Getting an A on an English Paper

Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University – Newark


The opening of your paper has a lot of work to do, and it's in your interest to care about such things. Elsewhere I let you in on a dirty little secret about how professors grade papers: we usually know by the end of the first page or so what the grade is going to be. Yeah, occasionally we're surprised and the initial grade goes up or down depending on the rest of the paper — but I can usually guess, to within half a grade, what a paper is going to earn by the time I've turned from page one to page two. This means your opening has to work hard to convince me to give you a good grade. If you waste your opening on generalities and inanities, I'm predisposed to grade you harshly, and you have to work twice as hard to convince me you deserve better. So make those opening paragraphs do real work.

Here are some examples of flaccid openings, things that'll hurt your chances of getting an A on a paper.

Bad Openings
“Since the beginning of time” What do you know about the beginning of time? Unless you've done research on social organization in early Homo neanderthalensis societies and are well-versed in the conventions of literary Akkadian, don't talk about the beginning of time. Besides, anything true for everyone on the planet probably isn't all that interesting.
“Human nature is fundamentally riddled with paradoxes” The writer here has given in to the temptation to make grand-sounding pronouncements that are perfectly meaningless. Forget about sounding profound — most such attempts are bound to fall flat. Stick to talking about the book.
“Webster's Dictionary defines . . .” “Webster's Dictionary” is, strictly speaking, meaningless; any dictionary can put “Webster's” on its cover. And you gain very little by parroting a dictionary definition of a basic word. If you're going to refer to a dictionary, use the OED, which is at least historically informed.
“Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, and graduated from Morgan Academy in 1918.” Well, it's correct enough, but so what? It doesn't tell me anything I can't find out in thirty seconds on the Web. It may be appropriate for a very narrowly defined research paper. In most English papers, though, if it doesn't advance your argument, it doesn't belong there. Doint research is a good thing, but don't let unassimilated facts clutter the place up.

Some other pitfalls in opening paragraphs. Resist the urge to line up vague generalities: “Many works are susceptible to multiple readings”; “Authors often use ambiguous language to convey their points”; “Writers are drawn to metaphorical languge, which allows them to express things otherwise unavailable”; “The possibilties of using language are virtually endless” — the problem with all of these is that they could be said of any piece of writing in the world, and they simply don't need to be said about the piece you're writing on. The sooner you get down to business, the better your paper is likely to be.

[Revised 18 Dec. 2005.]

from Jack Lynch's guide,
Getting an A on an English Paper

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