever.
Geoff Bendeck is a MFA candidate in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. His work has appeared at thecommononline.org and in WorldView magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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