A brief intro to introduction paragraphs

Let's introduce ourselves to strong introductory paragraphs. Image courtesy of quickanddirtytips.com

Let’s introduce ourselves to strong introductory paragraphs. Image courtesy of quickanddirtytips.com

By Grace Bonde, Sophomore Writing Coach

The school year is almost winding down to a close, and right now most students are focused on struggling through the upcoming weeks of testing, doing homework when it’s finally nice outside, and the end of the year finals. Even though many of us are thinking about wrapping things up, I would like to go back to the beginning…of our papers! More specifically, the opening sentence, or lead, that introduces your audience to the rest of the paper.

Introduction paragraphs are hard to write. I believe we can all agree on that. They take a lot of creativity and have to be created anew for every written assignment. There is no easy formula for writing an interesting lead that sets the tone for the rest of the work. Leads, unlike the structure of a five-paragraph essay, are not laid out in a fill-in-the-blanks format. Instead, we have to improvise and hope something fitting comes to mind.

The way you choose to open your paper is very important, though, because it sets the tone for the rest of the reader’s experience. It is the first impression made, and just like between two people, a bad introduction has the ability to upset the following relationship. Therefore, an introduction sentence should try to prepare and excite readers for what is to come next.

Luckily, many great writers have discovered some helpful hints and tips for writing effective introductions every time, especially leads. From the Purdue Online Writing Lab, I found some lists of tips for writing a lead and what to avoid.  A few important things they say effective leads need are specificity, brevity, and honesty, tips I have taken my own musings on and summed up below:

  • Specificity: It is important to be relevant to your topic and detailed enough that readers won’t feel overwhelmed or bored.
  • Brevity: Readers want to know what the writing’s purpose is, and they want to know it fast; be succinct and to get to the point quickly.
  • Honesty: Have a lead that can keep its promise about why it relates to the paper.

I also found that there are many things to try and avoid when writing a lead- here are a few that felt most pertinent to my writing, and they will hopefully help you out.

  • Flowery Language: Focus on strong verbs and nouns rather than saturating your lead with too many adjectives.
  • Unnecessary Words and Phrases: Ask yourself what you are trying to communicate, and if a word doesn’t seem to be helping reach that goal, hit the “backspace” bar.
  • “It:” Make sure you aren’t using this word when it isn’t clear what “it” means. Don’t confuse your reader with an unclear subject in the first sentence of your paper!

To try to sum all that up, leads should clearly convey to the reader the purpose of the paper, relate it to the readers, and give the point of reading it. Basically, it’s all about selling your readers on actually reading your paper. To read the Purdue OWL’s full body of information on leads, go to this link (right-click and open in a new tab to read the full article).

My last tip of advice for writing strong leads: If you are struggling to start a paper or are completing a timed writing assignment, skip the intro and come back to it. Once you have your thesis, that’s all you need for the main part of the assignment. Then you can come back to add a lead and round out the conclusion when you finish, or earlier if you think of one.

A thank you to the Class of 2015

By Gigi Anderson, Junior Writing Coach

Now, I know it isn’t quite the end of the year, and maybe I’m a bit early to become so sentimental, but I have always been taught that when you’re grateful to someone, you should let them know. And, let’s face it: exams are upon us, so this week may be one of the last that I actually get to see some of the Class of 2015 before they disappear into their ambiguous and stressful schedules that define the month of May. So, here it goes:

Dear Seniors (Class of 2015),

I don’t think I can quite put to words how lucky we are as a school to have you as a senior class this year. You set an example in leadership, compassion, and joy for all of the students. You worked hard, you found joy in and out of the classroom, and you showed us how to find the balance between fun and getting down to business. Most importantly, you demonstrate and live out our school’s motto, “We are one.”

Because of your remarkable leadership, our school is unified. We are a body of Skippers, not a bunch of individuals swimming for our lives. I am so grateful for the time and energy you put into bettering our school. From kick-starting various new clubs, to being the first class to have a Legacy initiative, to simply smiling and waving as you walk down the hall, you show us what it means to serve and care for each and every individual. You demonstrate how, sometimes, individual sacrifice is necessary for the greater good- and we’re all better for it.  In order to unite our classes, you even lightened up on the underclassman at Pepfest and during Heartweek–now that’s sacrifice.

Moreover, throughout this year, you were willing to let your guard down and share your struggles and hardships so we could grow together. Through your openness and empathy,  the classes became a support system for one other. The vulnerability of your class opened the floodgates of compassion and kindness within our school. Even through times of conflict and division, your class showed us how to depend on each other for a bond of unity that was greater than any dividing factor.

Thanks to your class, Minnetonka has really become a family unit, a community that cares and serves together. I am proud to be a Skipper. In the words of writing coach Emma Malina, your class is “the unattainable dream described in The Great Gatsby,” so thank you for setting such a high precedent for the senior classes to come. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors, and we always welcome you back to the Minnetonka family with open arms.

With love,

Your fellow Skippers

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A small section of the Minnetonka family, the Minnetonka Writing Coaches, on a field trip to the University of Minnesota earlier this fall.

A numbers game

By Rachel Pierstorff, Senior Writing Coach

Alternate titles  for this post.

Alternate titles for this post.

Numbers

Before I explain what these numbers represent, I must first promise that this post isn’t meant to frighten or depress; nor is it meant to come across as a lecture or “words of wisdom.”  For once, I’ve been given no instruction of what to write, no rubric or word count, and that makes me happy, contemplative, and a little bit cynical.

As a second semester senior, my academic motivation has been…higher, to say the least.  My thoughts sway between determination to finish the year strong and justification of my apathy for homework as I attempt to make up for my exhaustion from the last four years of work and stress.  Literally, I need more sleep, which my family often tells me during times of crankiness.  I’m tired of the constant rush, the compulsion to finish each task rapidly for the sake of going to bed as early as possible.  I’m also tired of the numbers game: calculating the grade point average I need to fit into the mold that defines [insert prestigious name] University’s ideal applicant.

(Okay, cynicism done now.)  And, if I am honest with myself, I have to fully admit that I brought the majority of my stress and work (and thus, lack of sleep) upon myself.  But, in addition to determination and apathy, I should also include nostalgia in the myriad of emotions I experience as a second-semester senior.  Though it seems ridiculous, at age 17 I’ve been “reminiscing” recently about all the writing assignments that I’ve completed in high school.  It’s not that I regret this work, but rather I was curious  as to the numerical total that my work in high school has amounted to.

Thus, I recorded the word count of every essay, report, Breezes article, and blog post I wrote from 9th to 12th grade, and calculated the totals above.  The amount I’ve written to date during senior year rather makes freshman year look like the warm up jog to a marathon, doesn’t it?

But wait, there’s more.  The 12th grade sum of 28,925 words doesn’t include the essays I wrote for college applications, programs, and college-funded scholarships, nor does it account for the separate scholarships I’ve applied for.  With those included, the senior word count nearly doubles, reaching 52,149.

Rachel 23

To put these numbers into perspective, 9th grade’s sum is the length of a typical short story (think “Rikki Tikki Tavi”, a short story from The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling).  Sophomore year’s total compares to a novelette, the size of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Rappaccini’s Daughter.  Junior and senior year count totals could be mid-sized novellas, roughly similar to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Animal Farm, respectively.  Over four years, with a grand total of 93,789* words, I’ve written the equivalent of The Hobbit.

To be honest, I expected the numbers to be larger, though I haven’t included the plentitudes of notes taken in history and science classes.  But again, the graph isn’t supposed to represent a foreboding mountain of paragraphs looming in the future for 8th or 9th graders.  Although out of pure curiosity I do wonder just how many of the 93,789 words were essential for, say, my acceptance into college or maintenance of my GPA, I don’t regret a single sentence.  Instead, I see that graph as an upward trend of skill, critical thinking, and confidence developed by and then invested into the words I produced.  For me, it’s a testament to what I accomplished; something that is, somehow, less vague than a paper diploma.

When I question whether nearly 100,000 words were worth it, I tell myself that the answer depends on the “it.”  If “it” means the stress, the so-burned-out-it’s-hard-to-think-ness, probably not.  If “it” means the weeks that passed by without reading a book for fun, I’m not sure.  But if “it” means the development of my unique written voice, the success of learning 5-paragraph essay structure and subsequently learning how to write in other structures (demolishing my ideal of the “perfect” five paragraph essay), the pride found in the one sentence I knew cinched the entire work, and the readiness I feel  regarding the future of my writing, the hundreds of thousands of words I have yet to write—then the answer is, of course, yes.

*Word Count of this blog post: 739

New Total: 94,528

The Writing Center and the “waves” of writing

A wordcloud composed of students' comments after conferences. (Comment collected from our Writing Center Conference forms.)

Students’ reflections on feedback: a wordcloud representing a year of comments, collected from our post-conference forms.

By Maggie Shea, Writing Center Coordinator

Teachers do the heavy lifting of teaching writing. In the community of the classroom, they guide students through texts, urge them to think beneath the surface in discussions, and assign writing projects that require synthesis and original thought. As students write, teachers read countless drafts and provide feedback in person, on paper, and these days, via the comments feature of Google docs.

In the Writing Center, we support this work; like teachers, we know feedback improves writing.  At this point in the year, student writing coaches and I have met one-on-one with over 1,000 students, and embedded in these numbers are many tales of hard work and impressive writing. Traffic in the WC comes in waves, beginning with fall’s college essay swell and a surge of 9th grade Hound of the Baskervilles papers. These waves come from students in a wide array of core classes, along with Vantage, PSEO, and DECA projects. I wanted to highlight some of the big “waves” that came through the Writing Center in the past two quarters—and a peek at the stories behind the numbers.

In February, Ms. Kangas’s 9th graders read Annie Dillard’s collection of creative nonfiction essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk. Creative nonfiction involves telling the truth…creatively, using many tools of literature to write about the real world. In her book, Dillard muses on natural and cultural phenomena, from weasels to lunar eclipses, pairing seemingly unrelated topics in essays – polar exploration and church, for example. Students tried out this genre by weaving together a personal narrative with a scientific concept. The result: 9th graders writing with insight and depth beyond their years. The students found resonance between their own lives and topics including entropy, ocean layers, camouflage in nature, and the physics of falling cats righting themselves. I was honored to meet with some of these students as they clarified their ideas and took creative risks with this challenging assignment.

A 10th grade conferencing wave was the Civil Rights essay.  This year marked the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March and the premiere of the movie Selma, so students’ learning took on new relevance.  For this assignment, eight sections of 10th graders came to the Center during class to conference. Their essay question: how did the collective efforts of many lead to the success of a key civil rights protest (such as the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Selma March, or March on Washington)? Students researched their chosen event, and their teachers focused on the skills of finding quality sources, integrating ideas of others into your own writing, and analyzing evidence. After working with many students on this paper, we in the WC have a greater appreciation for all the stories behind the Civil Rights Act.

“Written Task” is a deceptively simple name for a complex assignment in IB Language and Literature, a popular course for juniors and seniors. One criteria for the assignment: “You may not write an essay.” This is a challenge for many juniors, after focusing on structured expository essays for most of 10th grade; writers need to figure out what form best fits their ideas. In class, students study major themes of imperialism, technology, family, and power through discussion and diverse texts, including the novels 1984 by George Orwell and Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The Written Task involves analyzing one of these themes in an original form—not an essay. During the Written Task conferencing wave, we read blogs, psychological evaluations of 1984 characters, letters, travel brochures for post-colonial islands inspired by ideas in Cat’s Cradle, and even opinion pieces defending The Simpsons.

This is a tiny glimpse into the writing that happens every day at Minnetonka High School.  Any student will tell you that at times, the waves of writing just keep coming. This is as it should be: at its best, writing helps us think critically and express our understanding clearly. It takes work, though, to write an insightful, organized, well-thought out essay. Writing a paper the night before it’s due happens more than we’d like to admit (even among Writing Center folks). But when we allow time for multiple drafts, feedback, and deep revision, the result is always better. Writing is hard work, and thanks to the dedication of their classroom teachers, students get many opportunities to build their writing muscles and develop this important life skill.