By Julia Cosacchi
“Once upon a time…”
This is a great way to begin a fairy tale. It’s a tried and true, classic line that lets the reader or listener know exactly what sort of story is going to follow. Most, if not all, great fairy tales begin with this same phrase, just as they end with the familiar closing, “and she/he/they lived happily ever after.”
Unfortunately, there aren’t college-writing equivalents for “once upon a time” or “happily ever after,” though many student writers often gravitate toward similarly cliché-sounding models. As I’ll discuss in this post, these models are not very effective for college writing. But don’t fear! I’ll also offer some suggestions for alternative models to use for your opening and closing lines, as well as some principles to guide you as you develop your skills as a writer.
Opening Line #1: The Epic Model
Example: “Since the beginning of time, humans have always struggled to obtain and defend their freedom.”
Students often use some version of this line to begin assignments that ask them to address a large, abstract concept: “freedom,” “justice,” or “beauty,” for example. A more effective strategy is to focus on a specific instance that illustrates or exemplifies what you’re talking about. Instead of telling your reader that “humans” have struggled with freedom “since the beginning of time” (which is a technically true, though an incredibly vague and sweeping, statement), why not offer some evidence that demonstrates what you mean? Try something like, “The human desire for freedom has resulted in [X number of] armed conflicts in the United States alone. This information demonstrates that freedom is something that people are willing to stake their lives to defend.”
Opening Line #2: The Merriam-Webster Model
Example: “Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘freedom’ as ‘the quality or state of being free.’ Based on this definition, I think…”
It is typical for students to fall back on this model when the assignment prompt uses the word “define.” But unless the prompt explicitly asks for a dictionary definition of the term, don’t give one! Your professor knows how to use a dictionary. What he or she doesn’t know is your understanding of the term in question. Rather than allowing Webster to do the assignment (poorly) for you, think about the various ways that the term can be defined. Is there anything interesting, surprising, or contradictory about different usages or definitions of the term? How do the authors of some of your course readings understand and use the term? Have you had any personal experiences that have contributed to your understanding of this term? Give your professor a glimpse into your thought-processes and unique worldview through this type of assignment rather than resorting directly to reference materials.
Closing Line #1: The Inspirational Quote Model
Example: “[insert all of your interesting ideas about freedom here]…, for as Gandhi once said, ‘Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.’”
This model for closing* an essay is alluring to writers who feel like they have already said everything there is to say on the topic. And hey, if someone famous/historical/influential/interesting already said something great on the topic, why shouldn’t you repeat it (with proper citation, of course)? Well, you shouldn’t, and here’s why: because this is YOUR paper! Most college writing assignments are designed to help you develop your own ideas and arguments about a topic. It is therefore at odds with the objective of the assignment to use someone else’s words to express your ideas. If a particular quotation really speaks to you or has been influential in developing your own opinions or understandings of a topic, it’s fine to mention that influence. However, you should cushion such references within the body of your paper, rather than saving them for the very last line. Don’t let someone else have the last word in your essay.
*This model often does double-duty as an opening line as well. Unless your paper is about Gandhi or about a topic/individual very closely related to Gandhi, this probably isn’t the best way to start or to end your paper.
Closing Line #2: The World Peace Model
Example: “Hopefully someday, all countries in the world will understand the meaning of freedom.”
Come on, admit it: we’ve all written something like this before. I know, I know… conclusions are SO HARD to write! And who’s really even reading that last line, anyway? Answer: your professor. So for my final piece of advice, I’ll remind you not to let any sentence of your writing be a “throwaway” line. This closing line is a lot like the Epic opening lines discussed above: it doesn’t really say anything specific about what you’ve written, and it takes as its scope something far too vast to be really relevant to most assignments. Most professors aren’t expecting you to engineer world peace in a single writing assignment, so there’s no need to end your essay by suggesting that you’ve found a solution to a problem of that size. Instead, think about how to frame your argument concisely and try to highlight the main, and most interesting, points of your essay. Emphasizing these points will leave your reader with a clear sense of what unique ideas you have contributed to the topic or problem in question.
As you write and revise your papers this semester, make sure to make your opening and closing lines count! To do this, focus on providing specific, relevant information about your topic. Avoid generalizations and sweeping, universalizing statements. Finally, make sure that your voice and your ideas remain central to the paper. It is YOUR paper, after all!