Writing Your First Draft Study Guide (page 3)
Writing Your First Draft
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. - WILLIAM STRUNK, JR. (1869–1946) AMERICAN EDITOR AND WRITER
Finally, it's time to start writing your essay. This lesson will provide instructions on how to make sure you are getting off to a good start with your first paragraph.
Good for you for being conscientious enough to get to this point in the book. By now, you've reviewed English grammar, and you've learned about freewriting, brainstorming, outlining, and developing a strong thesis statement. At last, you're ready for lessons on how to begin the actual writing of your first paragraph, which of course is only the beginning of the first draft of your writing project. So let's begin.
Beginning Your First Draft
Every writing project begins with a first draft. To draft means to write first and subsequent versions of what will become your finished writing project. (As you'll remember, to simplify and minimize confusion in this book we refer almost always to what you are writing as an essay, but it might easily be a report, a review, an in-class test, or even a research paper.) No matter which format you are writing in, drafting followed by revising should be your practice. It is a rare writer who can produce a polished finished piece of writing in the first draft.
The purpose of the first draft, of which the first paragraph is the beginning, is to get your ideas down on paper so that you can go back and revise, expand, and polish them up into a finished essay. Think of the rough draft as a framework or a simplified structure built out of the ideas you developed during your planning and outlining work.
The Role of the Paragraph
As you are aware, all writing projects include a series of paragraphs—the building blocks of all written work. (If you listen carefully to yourself and others, you'll realize that you actually speak in paragraphs as well. The shifts from one paragraph to another in spoken language are usually indicated with pauses, or questions, or responses from your listener.) Paragraphs are not just arbitrary breaks in your writing; they are created to perform several very specific functions:
- to provide support for the thesis statement of the essay
- to provide additional ideas that contribute to the thesis statement
- to indicate shifts in subject matter, time, or the speaker (if there is dialogue)
- to provide rest for the reader's eyes, a chance to breathe
Be sure to vary the length of your paragraphs. A series of very short paragraphs will feel choppy or disconnected; in fact they may indicate that a thesis is not well developed. Extremely long paragraphs make reading through them difficult—they seem to take the reader's breath away. Used carefully, one-sentence paragraphs can make a dramatic impact, but be careful not to overdo this strategy.
The Importance of First Paragraphs
First paragraphs need to be very engaging, so that you grab the reader's attention and keep it throughout the rest of your essay. The first paragraph is actually the only one that you can be fairly sure will get read; if you don't write it well, you may lose your audience right then and there.
Generally, as you learned in Lesson 13, essays are structured in three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion. The first paragraph of your essay might well be considered the essay's introduction. Most writers choose to include their thesis statement in the first paragraph, but this isn't an absolute necessity. You may want to use the first paragraph to set the scene or introduce the problem that you will discuss in the remainder of your essay. What's much more important than stating the thesis in the first paragraph is making sure that the first paragraph is lively and grabs the reader's attention.
If you're having trouble getting started on a strong first paragraph, skip it and begin your writing with the second and third paragraph. Once you're warmed up and clipping along, you can return to the beginning in your second draft and write your first paragraph.
Requirements of a Good Paragraph
Every paragraph, whether it's the first or the last, must contain the following features:
- A topic sentence that presents the main idea of the paragraph. The topic sentence does not necessarily come at the beginning of the paragraph. Just as with the thesis statement of an essay, the topic sentence sometimes appears at the end of a paragraph, as a kind of punctuation mark to the paragraph.
- A series of additional sentences, all of which contain information that support, develop, or amplify the idea in the topic sentence. These sentences provide unity to the paragraph
- A smooth and logical flow. All the sentences in each paragraph should connect to each other easily and logically. The reader should not feel any bumps in the road as the paragraph moves along.
Check every paragraph you write to make sure that it has all three ingredients: a topic sentence, development of the topic, and logical flow throughout.
How To Write A Strong Paragraph
Step 1: Write a good topic sentence.
Your topic sentence needs to hook the reader, and therefore, it needs to be strong and significant. It must not simply hint or take dainty steps around your topic. Look at these two sample topic sentences.
- King Kong is one of the saddest monsters in movie history.
- I'm going to write about my favorite movie, which is King Kong.
Which paragraph do you want to keep reading? Which topic sentence is a strong introduction to the paragraph that follows? Sentence 2 is not very engaging at all. Why should the reader care what the writer's favorite movie is— unless the writer offers a good reason to be interested. Sentence 1 states a position strongly, and invites the reader to keep reading to find out why the statement is true.
Step 2: Support the topic sentence with additional connected and supporting ideas.
- Read the following paragraph and think about how it might be improved.
- King Kong is one of the saddest monsters in movie history. He lived on an island called Skull Island. He got sent to New York and was exhibited as a monster for people to stare at. He falls in love with a girl named Ann, and eventually, he is killed on the Empire State Building.
This paragraph lacks coherence and fails to develop the idea in the topic sentence. It jerks along without a smooth flow, and jumps ahead to the end of the movie without having explained or supported the idea of the topic sentence, which is that Kong is a sad monster.
Step 3: Create a smooth and logical flow within your paragraphs. Each sentence should be connected to the one preceding it and the one that follows it.
Look at the following revision of the King Kong paragraph and note how much more informative and logical it is.
- King Kong is one of the saddest monsters in movie history. At the beginning of the movie, we learn that he is held captive along with terrifying prehistoric dinosaur-like creatures in a frightening, sinister place called Skull Island in the Indian Ocean. Kong seems to be the only gorilla there, so his life is clearly a lonely one. Things don't get dramatically better when Kong is captured and taken to New York to be exhibited as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Note that the revision of the paragraph improves it by adding the following elements:
- more details of Kong's life that suggest loneliness (he lives alone among terrifying creatures)
- more adjectives and specific details that add vividness and color to the picture the writer is painting (words such as frightening, sinister, Eighth Wonder of the World)
- logical time-sequence connections between events (At the beginning… and Things don't get better when…
The rewritten paragraph has followed the requirements for writing a strong first paragraph. Even if we've seen the movie before, and know how the story ends, we are interested to learn how the writer proves the thesis statement, which is also the topic sentence of the first paragraph. We can expect that the writer will compare Kong to other monsters in order to prove the thesis that King Kong is one of the saddest monsters in movie history.
Other Types of Paragraph Structure
Not all paragraphs begin with a topic sentence that is then developed deductively. Here are some other paragraph types that you may find useful:
Descriptive or Expository Paragraphs. Use this type to describe a person, place, or thing. For example, you might want to describe what Kong looks like, or how he moves. Be sure to include details that describe sounds, color, smells, setting, and so on.
Narrative Paragraphs. Use these when you want to report an event or tell a story. Think about the action of the story, the characters involved, and the setting/scene. Such paragraphs usually have a beginning, middle, and end, but it is more likely that you will need more than one paragraph to complete your narrative.
Informative Paragraphs. Often you need to explain how something works or what happened in certain circumstances. Imagine writing an essay in which you are telling the story of your summer vacation. No doubt you would want to include an informative paragraph (or several) that tell how far you traveled, what transportation you used, and how many people were on the trip.
Persuasive Paragraphs. Use this format when you are trying to convince your readers to agree with you about your topic. This type of paragraph appears most often in essays that make an argument or seek to put forth a specific point of view. Think about the King Kong essay in this lesson. The writer's thesis that Kong is the saddest monster in movie history would be well supported by a persuasive paragraph that compares Kong to other monsters in other movies to show that he is indeed the saddest of all.
Vary the kinds of paragraphs you use in your essay to maintain reader interest and to keep your essay lively.
Practice: Creating Lively Topic Sentences
Write a topic sentence for each of the suggested topics in the following chart. For each sentence you've written, suggest the type of paragraph that will form the continuation of the paragraph.
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