I used to compete on the speech and debate team at Redlands High School, and I pay tribute to our speech and debate coach, Mrs. Kennedy. I came in as a sophomore and was mentored by some of the best state and nationwide competitors–whether they were good at oratory, impromptu, or Lincoln-Douglas debate. We had a stage in our classroom, the same classroom where Mrs. Kennedy taught us 10th-grade English honors.
She was indeed a great teacher, and when I was accepted to attend UCLA, she mentioned how her family home was near the campus. And some of those who had mentored me, the senior class of speech and debate champions, went on to attend prestigious universities and are now doctors and engineers and lawyers and activists and all kinds of amazing.
There was magic in that classroom. There was magic in practicing how to organize my thoughts. There was much encouragement, and yet we were challenged. One day I was challenged to try my hand at impromptu speech. In the world of the National Forensic League, impromptu speech competitions usually consisted of the following: you walk into a room, you are met with some judges, and they have a hat of shredded paper with topics written. You see your topic, you nod to the judges, and then you start to pace like a crazy person. I remember some people practicing their speeches to trees. I myself would make the same stern face I made before my varsity basketball game. I just focused.
The first time I ever tried an impromptu speech, my peer, who I followed later into UCLA, gave me the topic of “spoon.” I had two minutes to figure out a three-minute speech on spoons. What would you say about spoons in a serious room of people waiting to hear magnificent oratory skills?
When you have a topic, you need to give it its mission statement. This mission statement will then become the basis of your speech. It is the foundation, and the rest of your speech relies upon and relates to this foundation. I thought quickly about spoons, and then I decided on the mission statement of my speech:
Throughout life, we come upon diverse spoons to scoop the essentials of life journeys.
The mission statement of my speech was in all actuality a thesis statement. It was a statement I had to prove.
While teaching high school English, I had my students practice their public speaking, primarily impromptu speeches. I was using the same topic of spoons to demonstrate the lesson on the writing process: getting a topic, brainstorming, and reasoning how elements of your brainstorm related into a thesis statement. My high school students laughed and thought, Ms. Norah has gone wacko. The more they laughed the weirder the topics became: cows, sinks, bushes, gypsies, seashells. This was my way of having them think about writing by using a learning methodology wholly different from traditional approaches.
Once you get your topic, and you have given it a mission statement or point, it became very easy to come up with the rest of the speech. From your topic comes subtopics, and from subtopics come details. We would connect the dots on the board as I asked, How are these related?
The thesis would come to fruition.
I remember that feeling when my friend watched me think about spoons. I was 15 and goofy. I put the world behind me and ahead of me all at once. Spoons. I would have to define what I meant by “diverse spoons.” Well, these spoons are symbolic skills or tools that arise from challenges. And then I would relate those to the “essentials of life journeys,” personality traits or characteristics that one picks up as they mature. And suddenly, I had a good speech, a symbolic one. My judges nodded their heads, a sure sign of success.
Honestly, the thought of this thesis came as I thought about the purpose of spoons, what they do, when I used them, and their types. I had to brainstorm first before I ever got a thesis or mission statement. And I recalled this green, plastic ice cream scoop my mother had. I do not know why it came to mind–but that is the magic of thought. I got to thinking
The introduction to any speech or writing is the roadmap to your reasoning. And as they teach us in school, your thesis goes in the very last sentence of that paragraph. But how could my students, who were now the same age when I was told to think about spoons, write an introduction? They had not even considered the body of their work and where it could lead them. How can one convey a roadmap without knowing where the road took them?
After you have written your book, go back and write the introduction. After your brainstorm, after the winds, after the sacred dance called thought and reflection. My introduction to any speech I had ever given or any paper I had ever carved in the rush of an exam was always the LAST thing to write. I have seen my students waste so much time thinking how to start. This leaves them losing and struggling for the rest of the writing process.
Writing the introduction as the first segment of your writing process really limits you. You have put all you thought in a box, and you force yourself to stick to what is in that introduction or box. It no longer is a map.
Write, be free, explore! Then go back and make sense or meaning of what you have written (that is of course, unless you are doing a free form, rebelling against the tenants of traditional writing–which is totally awesome).
The introduction is where the prelude to magic happens. It is the ribbon, and your book’s contents are in the package. Whether writing or speaking, the introduction is where you hook the reader or listener and drive them to turn the page. Once you have the body of your work down, and you know where it has led you and the potential impact it can have, it becomes very easy to come up with an introduction.
You can be creative after you have defined your audience, and you can address their needs directly in a clear explanation, that is, in your introduction.
Introductions are strategic, and all too often authors ramble in their intros. They want it to be the first thing edited because they think that is where the magic begins. A magician does not reveal his tricks, he creates a mystique to the illusion while knowing every detail needed to achieve that illusion. Your introduction is you spinning the box to show that it is a total normal box. It is a totally normal girl. Your saw is sharp. The content of your book is where you preserve that girl while sawing through heavy content and ideas. The conclusion is when she gets out of the box, and you proudly display your achievement.
To write an introduction, the “how and what” needs to already be flushed out. That is, your magic is already planned: the girl curls up in one-half of the box, you cut through an existing slot, you pull the box apart, your reader gasps and keeps turning the pages, you put the box together, and in the conclusion, all is well and the girl is dancing on top of the box.
Would a magician know how to stage a trick without knowing how to do the trick itself?
Would a writer know how to write an introduction without knowing what it is that is being introduced?
In similar fashion, the introduction is always the last thing I edit. To edit the introduction first means my mind is being boxed in and only limited to the expectations that the introduction provides me. It confounds the literature for me because perhaps, there is much more going on in the rest of the book, and yet you only focus on one point or one question in the introduction. Or perhaps later, through content editing, your content shifts to address other points. Or perhaps the introduction is so vague that I feel like I am reading into an abyss.
[You may notice, I publish my drafts on purpose–with errors. And if you revisit again, you will probably find something has changed. I want you to know that it is ok to change things, to have errors, to be vague or off topic. We can fix that.]
I go back to the introduction when I am done editing the meat of the book because I can assess whether or not you have expressed the true intent of your book to a potential reader. Let’s face it, part of writing is to have an audience. Without a refined introduction, one that is clear and yet entertaining, interesting, insightful, creative, inspiring, refreshing, and most importantly gives the reader the urge to say:
Wow, there’s some stuff in here that I can’t possibly get to while standing here at the bookstore or previewing online. I think this has some answers for me.
[Adds to cart.]
Boom. You’ve made your first sale.
For my first competitive round of “Impromptu,” my intro went something along the lines of:
When I was five and I wanted some ice cream, I pulled out a flimsy spoon that just bent as I tried to pry some vanilla loose. When my mother walked into the kitchen and saw me struggling, she handed me an ice cream scooper. I examined it. It was green, plastic, and not what I typically considered a spoon. And yet, it had the same purpose–it’s just I was not aware of the diverse tools available to me because I was still learning. I was still mastering my own kitchen. Throughout life, we come upon diverse spoons to scoop the essentials of life journeys.
I found that the practice of speaking in organized yet entertaining fashion really helped the way I wrote. Every class I ever taught always had an element of public speaking to it. Speaking is a skill, a tool, a resource that is overlooked heavily by standard education. And writing is overlooked heavily by our technology crazed social lives.
One of the first lessons I gave my students as their teacher was impromptu sessions. And yes, the principal was boggled, and yes I got the question of “What does this have to do with literature?” And yes it looked weird perhaps on the security cameras that admin monitored, especially seeing my students all talking to themselves and performing in corners of the room.
- But they were able to write a good paper on Beowulf.
- They wrote amazing personal statements to their universities.
- They were analytically thinking.
- They went from writing broken sentences to writing college ready papers. And they were not native English speakers.
I do not say that because they were my students. I am truly amazed by how much they had grown because a different technique was introduced to them.
Mrs. Kennedy had taught me well. And for that, I am always thankful.
By that point, after all, I had already read their bodies and conclusions and advised them on content and analysis. It was the last thing to write the introduction, and I was well aware of how it could have looked. In fact, the final examination for my twelfth graders was to write the introduction for their semester papers.
It was the introduction that they practiced the most. Introductions are the way people get to know you, it is how they judge. That is the harsh reality of our world, and this activity surely shapes not only your writing, but the way we present ourselves, ideas, and beliefs.
As a teacher, it is my golden rule:
If the introduction does not tell me where I am heading as a reader, I will return your paper back to you and will not read more.
As an editor, it is my golden rule to review your introduction after I have reviewed content.
Sometimes I would read some introductions out loud and had the students assess whether they knew where the paper was heading. And the student who authored the paper would either affirm that this was indeed their intention , or they would take their introduction back and work on it more. The introduction took the longest time. It had the most drafts.
As a writer you must remember:
- If the map is confusing, no one will take the trip.
- If the introduction is not focused on your book’s objective, the reader will become easily lost.
- The more lost they become, the more they question your work.
Writing is all about control. Guard your ideas, arm them. The more control you maintain over your message, the less opportunity you present for people to refute or question your process. That does not mean that you deny your creative spouts of energy. Rather, value the intricacy of thoughts and ideas. Give them the attention to be woven into something wholesome or holistic.
Words have implications, and saying the wrong thing at the wrong time can be disastrous. Omissions can be even more dangerous. When someone asks, “What do you mean by that?!” we go on the defensive. When writing, remain on the offensive. We see this with public figures all the time who stumble because their words were inappropriate or they forget to convey an expected sentiment. Being an author has that same sense of accountability. Once your ideas are out there, you have disarmed yourself. Yet you must arm your words– with spoons!