The Best Way to Start an Academic Paper

Avoid PaddingBoth of the following writing samples demonstrate effective use of grammar, punctuation, and other surface-level matters. Which version does a better job introducing an argument?

Version 1: The Best Way to Start an Academic Paper

In universities across the country, students start papers in different ways. Some papers start with a statement about life or some abstract quality like truth or justice. Others start with a striking quotation from notable historical figure or, better yet from whatever work the paper is about to discuss. Still other papers get right down to business in the first couple of sentences, identifying the topic and major work(s), specifying the author’s precise opinion on that topic, and explaining how the evidence will add up to support the claim. In this paper, I chose to begin with a completely unhelpful general reference to a sweeping, big-picture theme — something that sounds grand and intellectual, but that will not appear even once in the rest of the essay, and then distracts the reader unnecessarily by listing several loosely-related topics that have little to do with theactual topic of the essay. By an examination of different ways to start papers, it can be determined what way of starting a paper is the best, which this way is certainly not.

Version 2: Essays are More Convincing without Padded Introductions

 According to a recent study of freshman composition essays (Smith), papers readers find most persuasive usually began with an introductory paragraph that included a clear thesis statement, a few sentences describing the evidence supporting the claim, and well-chosen details that preview the contents of the rest of the paper. Because an essay has only one chance to make a good first impression, wise authors avoid padding their introductions. The more padding found in a paper’s first few paragraphs, the less likely readers will identify it as persuasive. By “padding,” Smith means “sweeping generalities, personal anecdotes and reflections, summary of the assigned readings, or non-existent variations the author did not actually write” (123). Papers that began with quotations or rhetorical questions were sometimes rated highly, but direct quotes of more than 10 words were more often than not interpreted as padding. The exact placement of the thesis statement (at the beginning of the first paragraph, the end of the first paragraph, or at the beginning of the second paragraph) had little impact on the perceived persuasive power of the paper. Far more important were the absence of padding and the effective use of interpretation and analysis.


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