Hooked: The Importance of a Good Introduction

by Mr. Sheehy

I have never had a good job interview. That’s not true, actually; I did have two great interviews. For one, I didn’t get the job, and for the other, I turned the job down. So since I had terrible interviews for the jobs where I got hired, I feel like I can say what I said. I have walked away from every other interview feeling like it had not accomplished what I would have hoped it would accomplish. The cliched knowledge that you never get a second chance to make a first impression did nothing but discourage me. It did nothing but make me nervous when I reached out to shake the interviewers’ hands and it only made me frustrated when I walked out feeling like I had not successfully portrayed who I was.

That didn’t change the truth of the statement, however. That the first impression carries too much weight is well described in William Poundstone’s article for the Wall Street Journal, “How to Ace a Google Interview“:

The deep, dark secret of human resources is that traditional job interviews don’t work very well. In fact, there’s been quite a bit of research on the topic. One example is a famous experiment that Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal of Harvard did in 1992, with videotapes of traditional interviews. People who saw 10-second clips of an interview had roughly the same opinion of the interview subject as did the actual interviewer—making a strong case that job interviewers go by first appearances and are fooling themselves into believing they’ve gleaned additional information from everything that comes after.

That first impression matters, even when it misleads us, as it obviously does in job interviews.

Yet I cannot convince my students how crucial this truth is, especially as it relates to their writing. They’ll write an article and they find the introduction so difficult that they just skip it. Or open with just their thesis statement. Or ask a question.

I hate it when they ask a question. I tell them the risk of a question is that it invites an answer.

“Have you ever wondered why Nike makes shoes?”

No, I haven’t. Next, please.

“Should marketers target kids?”

I don’t know. Next.

“Have you ever wanted to go white water rafting?”

No. NO. No!

As jaded as I have become to the opening question–a crutch I have forbidden in students’ writing, by the way–I am really quite open to strange first lines. I am such a sucker for a good opening, in fact, that the residual enjoyment of one has  carried me through half a book. It has also caused me to abandon books. I’ve been happily reading something when I have casually, innocently, picked up a different book and glanced at its first page. That’s what happened with David McCullough’s John Adams, a book I had not intended to start the day I got it as a Christmas present, since I had just begun Bleak House. But McCullough opens like this, and I knew Dickens would be there when I was finished, and I couldn’t help myself:

In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north.

The same thing almost happens every time I re-read The Odyssey with my students. I read a shortened version of it with them (alas, it is the truth) but after the open I always want to return to the entire thing:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns,
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.

Similarly, no matter how unenthusiastic I may be about guiding a new group of 15 year olds through Romeo and Juliet, I get excited at the first familiar words of the prologue:

Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona where we lay our scene.

I’m a sucker for intros. Last week I went to the library intending to look at Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice. It’s a history of the Brown v. the Board of Education decision and the struggle for equality that lead up to it, and it was recommended to me years ago by one of my college buddies, one who has now become a history professor specializing in the history of civil rights and the evangelical church’s role in them. I found the spot on the shelf and cursed my friend’s recommendation, for this book was almost two inches thick. I didn’t have time for 800 pages; I had other things on my list that I wanted to read. But I checked it out anyway and if I really hadn’t wanted to read it, I shouldn’t have opened to the first page:

Before it was over, they fired him from the little schoolhouse at which he had taught devotedly for ten years. And they fired his wife and two of his sisters and a niece. And they threatened him with bodily harm. And they sued him on trumped-up charges and . . .

And it goes on, but I have to stop typing. As soon as I finished the first page, I knew I’d be reading the book. The same thing happened with Susana Clarke’s tome of a novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel:

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

I was hooked by the end of the second sentence and by the end of the first paragraph, won over (you’ll have to read the rest of the paragraph on your own).

There’s really no end to great openings, though. Yesterday I was drawn to the bookcase by our beautiful copies of The Lord of the Rings. I was curious how old our kids need to be before I can begin reading Tolkien aloud with them–yes, I know how long the books are, and I admit it’s something I’ll want to do for myself if they’re willing to come along for the ride–and I was reminded how wonderful the opening to The Fellowship of the Ring is:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

When a writer says eleventy-first in the first sentence, you know you’re into something different, something strange and, well, something itself of special magnificence.

My conviction is clear: anybody who can write an introduction like these knows how to write a book I want to read. This is a message I need my students to hear. If you can write an intro; if you can hook the reader in one paragraph, they’ll trust you enough to listen to you, to like what you have to say possibly even more than they should.

We certainly work on introductions. I give my students handouts, we survey writers’ techniques, and I give them essays with the introductions removed and have them rewrite a list of potential openings for them. But that is just the drill. What they ultimately need to do is give it a shot. They’ll never suddenly figure it out if they never try something new, if they never take a risk and try out a wild attention grabber. I’d much rather a student reach for awkward attention grabbers and introductions than be too scared to attempt one.

The beautiful thing about writing in school is that it isn’t the real world. We teachers may knock ourselves out trying to create for our writing assignments genuine real-world purpose, but sometimes, when you’re learning how to do something, it’s nice to know it isn’t the real deal. Perhaps if a student is willing to practice creating striking openings in the “lab”, they’ll have discovered how to make that important first impression by the time it really counts.

But if they never figure it out, at least they can look at my example and realize they’re not totally hosed even if that first impression thing bombs. After all, I got hired.

Thanks for reading.