Just Tell ‘Em
Often, the hardest part of writing is knowing how to begin. Because of this, students often resort to bland opening sentences like these:
- I would like to tell you about the worst vacation I ever had.
- This paper is about a wonderful book for children called Charlotte’s Web.
- In the following essay, I will explain how to be a reliable babysitter.
What’s wrong with these sentences? They tell the reader what the paper is going to do or what the writer is hoping to accomplish. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but if the writer does his job, it’s not necessary. It is a waste of words that draws attention to the writer and the writing instead of the subject the paper is intended to address.
There is an old adage for public speakers that goes, “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.” I don’t think that’s good advice for writers, and I’ll talk about that more in another post, but my advice about writing introductions is a play on this platitude: Don’t tell ’em what you’re gonna to tell ’em — just tell ’em.
Instead of writing “This paragraph will be about bowling,” just say what you want to say about bowling: Bowling is a wonderful pastime, or Bowling has a long and fascinating history, or Bowling should be outlawed in Texas. Just jump in and say it. Your readers will figure out your purpose all by themselves.
It’s also best to avoid reminding your readers that they are reading something. You can assume they already know that. So, it’s not necessary to refer to the “paper” or the “essay” as do the examples above. Here are some improved versions:
- My family’s trip to the Poconos last winter was the worst vacation ever.
- Charlottes’ Web is a fanciful book about sacrificial love among memorable farm animals.
- Being a reliable babysitter is not as easy as many assume.
Good writing focuses the readers’ attention on the subject, not on the writer or the writing itself. Get out of the way and let your writing speak for itself. When it comes to introductions, remember this simple rule: Don’t tell ’em what you’re gonna to tell ’em — just tell ’em.
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What is the name of that funny, antiquated machine pictured at the top of this post? (I’m just joking! I KNOW what it is, I think that’s the machine I used in typing class in high school!)
The tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them, was the formula they have us for public speaking. I used it all the time in impromptu, right after my humorous, attention-grabbing introduction. Complete with 3 points. It is rather boring in speaking as well as writing.
Hi Lois. Maybe I should caption that photo. Many of my readers may have no idea what that thing is! 🙂
Yes, that’s a public speaking aphorism. (I think I mentioned that). In a future post I’ll talk about why it’s not a bad principle for speakers, but a terrible one for writers. (See how I strategically tempted you to come back for more later? Brilliant marketing!)
dude, thanks for this. when i write copy i sometimes take a while to get started. it makes the copy slow to start, repetitive and worst of all…BORING. this is a great reminder to get to the action!
In this comment, I will thank Griswold for his kind words and for taking the time to write them here.