Set V, 4

Introductions and Conclusions

The Introduction

Every writer faced with the task of setting his ideas down on paper is conscious of the overwhelming importance of an effective beginning. It is like first meetings--the first interview with your employer, the first introduction to your mother-in-law. There is something terrifying about it simply because it must be got over with first. In writing, students spend entirely too much time getting started.

There are, however, a number of specific devises which a writer may use to introduce his subject appropriately and interestingly. After he has experimented with a few of them, he will no doubt invent variations of his own.

1. Begin by specifying the phase of aspect of the subject to which you intend to limit your discussion. In formal papers, such as the research article, this sort of beginning is often a help to both writer and reader. The announcement of the subject need not be stiff and artificial. Notice how easily the introducing is performed in the following specimen:

On one of my bookshelves is a long row of smallish volumes, bound in red cloth with gold lettering and marbled edges, all carrying on their practically uniform titles pages the legend, "Handbook for Travelers. By Karl Baedeker."

For well over forty years the author of those volumes has been for me very literally a guide; likewise he has been a friend, if friendship lies in constant readiness to aid, to safeguard, and to counsel. So much he has been to many others, throughout the world. But what comparatively few realize is that Karl Baedeker is also a philosopher--a man with a personality, a consistent set of principles for action, and a Weltanschauung of his own--to borrow an untranslatable word from his native language. It is with this personality, with Karl Baedeker the man, that I am now concerned.

--From W. G. Constable, "Three Stars for Baedeker," Harper's Magazine, April, 1953.

2. Begin with an incident, real or imagined, out of which the discussion arises, or which illustrates the point of the discussion.

A puff of wind comes down the street. An old newspaper stirs in the gutter, jumps up on the sidewalk, spirals up to second-story height and flaps about there for a moment; then, with a new burst of energy, it sweeps upward again, and when you last see it, it is soaring high above the roof tops, turning over and over, blinking in the sunlight.

The wind has picked up a pieces of paper and blown it away. What of it? A generation ago, in philosophical discourse, one might have chosen this an an example of an event completely void of significance, completely chance. But not in the air age. The tiny occurrence demonstrates an important fact concerning the air ocean--one that is only now becoming the practical knowledge of practical airfaring men: there are winds which blow either east nor west, neither north nor south, but in the third dimension straight up.

--Wolfgang Langewiesche, "Winds That Blow Straight Up," Harper's Magazine, August, 1945. 

3. Begin with a pertinent story or anecdote.

One of the oldest Texas stories, dating back probably a hundred years, is of the early-day booster who wrote to an influential friend back East dilating upon the manifold beauties and wonders of the region, and closing with the observation: "All Texas needs is more water and a little better class of people." To which the friend replied, "Why, man, that's all hell needs."

Well, where are we now?

--From Stanley Walker, "Everything's True About Texas," Harper's Magazine, March, 1950.

4. Begin with some fact or series of facts related to your subject which shows the importance of the timeliness of your subject.

How high can taxes rise without economic trouble? The questions is timely. People have always grumbled about taxes, but during the past three or four decades--as a result of two hot wars and the high defense cost of the cold war, to say nothing of the gradually rising expense of government services of many sorts--most of us have watched our taxes climb to such unprecedented heights that we must have sincerely wondered what the effective limit was. . .

--From Colin Clark, "The Danger Point in Taxes," Harper's Magazine, December, 1950.

5. Begin with a question or a series of questions, the answers which will constitute your article or essay.

The main purpose of this article is to tell you what the astrophysicists have discovered recently about the inner workings of the sun. And this will bring up their answers to a number of age-old cosmological questions. What is the sun made of? How hot is it? Is it simply hot on the surface, or is the whole body hot, inside and outside? These are some of the things which

puzzle people. Much more important is this one. What is the source of the sun's energy? Is it growing hotter, or colder? How long will it continue to radiate light and heat at just the rate required by living creatures on the Earth?

--From Fred Hoyle, "The Sun and the Stars," Harper's Magazine, January, 1951.

What would happen if all the children in the world learned another language along with their own? Not just another language, but the same language?

--From Mario Pei, One Language for the World, Devon-Adair, 1958, p. xiii.

6. Begin by commenting on the need of a new discussion of an old subject.

There was a time not long ago when a snob was snob and as easy to recognize as a cock pheasant. . . . But now the social snob, while not extinct, has gone underground (except for professionals such as head waiters and metropolitan-hotel clerks), and snobbery has emerged in a whole new set of guises, for it is as indigenous to a man's nature as ambition and a great deal easier to exercise.

--From Russell Lynes, "The New Snobbism," Harper's Magazine, November, 1950.

7. Begin by stating your intention to refute something said or published.

"The average Yaleman, Class of '24," Time magazine reported last year after reading something in the New York Sun, a newspaper published in those days, "makes $25,111 a year."

Well, good for him!

But, come to think of it, what does this improbably precise and salubrious figure mean? It is, as it appears to be, evidence that if you send your boy to Yale you won't have to work in your old age and neither will he? Is this average a mean or a median? What kind of sample is it based on? You could lump one Texan oilman with two hundred hungry free-lance writers and report their average as $25,000-odd a year. The arithmetic is impeccable, the figure is convincingly precise, and the amount of meaning there is in it you could put in your eye.

--From Darrell Huff, "How to Lie with Statistics," Harper's Magazine, August, 1950.

8. Begin by pointing out the fascinating nature of your subject.

To many Americans one of the most fascinating scientific developments of the postwar world has had to do with the weather. Man has always been supinely and sublimely submissive to the weather, but now (he has read in his paper, heard on his radio) at long last he has learned how to do something about it.

--From C. Lester Walker, "The Man Who Makes Weather," Harper's Magazine, January, 1950.

+ + + + + + + + + + +

The Conclusion

In the writing process, stopping is much simpler than starting. In a short paper, after the writer has discussed the last phase of his topic adequately, no literary device surpasses the finality of lifting the pen from the paper or pulling the paper out of the typewriter. The short essay, sketch, article, or discussion has no room for summaries or formal conclusion.

In an article of several thousand words, a quick restatement of the thesis ideas is effective. If a summing up of the central idea is inconvenient, the reader's mind should be directed to some important thought related to the main subject, not to a subordinate detail.

An anecdote, an epigram, a clever quip may be used to end as well as to begin a paper. this device is especially effective if it turns the reader's mind to the beginning of the paper and serves to tie the whole thing up in a neat package.

1. Darrell Huff, in "How to Lie with Statistics," ends his paper with an anecdote.

Is this little list altogether too much like a manual for swindlers? Perhaps I can justify it in the manner of the retired burglar whose published reminiscences amounted to a graduate course in how to pick a lock and muffle a footfall: The crooks already know these tricks. Honest men must learn them in self-defense.

2. Wolfgang Langewiesche, in "Winds That Blow Straight Up," takes the reader back to his opening incident.

That's the dynamite packed in the puff of wind which picks up a piece of paper.

3. H. Tracy Hall, in "Ultrahigh Pressures," begins his article: "There is a nice symbolism in the fact that man was able to hit the moon before he could sink a three-mile shaft through the Earth's crust. . . . But man has barely begun to approach in his laboratories the outstanding characteristic of the nether world--its enormous static pressure." In his concluding words he restates and summarizes his main thesis: A new era in high-pressure work, both in the laboratory and on the production line, is clearly on the way. The race to skim the cream is beginning. It should be a fascinating and rewarding sweepstakes.

4. Fred Holye, in "The Sun and the Stars," summarizes his main point in a single straightforward sentence.

So we may conclude that although mankind may engage in foolish personal destruction, the Earth itself is safe.

5. Russell Lynes, in "The New Snobbism," uses a sprightly comment on his main idea as a means of listing the main points of his essay.

It will not have escaped the reader (and so I might as well admit it) that this cursory attempt to classify and define snobs is an example not only of Intellectual Snobbism, but of Moral, Sensual, Occupational, Political, Emotional, and above all Reverse or Anti-snob Snobbism. I am sure there is no greater snob than the snob who thinks he can define a snob.

6. C. Lester Walker, in "The Man Who Makes Weather," uses a reference to a humorous commentary on the success of his weatherman.

They have been hailing the success of the Schaefer techniques by running cartoons of the airplane pilot nonchalantly lassoing the thunderstorm clouds.

7. Stanley Walker, in "Everything's True About Texas," begins and ends his account with anecdotes.

There is a very old story of the Easterner who was being driven by a rancher over a blistering and almost barren stretch of West Texas when a gaudy bird, new to him, scurried in front of them. The Easterner asked what it was.

"That is the bird of paradise," said the rancher.

The stranger rode in silence for a time and then said: "Pretty long way from home, isn't he?"

It's a long way still, but we're edging closer.

As so the search for the perfect ending, like the search for the Holy Grail, goes on; the perfect ending, La Commedia e finita, appears once in an age. And let us not forget that Shakespeare, after Hamlet's perfect last line, "The rest is silence," continues with fifty more lines of trivia.

Hit Counter