Strong Titles and Hooks: Getting Your Audience Interested From the Get-Go

Ideally, of course, every component of a paper is perfect. The introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion weave together faultlessly, the grammar is impeccable, and the argument is bulletproof. In reality, though, slaves to deadlines as we are, writers often must prioritize certain aspects of a paper over others. Titles and the first few sentences of introductions (“hooks”) tend to fall to the wayside in the rush to complete the assignment on time. Well, I’m here to say that it is well worth your while to give your paper’s title and introduction some serious thought. In this post, I revisit three truisms we all learned to varying degrees in middle school, but which are no less applicable in the college writing setting.

1) A wimpy title is a wasted opportunity! Most people in the English-speaking world read from the top of the page down, which means your title will be the first part of your paper that readers see. A good first impression can make a big difference, particularly for graded assignments. So, what constitutes a “good” title? Such titles are usually…

  • Informative. Give the reader a sense for what texts you’ll be discussing. Name the theories you’ll be contrasting. Whatever your key source of evidence may be, identify it in your title, and include a brief indication of how you will go about analyzing it.
  • Concise. While hinting at your paper’s thesis is a generally effective strategy, your title is not the place for laying out your argument point by point.
  • If at all possible, punny. Alliteration, puns, and other wordplay can and should be used in titles whenever the fancy strikes you. Go wild with this; it’s a great opportunity to make nerdy jokes about your subject matter. If the joke falls flat, no harm done – it’s just a title. More often than not, though, your professor (or other readers) will appreciate the unexpected humor, and be more engaged by the paper as a whole.

Your titles and hooks should aim to engage the reader – through humor and the element of surprise

2) Regardless of your paper’s context or intended audience, your title and hook matter. These first few words are perhaps the most important in shaping your reader’s expectations for the paper. They also play a key role in capturing your audience’s attention. Yes, it’s true that most of what you write will only ever be read by a professor, who has to read it, no matter how dull and un-engaging it may be. Nevertheless, it is still an important exercise to be able to compose a powerful title and hook, because it should be your aim to engage your professor. The paper that stands out in the professor’s mind in a positive way is often the paper that earns a high grade.

3) An intelligible introduction lays the groundwork for an intelligible paper. In addition to signaling to the reader the direction your paper will take, an introduction can serve as a good indicator to you, the writer, of how effective and coherent your argument is. If you can’t think of an engaging way to hook your audience, your topic may lack relevance or be uninteresting. If you have trouble introducing and articulating your claim in a single paragraph, that may mean you need to revisit and clarify your argument.

In the end, it pays to have a well-articulated title and introduction to your paper. By no means should these pieces necessarily be written first – in fact, it’s often easiest to write them after the rest of the paper is already complete. However, this doesn’t mean that your title and intro should be an afterthought! Setting aside some time to formulate a strong title and introduction can make a big difference to your paper’s overall effectiveness.

Getting Started

By Delaney Hanon

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The initial spark of motivation to begin a project is always hard to come by. The first step seems huge and ominous and way too difficult to tackle in just a half an hour, right? It’s also scary to start out on a new endeavor, as how our work begins can dictate how the final product turns out. This is precisely why getting started is the most important part of any piece of writing. Okay, yes, of course starting something is necessary in order to finish it. But the manner with which we begin our work—and the time we allow ourselves to complete it—has an important connection to our relationship with the writing itself.

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This first step can take form in a number of different ways. Each writer is different, and it’s important to realize that just because rigid outlining is the only way one person can go about an essay does not mean that it is the only correct way. Getting started on an essay doesn’t have to be intimidating. It doesn’t even have to take a long time! One of the best ways to get ideas flowing is to give yourself a set period of time to just get ideas out of your head. Take ten minutes before going on Facebook to freewrite. Getting ideas down on the page makes them real. It also helps you realize what you understand and what you still need clarified. This is especially beneficial to do when you still have a bit of time before your essay is due. It’s an easy way to get past the daunting step of starting. It’s much easier to keep working than to get started.

AprilNoteGifMy personal favorite method of brainstorming/outlining/what have you uses sticky notes. They are beneficial for a number of reasons. They visually break ideas into samples of evidence, quotes, connecting thoughts, and random details. They are really easy to move around, which allows you freedom from getting stuck in a particular train of thought that may not be going anywhere. Most beneficially, it is really hard for sticky notes to be intimidating. The process of beginning becomes a lot less scary when the task is writing various ideas on pink squares of paper. The method begins in the text (or whatever the topic is). I go through all my reading and remind myself of quotes and ideas that struck me. Each goes on an individual sticky note, along with questions or main ideas I may have. My favorite part of this method is that it doesn’t require a thesis to start. Even if I have no idea what I’m writing about, I can start to formulate what I understand and think about my topic. As the sticky notes pile up, concepts start to connect, and an overarching theme or argument usually starts to form. The notes can be organized into categories and piles that then can easily turn into paragraphs. Essentially, you can write the entire paper out on sticky notes before you even have to think about putting ideas into coherent, flowing sentences, which does take a load off the mind.

Again, every writer is different. Sticky notes aren’t your thing? Try:

  1. Writing for 10 minutes straight about your topic, including “ums,” “I’m not sure what to put heres,” and vague references to something that might have been in the text.
  2. Write down all the quotes you liked from the book and think about how they connect.HydeGif
  3. Just write a single body paragraph. A little bit at a time!
  4. List all the evidence you have and see where you need more.
  5. Verbally brainstorm with a friend from the class, or even your professor in office hours. Get ideas flowing!

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In the end, what is really important is just doing SOMETHING. Each time you write down an idea, it becomes easier to go back and add another. Every writer is different, so find what works for you. But do something! That paper really won’t write itself.

Time – the main ingredient

Time is undoubtedly the main ingredient that goes into writing. Yes, ideas are important, but we all have ideas. Ideas are easy. It’s spending the time that’s difficult. It takes time to write those ideas down, tinker with them, rework and reword them until they flow like a clear mountain spring.

Where do you find time? Time, unlike thyme, does not grow on shrubs. We are all busy people. It seems to be a symptom of the human condition. So when you find little chunks and nuggets and flakes of time, it’s important to grab them, for they are precious.

Fifteen minutes until your next meeting? There’s some time right there. Twelve minutes to spare in the morning while you eat your eggs? There’s some more. You can also borrow time from other activities. Half an hour you’d otherwise spend on Facebook? Sounds like time to me.

It’s important not to treat ten minutes as a worthless window simply because it’s so short. Yes, it’s hard to get into anything deep in ten minutes, but surely you can accomplish something. Is half an hour too short a time to work on something? Certainly not! So why should ten minutes be, if all it takes is three of these windows to equal that half-hour?

One thing we do at the Center for Writing and Speaking is provide a place for you to use your time. If you bring some of your time to our place, we are confident that productivity will happen. One faculty member recently had an article accepted for publication which she wrote almost entirely during our faculty/staff writing hours. Sounds like she used her time wisely.

We host open writing hours for students every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 2 to 4 in the afternoon. We have hours for staff and faculty Wednesday morning 9 to 12 and Friday afternoon 1 to 3. We have coffee, tea, candy, pens, notepads, citation guides, books on writing and tutoring writing, a whiteboard, computers, a printer, word games, comfy chairs, a lovely view of Ankeny Field…

All that is to say that our place is a great place for you to spend your time. And if you spend enough time, really good time, over time, a little time here and there, behold: you’ll have written something. And then it’s time to celebrate.

Exciting Developments!

Loyal readers, who are no doubt staggering in number: you may have noticed something! We’re no longer the Whitman College Writing Center! We’re now the Center fOr Writing and Speaking (COWS) at Whitman! Even more exciting than our name change: we’ve MOOved! Our beautiful, festive new location is in Olin East, room E132. Stop by and check it out! Friday September 12th from 3-5 is our Grand Opening party, and you won’t want to miss it.

What else? Our tutors are better trained than ever before. Many of them took the first iteration of Professor McDermott’s GenS 310, “The Theory and Practice of Tutoring Writing,” last spring. Our tutors are well versed in myriad methods and techniques for peer-tutoring. Oh, and you may be wondering about the “Speaking” part. Well, starting in fall 2015, we will offer help with speaking (think presentations, oral exams, etc.) as well as writing!

Clearly, there is a lot to be excited about when it comes to writing at Whitman! Stop by the COWS, or email us at cows@whitman.edu, to find out more!

Revising with Non-Revisors

By Faith Nyakundi & Jesse Moneyhun

A new writing prompt or thought is always another adventure, and a chance to express myself. This is not always an exciting adventure, especially when it is a class prompt, and I have to make sure that I express my thoughts according to the expectation of the teacher. This is however made easier by the fact that the teacher gives guidance to how she wants the text to be approached and any limitations.

We have heard stories of students told to revise their essays. Reasons that professors give are to increase the length, clarify ideas, or to simplify ideas. Students have no choice other than to do this because they are concerned about their grades. Being one of the students who has been in situations like that, I would say it is simply an uphill task. I revise as I write my essay, therefore, every sentence that I write leads to the next sentence as my ideas flow, and I make sure that each of my paragraphs is comprehensive before I move to the next. I have been taught that when writing that I need to develop thesis with every paragraph. This is one the reasons that makes it difficult to “expand” an essay that I consider complete.

What does “expansion” really entail? And how does this affect the final product? Some students end up just adding new sentences to what they already had, but doesn’t this interrupt the flow of sentences? For class we read a piece of writing from a student who had been asked to expand an introductory paragraph. The final product was a piece was filled with repeated phrases, and it was clear that the student felt that what they had was enough already and all they did was rephrase ideas. This ends up being a worse product than the earlier version because it is redundant. When one is asked to revise or rewrite then it feels as if one is writing a whole new essay, so I would rather get a new prompt to write on and then get guidance on the same. It is clear therefore that whether or not expansion means an increase words, it is easy to lean in that direction.

Various English classes have also taught us that writing is a continual process, and that we should understand that the journey to the idea is just as important as the idea itself. In many ways, the process of writing can be used as a tool for self-discovery. Many writers subscribe to this philosophy, and prefer their writing process to be a sort of self-editing stream-of-consciousness. Therefore any extensive editing or revision to the end product may be seen as disturbing the paper’s flow. However, students are most often graded on their end product, not on their “journey,” and academic writers who prefer to edit as they go rather than revise afterwards may have clarity issues that come about from the “writing as a journey” philosophy. Since academia seems to hold clarity in very high regard, this friction between the stream-of-consciousness writer and the revision process tends to hold these sorts of writers back.

The task is then to find a way to link up these writers to the revision process in such a way that helps them clarify their ideas while also keeping intact what they feel the main ideas of their paper are. For these writers, their thesis or main ideas are usually at the end. Their paper has gradually lead up to it. Some may have done a bit of revision and replaced the intro with the conclusion, but the loose ends of self-discovery are still found throughout the paper. As tutors, it is our job to help them tie their paper together tightly. Here is an exercise that may help these writers (even if you are one yourself).

 

1. Ask them to map out their papers visually on the back of their essays. If you want, make one yourself and compare the two. What they think they wrote and what they actually wrote might be different.

2. Even if the professor is asking for expansion, the student’s paper still often needs to be condensed before it can be expanded. Comparing maps can help with this.

3. Ask them what their thesis is. If they can’t explain it confidently, you may need to work on their thesis with them before anything else.

4. Go line by line (or paragraph by paragraph if you don’t have time) backwards from end to finish and ask them the function of each sentence. All sentences should in some way help explain the thesis of the paper. Keep the best sentences.

5. Try to reduce the paper to the size of a rough paragraph. Obviously, this does not incorporate much evidence or leave much room for flowery language. They will realize this and want to expand it almost immediately.

6. Once this is completed, ask them to try expanding from this paragraph, slowly adding only what’s necessary. For the sake of time, this step can take the form of expanding to an outline rather than a full-fledged essay.

7. Compare the end product to the map that they made at the beginning of the session. The more times this exercise is completed, the more clear and precise their paper should become.

8. Help them understand that in this case, their ideas are what is important. Their writing should clearly and efficiently represent what’s in their head. If their language gets in the way, different language should be used.

 

This exercise should be aimed at developing the writer and not the writing. Make sure that the focus is broadly on “elucidating ideas,” not necessarily on making this specific paper more clear. If done earnestly, this exercise may produce greater consciousness of argument construction and encourage revision by blurring the line between correction of language and expression of ideas. Also, any one of these steps could be performed on their own or in conjunction with different exercises. Have fun and tailor the exercise to the writer’s needs.

Reading for Comprehension: Tips on reading for speed and utility

You cannot separate reading from writing; all good writing grows out of sharp reading comprehension. Often, professors assign more reading than seems possible. But, fear not! You do not need to read every article, chapter, or report with the same degree of focus. However, you do need to be able to identify when to skim and when to dive deeply into a text. We have identified three stages of reading comprehension. Each stage has specific tips that will help you develop a stronger understanding of the text at hand. That said, sometimes approaching essay writing feels like staring down the enemy across battle lines. Reading, outlining, and eventually drafting an essay is akin to coordinating battle plans as a general. Here, new generals, is your strategy for successful combat in the field of reading and writing.

 

Scout the Enemy:

When you are at the outset of the writing process with many potential sources, it can be helpful to sift through these texts with a keen eye. Speed-reading can also help you prepare for class discussions involving material you do not write about. For both of these tasks, we draw upon specific strategies that will allow you to gain a useful understanding of the main ideas of a text at an ambitious pace.

  • Save yourself some time by focusing on abstracts, introductions, and conclusions. Authors, especially of published work, are fairly disciplined about providing their main points in predictable places. By attacking these main bodies first, you can gain a strong understanding of what questions the author answers in his or her writing.
  • Next, we suggest looking for useful sign-posts and quotations. You can cut through a lot of fluff by looking for headers, quotations, and transitional phrases. A signpost is direct phrasing that alerts the reader what the author will talk about in the coming text.
  • Lastly, we borrow the common expression: SQR3. This useful strategy calls for you to ‘survey’, ‘question’, ‘read’, ‘recite’, and ‘review’ the text before you. While SQR3 cuts down reading time, it requires much more engaged reading than simply going line-by-line through a text.

Arm Yourself:

This more intermediate step of reading comprehension requires a little more time and effort on your part but rewards you with a deeper understanding of the text.

  • Looking up terms. There’s no specific rules about when you should use a dictionary or not. But if a term comes up a lot and you don’t know what it means, you should probably look it up!  The Swarthmore College writing blog warns, “An initial mistake about the meaning of a term can rapidly multiply into a gigantic misreading if you’re not careful.” Do not look up every word though. You will go crazy!
  • Mark up your text. Underline or highlight topic sentences, summary sentences, and sentences containing signposts. However, don’t mark everything or your markings will lose significance. Be tactful.
  • Note where you are confused. Use a different color or line type to mark what you don’t understand. After reading the rest of the text you may be able to answer your own questions.
  • Use the “Look Away” method. Periodically look away from the text and ask yourself what you’ve read. Your summary should be different than the text. Use your own words or use a visual technique like a drawing that can serve as a quick reminder when you look back at the text.

 

Go to War:

Sometimes you need a very thorough understanding of the text. Perhaps you are presenting the material you read, perhaps you are writing about it, or perhaps you are even using quotes or ideas from it in your own writing. When this is the case you need to take more time with the reading.

  • Outline. Most of us are familiar with basic outline. If the author of your text has been a clear and organized, this can be a helpful technique to grasp the nuances of the author’s argument.
  • Mind Map. Another great way to really solidify the material is to create a mind map. Mind maps are like an outline but much more visual. First, write down the most important word, short phrase, or symbol for the center or your mind map. Next, post other important concepts outside the circle. Then you can rearrange, color code and draw arrows among these different concepts to deepen your understanding about the author’s argument.
  • Identify counter arguments. For distinct understanding of the reading, challenge it! Identify holes in the author’s arguments and assert your own counterarguments. Criticizing the text may be the best fodder for your own writing.

 

Next time you sit down to read, ask yourself: what am I reading for? How deeply do I need to understand the text? How much time do I have to read? Make your battle plan accordingly putting to use the helpful tips we have provided above.

Good luck, writing generals.

Sentence-level Repetition: When It Works, When It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters

“Rep.” It’s a common marking on graded academic papers, and can refer to the repeated use of ideas, sentence structures, or individual words within a small span of text. In college classes we often refer to repetition as a weakness. While this can be true—much repetition is needless—it can also be a powerful tool for writers. When is repetition effective? When is it ineffective? How can we eliminate needless repetition and cultivate productive repetition? How many times is it acceptable to use the word “repetition” in a paragraph?

Writers can repeat whole ideas; they can also repeat at the sentence level, reusing sentence structures and individual words. In this post, we focus on sentence-level repetition, acknowledging that it often goes hand-in-hand with the repetition of ideas. We choose this focus because the recurrence of words and structures is a sentence-level dynamic with global effects. Repetition tends to show up throughout entire works, not just in a handful of sentences. Learning how to reuse and restate more productively can inform the whole piece of writing.

Here are some examples of sentence-level repetition. How is each author using repetition? Is he/she doing so effectively, or not?

1.) “I write as ritual. I write because I am not employable. I write out of my inconsistencies. I write because then I do not have to speak. I write with the colors of memory. I write as a witness to what I have seen.” –Terry Tempest Williams, “Red”

2.) “The nexus where television and fiction converse…is self-conscious irony. Irony is, of course, a turf fictionists have long worked with zeal. And irony is important for understanding TV because T.V…revolves off just the sorts of absurd contradictions irony’s all about exposing.” –David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

3.) “We do not usually think about hope (as embedded in contexts) and dignity (as signaled through commodities) at the same time.” –Allison Pugh, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture

4.) “We hold these Truths to be Self-Evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness…” -The Declaration of Independence

USING REPETITION TO YOUR ADVANTAGE

Knowing when and how to use repetition effectively can make your writing clearer, more cohesive, and more powerful. Let’s look at some of the most common uses for word/phrase repetition and structural repetition.

Repetition of words and phrases:

TO EMPHASIZE:  In example #1 above, Williams begins each sentence with the phrase “I write.” This repetition establishes her main focus: it is not “employability” or “memory,” but the personal act of writing. If you want to call your reader’s attention to a critical word or phrase, it can help to repeat it over the course of the passage–especially in concluding sentences.

The key here is moderation: repetition in the name of emphasis is not an excuse to use the same word three times in one sentence. To figure out whether you are creating productive emphasis through repetition, you might ask yourself these questions: 1.) Is the repeated word or phrase one that you want to be emphasizing? If yes, progress to question 2.) Does the repetition bog down the passage and/or make it harder to read (see the next section)? If the answer is no, you are good to go.

TO CREATE TRANSITIONS: In example #2 above, Foster Wallace uses the word “irony” in three successive sentences. In doing so, he links them (and the ideas they contain) while using few formal transition words. We can repeat a word/phrase to build transitions between paragraphs as well as within them: writing a topic sentence, it can help to reuse in a word/phrase from the concluding sentence of the previous paragraph.

TO AVOID AWKWARD PHRASING: Sometimes it’s impossible to remove a repeated word without making the sentence more confusing. If we tried to take out the repetition of “irony” in the second example above, it might read something like this (changes italicized):

“The nexus where television and fiction converse…is self-conscious irony. This self-aware phenomenon is, of course, a turf fictionists have long worked with zeal. And the expression of meaning by saying the opposite is important for understanding TV.”

The new passage is imprecise and hard to read. Better to just repeat the word “irony.”

Repetition of sentence structures:

TO LINK SUCCESSIVE SENTENCES: Terry Tempest Williams’ list (example #1 above) roams far and wide but never feels disorganized. This is in large part because the repeated “I write” serves as an anchor, tethering the sentences to each other and building cohesion.

The reuse of a particular word or phrase at the start of successive sentences–often to link those sentences to each other–is called anaphora. Anaphora is one type of parallel structure.

TO BUILD MOMENTUM: Try reading this one aloud: “We hold these Truths to be Self-Evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness–”

We can feel the pressure building. Repeating a clausal structure (in this case, “that” [+new idea]) heightens the momentum and power of the sentence.

WHEN REPETITION IS INEFFECTIVE

Although repetition can be an effective rhetorical device, it can also obstruct the flow of ideas if used needlessly. Repetition can occur at the level of words, structure, or meaning as illustrated in the following examples.

Problem 1: Repetition at the word level

INEFFECTIVE: When Sally finished reading the newspaper, she gave the newspaper to her brother.

INEFFECTIVE: When Sally finished reading the newspaper, she gave the periodical to her brother.

EFFECTIVE: When Sally finished reading the newspaper, she gave it to her brother.

The first example repeats ‘newspaper’ multiple times and the result sounds clumsy. Replacing the repeated term with a synonym in the second example is an obvious and clunky attempt to avoid repetition. The third sentence best addresses the redundancy by replacing the second term with a pronoun. In general, repetition at the word level can usually be solved by substituting the repeated word with a pronoun or, if possible, removing some of the repeated terms.

Problem 2:  Repetition of structure

INEFFECTIVE: In the park, we played a game. At the time, it was fun. Of the participants, Andy was the winner.

EFFECTIVE: We played a fun game in the park and Andy won.

All of the sentences in this example are short and lead with a preposition. A stronger rewrite condenses the ideas into a single compound sentence that dramatically reduces the word count. While repeating a grammatical structure across multiple sentences can be stylistically effective, it must be done in the right context. The short and informal recollection in this example did not merit special prose. Repetitive structures can usually be fixed by varying sentence types or moving word groups (e.g. prepositions, clauses, etc.) to a different place in the sentence.

Problem 3: Repetition of meaning

INEFFECTIVE: Over and over, we repeatedly bought the pizzas that our favorite athletes ate. The reason we bought these pizzas was because we wanted to imitate them.

EFFECTIVE: We repeatedly bought the pizzas that our favorite athletes ate because we wanted to imitate them.

This example has several layers of problematic repetition. First, the initial sentence uses both ‘repeatedly’ and ‘over and over’ to illustrate frequency when one term would suffice. Second, both sentences include the fact the authors bought the pizza. A good rule of thumb in writing is that every word or phrase should contribute something new to the work. In this case, it is mentioned in both sentences that the pizzas were bought and only the initial mention is necessary. Condensing the sentences is a natural way to eliminate the repeated information and is a good overall strategy to remove repeated content.

HOW TO WORK WITH REPETITION IN TUTORING

1) Read the tutee’s paper aloud: Because repetition often impedes rhythm, the tutee may be better at recognizing repetition aurally rather than visually. This is the most nondirective approach to eliminating repetition but it does require that the tutee have a well developed ear for rhythm.

2) Underline repetitive elements: If a particular word, phrase, or structure is particularly pervasive, the tutor and tutee can work together to highlight all instances of that repetition. This visual representation increases the tutee’s self-awareness of their writing style so they can fix and avoid further redundancy.

3) Model techniques that eliminate repetition: Sometimes it may be difficult for the tutee to identify or eliminate needless repetition. In these cases, the tutor can point out some of the repetitive areas and demonstrate how to fix them using some of the above techniques.

4) Demonstrate effective repetition: Tutors can introduce repetition as a tool for improving transitions or cohesion, two aspects that come up frequently in tutoring sessions.

Contributed by Sabrina and Abby