You approach  the huge door to the mansion.  The brass knob sparkles in the sun.  The windows mirror your face.  You knock.  No one answers.  You open timidly.  You find that you are on a movie set, that the door goes to the open space you could have entered by any other kind oof door.  But because I tricked you, you will not forget this doorway, ever.
                                               --Lutibelle of Portage

Rhetorical Beginnings, Professional and Amateur

by Louie Crew

This first appeared in College Composition and Communication 38.3 (1987): 346-350.

© 1987 by the National Council of Teachers of English.
©2004 by Louie Crew

     Beginnings are flexible.  Understandably the few who have written about them have been unsystematic and anecdotal,(1) like chefs who will not share their real secrets, but list ingredients for all recipes in the first chapter and then never specify the amounts for individual recipes.(2)  When they do specify, what they recommend, especially in handbooks for beginners, often contradicts the practice of published writers.  For example: BEGIN WITH A TOPIC SENTENCE.  Richard Braddock exposed that myth a decade ago.(3)

     We should be able to describe what marks the beginnings written by professionals.  Towards that end, I have compared the rhetorical opening moves of 20 professionals with those of 20 rank student amateurs. The professionals wrote opening paragraphs to the first five articles in four issues of Psychology Today for 1982.  The amateurs wrote the first 20 papers in freshman English to which I had assigned a grade of C- or lower for the same year.  The differences instruct.

     Most of the amateurs begin by stating their purpose, giving some background, or telling their results.(4)  Most of the professionals hold those moves for later, after they have baited the hook.

                         Professionals' Narratives

     Sixty percent of the professionals begin their exposition with narratives; only ten percent of my student amateurs do.
          My husband, my teenage stepson, and I were enjoying a lavish brunch with friends one August day, when a neighbor of the hosts  dropped in to visit.  She is a journalist, and when she heard that I was working on a study of anger, her curiosity was whetted.  I was  reluctant to talk about it, which aroused her interest all the more.

          "Is it about women and anger?" she asked.

          "Not specifically," I said.

          "Is it about work and anger?"

          "Not entirely."

          "Then is it a sociobiology of anger?"

          "No," I said curtly, trying to discourage her.

          "Is it political?"

          "You could say so."

          But I was failing.

          "Is it a clinical analysis of anger in intimate relationships?"

          "No! shouted my stepson, slamming his hand on the table in mock fury.  The woman visibly jumped and then all of us laughed.  The interrogation and my tension were over, and Matthew had demonstrated  one of my major points:  Anger has its uses.

Ostensibly the writer focuses on the trendy typologies typical of many articles in Psychology Today, such as "a sociobiology of anger."   But the real focus is upon the writer's rejection of the au courrant for a more pedestrian classification, the "uses" of anger.  The professional thus dramatizes an otherwise dull subject.

     Compare the work of an amateur narrator, typically laid back and casual:

          Being a sophmore this year, I am rooming with a person I met last  year.  Before we left last spring we figured out what each one of us were going to bring to the dorms.

      Professional essayists narrate differently than fiction writers do.  The essayists not only narrate to serve one of the later points of the essay; they freely embellish.  That is, they "pour it on," as with the journalist's gratuitous litany about anger earlier.   Many fiction writers consider embellishment prodigal or careless, not in the best interest of aesthetic unity or economy.  But for the professional essayist, the narrative is a short-term, usually one-shot affair.  One-third of the professionals in my sample end their narratives after only one paragraph, another third after 2-4 paragraphs, and the other third after 5-12 paragraphs.

                           Professionals' Indirection

     Professionals like indirection.  They drop clues, such as "they say" or "at least when" to alert the reader to be aware that all is not as it seems:

          Procrastinators are given to moralizing, at least when they try to explain why they habitually put things off.  They are lazy, they say,  and undisciplined, and they just don't know how to organize their time.

The writer goes for another paragraph before the inevitable But.....

     Sometimes professionals cite experts only to reverse them:

          When asked whether a child at play is aware that he is only pretending, Jean Piaget suggested that the child would never think to ask that question.  His reply intimated that until children develop a well-articulated sense of reality, they cannot be considered truly imaginative in their play.

Cryptic?  Clever?  Of course, and all the better for the writer to reverse and become one up in the next paragraph:  "We are no longer reduced to such speculation...."

     Indirection particularly helps a writer get through more tedious essentials, such as definition.  Only the most suspicious reader detects that the writer is setting up a definition in the startling lead "Adam was the first vandal...."  One paragraph later the writer cashes in on the extended example:  "When someone alters part of the physical environment without the consent of its owner or manager, it is vandalism."

     Amateurs usually define more directly and tediously:  "Capital punishment can be defined as a penalty of death imposed on a convicted felon after due process of law...."  The student is even inexact.  Some people lose their heads without conviction or any other due process.  The student muddles the facts, possibly because of his own evangelism for the death penalty.  The muddle hides the horrors that he defends.   From the pen of a seedy bureaucrat, his definition might work to stifle further debate.

     Amateurs and professionals both like initial quotations, but obliqueness marks those of the professional, as in this citation which precedes the beginning paragraph "Adam was the first vandal":

     Riddle:  What did Adam first plant in the garden of Eden?

     Answer:  His foot.

Probably the author wrote his own riddle, as I wrote the epithet at the beginning of this essay and then ascribed it to an alterego, Lutibelle of Portage.  Of course these are contrivances, tricks, even cheap ones, but they work to establish a contract with the reader:  they signal that the discourse is charged, that the writer needs to be heeded closely.

                            Professionals' Irony

     Professionals relish irony, especially when they least seem to do so.  Here the writer appears simply to report the facts, but the governing rhetorical strategy is not "simple" at all:

          In the spring of 1981 a new superstar burst into cancer research and seemed to shed a marvelously illuminating light over this intractable field.  Mark Spector, a 24-year-old graduate student at Cornell University, and his professor, Efraim Racker, announced a remarkable new theory of cancer causation.  The theory, for which Spector has provided prodigious experimental evidence, was of such strength and elegance that many were convinced that it would win him and his collaborator the Nobel Prize.  Racker himself had no doubts about the beauty of the idea that he and his young protege had conceived.  At the head of the article in which Racker and Spector announced the discovery, they cited a quotation from G. K. Chesterton:  "There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds."
Date: Thu, 2 Feb 2006 15:58:35 -0500
Subject: rhetorical beginnings

Sir, For a lecture I give on scietific fraud, I googled "Mark Spector" and Racker and came up with an article you wrote entitled "Rhetorical Beginnings: Professional and Amateur". In this piece you mention the quote with which Racker began his ill-fated 1981 Science article: "There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds", G.K. Chesterton. You proceed to explain that this may have been a clue to the fraudulent data within. You implicate both Spector, the student and Racker, the mentor. I feel it necessary to correct this and if you can you should correct it in future versions. Spector was the cheater in this pair. Racker was a man of impecable credentials and later editorialized on the duty scientists have to police each other as opposed to having government regulations. [See Nature (11 May 1989) 239:91]. I also suggest a piece about Racker written by a colleague, Gottfried Schatz, for the National Academy of Science.

When Racker discovered that his student had designed an elaborate scheme to cheat, he immediately retracted already published papers as well as in-press papers. He did the experiments himself and I believe he was already in his late 60's at the time. His behavior is used as a model of what a scientist should do if they suspect fraudulent data. Reactions by the latest fraudulent scientists, the stem cell cloners, should have been as responsible.

Sincerely, Joan Glick Bieler

Joan Glick Bieler, PhD
Research Associate
Dept. of Pathology
Johns Hopkins Medical School
720 Rutland Ave. Rm. 664G
Baltimore, MD 21205
410 614 0642

The writer must have purred for an entire evening after sleuthing the Chesterton quotation.   Racker and Spector, he reports, were charlatans who had fabricated their data and hidden this clue to their mischief.

               Amateur Openings:  Rhetorical Questions and Truisms

     Amateurs like rhetorical questions.  One-third of them begin with one; not one of the professionals does, though some use them at later junctures in the essays.

          Do you ever wonder what you've done with your money? Well, I do but I never contemplate too deeply on it to get a precis answer.  An inventory of my possessions did give that answer.
Notice how quickly the amateur gives away his authority by the false humility in the second sentence.  He's saying, "I don't think too hard unless I'm made to, but here's the inventory my teacher asked me to write."   He never owns the project as his own and therefore cannot package it as a discovery.  Compare this revision of his second sentence:  "When I rigorously cataloged my possessions, I surprised myself with some values I didn't realize I held.  I bet you too care more about things than about people...."

     Amateurs also like initial truisms.  My favorite is one by a football player in the first class I ever taught, in 1959 at Auburn University:  "There are two sexes in the world--male and female."   Duh.  Eighty-five percent of my present sample of amateurs begin with truisms.  Usually they do not clarify what is at stake in them.   They write as if they assume a docile, uncritical reader--if they assume a reader at all--and they usually have little sense of that reader's level of literacy or taste.  They seem impressed by phrases such as "Nearly everyone," "both good and bad," "arguments for and against," etc.       Amateurs offer as a discovery what any thinking person would have guessed already:

          The cars of today compared to the cars of yesterday show a  remarkable constant improvement from the invention of Henry Fords first car....

     If professionals use truisms at all, they do so cautiously and self-consciously:

          Infants see the world in different colors, soon after birth.  They are also more attracted to certain colors--red, blue, yellow, and  green--than to blends of these colors, just as adults are.

          That may not seem so astonishing at first.  Yet for generations people were not sure whether young babies could see at all....

Notice that the apparent truism which "may not seem so astonishing at first" turns out not to be a truism at all when the professional adds the historical perspective to show what's at stake in our caring how or whether infants can see in color.

                                 Amateur Muddles

     Professionals usually have a clear control of their strategies as strategy.  Amateurs often muddle good and bad tactics together as if they don't recognize either, rather like a person who dresses formally for a dinner party and then wears tennis shoes:

          Too many people know too little about the politics directly relating to them.  Knowledge and activity stimulates legislation benificial to the popular favor.  Individual passiveness leaves their elected stranded on the big business' side of the street.

The student later documents the voters' political ignorance precisely, as she promises in sentence 1.   But does she think that sentence 2 really makes sense?  Whose knowledge?  What activity?  And by sentence 3, whose passiveness?  Very likely the student could answer all of these questions specifically, but would still prefer her own versions of sentences 2 and 3 as more learned than my revision:

          When voters know the facts and act on them, they can influence legislators to benefit all people.  But when most voters don't know or  don't act, legislators heed only the few who do, namely, persons in big  business.
I also suspect that the strained metaphor of "big business' side of the street" doesn't sound strained to the student.  Perhaps her teachers been too busy identifying the easier problems with mechanics, ignoring rhetoric altogether?

     Many students themselves cannot recognize the simplest strategies when they read, as I have discovered by asking them to describe the moves in passages like those from Psychology Today.  Yet when taught, most students learn to spot the moves quickly, and some exclaim, "I didn't know all that was going on!  What more have I been missing?"

     Most of our average and even below-average students in their wordhordes already register sarcasm and easy irony.  Most make quite perceptive word choices in speech at least occasionally.  Most of them command a knowledge of the facts basic to many topics which they choose.   What they often lack are the skills to compose well what they already know and feel, the skills to sustain in writing the verbal dynamics which they have already evidenced randomly in talking and reading.  Our challenge is to train them to make an effective rhetorical artifact.

     (1) H. J. Tichy, "Two Dozen Ways to Begin," Chapter 5 of Effective Writing for Engineers, Managers, Scientists, John Wiley & Sons, 1966, pp. 25-63.   Tichy is typical.  A couple of exceptionally instructive, if short comments about openers are worth noting:  Teun A. van Dijk, "Macrostructures and Superstructures," in Macrostructures:  An Interdisciplinary Study of Global Structures in Discourse, Interaction and Cognition, L. Erlbaum Association, 1980, pp. 107-132; and Robert Gorrell, "Not by Nature:  Approaches to Rhetoric," English Journal, 55 (April 1966), 409-416, 449.  van Dijk identifies Time's and Newsweek's strategy of opening with often "intimate" detail, then contrasts that with the Bakkelash text, in which first sentences are not mere setting but actually initiate the macrostructure (p. 124).  Gorrell speaks of each sentence in a text as an opener, as a structural constraint on what can be said thereafter, as a commitment to deliver on what it promises, by one of three major ways:  addition, continuity, and selection.

     (2) See Roland Harweg, "Beginning a Text," Discourse Processes, 3 (December 1980), 313-326.  Harweg points out that discourse analysts cannot properly prescribe anyway, but only describe the constraints that derive from canonical expectations.  Harweg considers spoken as well as written texts.  Native speakers would rarely if ever violate any of the complex rules he shows that we follow.

     (3) Richard Braddock, "The Frequency and Placement of Topic Sentences in Expository Prose," Research in the Teaching of English, 8 (Winter 1974), 287-302.

     (4) At least one rhetorician urges the style which my students prefer.  See Michael Grady, "A Conceptual Rhetoric of the Composition," CCCC, 22 (December 1971), 348-354:  "What is at stake here is the conceptual recognition that at the beginning of a Composition (or short paper, or term paper, or course paper) there needs to be some time spent acquainting the reader with the concepts to be discussed in the paper, the order in which they will be treated, and to some extent, the manner in which they will be treated.  Then the writer will have made a promise to the reader, a promise that he can fulfill--and ought to, in the body of the composition--and the reader will not be led to expect more than the writer promises or can deliver" (p. 349).  I tremble to imagine the openers his advice might evoke from my students, such as:  "In this paper I plan to share with you, dear reader, the sixteen ways that I have discovered...."


Please sign my guestbook and view it.

My site has been accessed times since February 14, 1996.

Statistics courtesy of WebCounter.