Writing More Persuasively

Your essays will be more persuasive if you focus a spotlight on your main message. Here’s what I mean. 

A strong opening paragraph that clearly states your main point does wonders for your persuasiveness. When you open a paper by previewing your basic argument you do your readers a favor. You set the terms of the debate and tell them what they can expect to find. They will then judge you on how well the rest of the paper delivers the goods. You have saved your readers the trouble of hunting for your point. And why wouldn’t you want them to hunt for it? Because they might not find it. 

Many undergraduate papers don't open with strong paragraphs. Most opt instead for one of two openings: (a) the lofty sounding throat-clearing paragraph, or (b) the roadmap paragraph. Neither of these openings works terribly well. Here’s why. 

The Lofty Sounding Throat-Clearing Paragraph. This paragraph indulges in empty rhetoric that does not advance the argument of the paper. Here is an example of what I mean: 

The history of American foreign policy has had many influences, and over the years American presidents have had to confront many different challenges. In addition to economics and institutions, one of those challenges is geography. America is a country of great abundance that spreads from sea to shining sea. Diversity is a hallmark of the United States, a source of our greatness. It is the complex combination of these facts that has played a role in American foreign policy.
Notice that you can’t fault this paragraph on grammatical or factual grounds. The problem is that this opening doesn’t say anything distinctive, i.e., when you finish reading it, you have no idea what the author intends to argue. Even if you guessed that the author planned to talk about geography, you wouldn’t know what s/he intended to say. 

Writers typically resort to lofty sounding throat-clearing paragraph openings when they’re not sure what they want to say and are hoping that readers won’t notice. But readers do notice because they read in order to find out what you have to say. 

One way to avoid throat-clearing paragraphs is to decide before you start writing what it is you want to say. Condense it to one sentence. Make that the core of your opening paragraph. 

Now some of you won’t know what it is you really want to say until you finish writing. There’s nothing wrong with that; writing is a way of thinking. But rather than leaving your main point for your final paragraph--which readers won’t get to if you lose them in the first few pages--insert it into the opening paragraph. In other words, write your first paragraph last. 

The Roadmap Paragraph. The roadmap paragraph is a slight, but only slight, improvement over the lofty sounding throat-clearing paragraph. Here’s an example of a roadmap paragraph: 
Geography has played a long-standing role in American foreign policy. In this essay, I will do two things. First, I will discuss the nature of American geography. Second, I will explain how geography has affected American foreign policy. In sum, I will analyze and discuss the impact of geography on American foreign policy.

The roadmap paragraph improves on the lofty sounding throat-clearing paragraph because it tells the reader the topic to be discussed, i.e., geography and U.S. foreign policy. The problem with the roadmap paragraph is that it tells readers the wrong thing about the topic. It tells readers how you are going to proceed and not what you’re going to say. Readers care about the latter much more than the former.  

What Should You Do? Again, a strong opening paragraph previews the main argument for the reader. It not only names the topic, it specifies the paper’s thesis. Here’s an example of what I mean: 

Napoleon once remarked that "geography is destiny." The history of U.S. foreign policy bears out his maxim. The United States was blessed with weak neighbors as well as a large ocean separating it from the major powers of Europe. As a result, the United States --unlike most other countries -- came to view foreign policy as discretionary.
Is this paragraph going to turn Shakespeare green with envy? No. But it does succeed at its job: it stakes out terrain for the author to defend. After reading this opening paragraph, readers know not only that the topic is geography and American foreign policy but also that the author believes that geography has promoted a peculiarly American approach to foreign policy. Now the reader expects to see evidence to support that claim. 

Some Final Comments. First, if you want examples to emulate when you write an analytical essay, check out op-ed pieces in major newspapers. Second, how much space you have to state your main point depends on the length of what you are writing. When you have only 750 words you better get to it quickly. When you have 500 pages, you can take an entire chapter. Third, be specific. Too often student essays choose the general over the specific. For example, telling me that geography affects foreign policy doesn’t tell me much. Telling me that geography has promoted an approach to foreign policy peculiar to the United States tells me much more. Fourth, no, you are not required to begin your essay with a quote. Fifth, as the model paragraph shows, you can preview your argument without indulging the hackneyed ritual of writing "In this paper I will argue...." Readers are not dumb. They assume that the opinions being expressed are yours unless you tell them otherwise.