The Art and Structure of a First Paragraph
by Brent Kilbourn — January 19, 2001
The detailed analysis of a sample first paragraph of a thesis shows the importance of attention to detail in writing and teaches how techniques like parallel structure, cadence, repetition, and tense-shift can be used to create a strong first paragraph that communicates simply and clearly.
This article is about the first paragraph of a thesis. One form of teaching not often discussed in journals of education concerns the teaching that doctoral students receive as part of their graduate program. Some portion of that program concerns the difficult task of learning to write a thesis. The specifics of teaching and learning to write a thesis are idiosyncratic and are seldom publicly discussed. I want to talk about some of those specifics here. In particular, I want to focus on the very beginning of a finished thesis, on its first paragraph. Teaching about writing frequently involves showing, and in the following analysis I shall show the qualities that make a first paragraph strong and I shall argue why they are important.
My central message is a familiar one. It is about the care and attention to detail in writing that are required for an author to communicate clearly. My comments pertain particularly to the latter stages of writing a qualitative thesis, and they emerge from several observations. Theses tend to be complexly layered works. One reason why writing is so difficult is the need to distinguish foreground from background at any particular moment in the argument. Authors become intimately familiar with the layered qualities of their theses over the course of putting them together, of course, but that very familiarity can produce myopia with respect to precisely what it is that they must help readers to see. The difficulty can begin with the first paragraph. The first paragraph is critical because it sets the tone for the entire study and is a powerful force in shaping how a thesis will be read. Not surprisingly, there is an art to writing a strong first paragraph. And, common to art, strategy and structure are servants to beauty and meaning, as seen in the following analysis.
To begin, here are a few bold generalizations that will be appropriately qualified at the end: A first paragraph should be relatively short. It should be relatively simple. It should be incredibly clear. A first paragraph should be about the thesis, not within it. The substance should come only from the author since it is the author who is best informed about the content of the thesis; accordingly, neither quotes nor references should appear in a first paragraph. In brief, a first paragraph should be as succinct and informative as possible about the thesis as a work that the author consciously controlled. Here is a concrete example of a strong first paragraph, after which I shall talk about its structure, sentence by sentence:
This thesis is about teacher education. It is an interpretive inquiry that seeks to understand the experience of becoming a teacher from a student teacher's point of view. It is an inquiry that attempts to take very seriously the nature of interpretation, particularly with respect to the role the inquirer's biography plays in the attempt to understand a complex phenomenon, a phenomenon as complex as that of learning to become a teacher. In this inquiry I worked as a participant-observer with nine student teachers over a school year as they attended a teacher education course and engaged their practice teaching. I became a mentor to these student teachers and witnessed their developing understanding of what it meant to them to become a teacher. I develop three cases, drawn from the nine participants, that indicate the range of issues that emerged, for them, in learning to become a teacher and emerged, for me, in learning to write adequately about the phenomenon. In subsequent chapters I show how my biography was woven into the epistemological fabric of the interpretations I was making. In this chapter I will outline the backdrop to the study, including the argumentative thread that runs through it and culminates in the formal statement of the problem this inquiry addresses.
Notice how much we know about this study from the first paragraph. We know the domain of inquiry. We know its substance. We know something about the method. We know something about the way the results will be presented. Further, we have a sense of what will come next in the text. Although the paragraph is about a complicated study, it is easy to read. It is clear. There are no unnecessary sentences, no unnecessary phrases, no unnecessary words. No jargon impedes meaning. No issues are broached that are necessary to the thesis as a whole but that can be saved for a more fitting place. Critical terms are repeated instead of substituted with synonyms that at this early stage would confuse a reader rather than provide stimulating variation. The paragraph is not long. It is direct. It does not leave you guessing. The paragraph is internally coherent. It flows conceptually although not every sentence is logically connected to the one before it. Some things are repeated, but the repetition is not irritating; it is gentle and gives a reader time to make sense of what is being said. Although much is not said in the paragraph, the coherence, clarity, and appropriate detail of its contents help establish the author's credibility. We have faith that guidance will be there when we need it. We can relax. We can concentrate on meaning rather than on writing. Now, sentence by sentence:
#1 This thesis is about teacher education.
This sentence is simple enough, and its function is obvious. It locates the domain of educational inquiry. Its simplicity is intended not to overload the reader. The sentence could be a little more complex, but only a little. It could be written, "This interpretive thesis is about teacher education." Then we would know something about the kind of thesis it is, as well as what domain of inquiry it represents. However, to make the sentence any more complex than these two possibilities would risk overloading a reader. For instance, to write "This interpretive thesis is about the experience of becoming a teacher from a student teacher's point of view while taking a teacher education course and practice teaching," slows a reader down and disrupts comprehension because there are too many parts and their relationships are not clear.
#2 It is an interpretive inquiry that seeks to understand the experience of becoming a teacher from a student teacher's point of view.
It is with the second sentence that we learn that it is an interpretive inquiry and we learn that the substance of the inquiry is about the experience of becoming a teacher.
#3 It is an inquiry that attempts to take very seriously the nature of interpretation, particularly with respect to the role the inquirer's biography plays in the attempt to understand a complex phenomenon, a phenomenon as complex as that of learning to become a teacher.
The parallel structure in sentences #2 and #3 ("It is an interpretive inquiry" and "It is an inquiry") is intentional. The parallel structure helps create a reading rhythm that not only satisfies but also prepares us for learning about the second substantive part of the inquiry concerning interpretation. We also begin to see the manner in which the problem of interpretation will be treated. Notice that the parallel structure is not complete; the adjective "interpretive" is missing in #3. There is good reason for leaving the word out. Were it included, the sentence would sound redundant and overly wordy; it would read oddly because both "interpretive" and "interpretation" would be seen in a short span of 15 words. With regard to the phrase "to take very seriously the nature of interpretation," one would hope that an interpretive inquiry would take interpretation seriously, but the wording of the phrase is meant to suggest something beyond the normal methodological care one would take in any inquiry. Interpretation as a central concern of the inquiry is reinforced in subsequent sentences.
#4 In this inquiry I worked as a participant-observer with nine student teachers over a school year as they attended a teacher education course and engaged their practice teaching.
The fourth sentence moves to the topic of what was actually done, with whom, and for how long. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of these kinds of practical signals in a first paragraph. Supervisors, committee members, examiners, other researchers, and readers in general are sensitive to signs about the quality of the work, and one sign is the adequacy of the data base. An important part of directing readers to a path of understanding is to provide a sketch of what was done so that they will not fear the worst. Imagine our dismay if well into the thesis we discovered that the entire inquiry was based on one-shot, fifteen minute interviews with three students before they began their practice teaching. With respect to flow and ease of reading, the transition to these practical signs is not abrupt, again, partly because of the near parallel structure between sentence #4 ("In this inquiry") and the previous sentence #3 ("It is an inquiry"). Also, "participant-observer" adds information about the kind of interpretive inquiry that the study is and rather naturally raises expectations about who participated and for how long.
#5 I became a mentor to these student teachers and witnessed their developing understanding of what it meant to them to become a teacher.
A moderate parallel structure between sentences #4 and #5 helps a reader stride rather than stumble through the text. "I became a mentor" parallels "I worked as a participant-observer." However, the issue is more than parallel structure and smooth reading. The sentence incrementally increases our comprehension of the nature of the inquiry: "Mentor" further modifies what is meant by "participant-observer" in the previous sentence. And the last half of the sentence ("and witnessed") repeats one of the two major topics of the thesis (i.e., the experience of student teachers).
#6 I develop three cases, drawn from the nine participants, that indicate the range of issues that emerged, for them, in learning to become a teacher and emerged, for me, in learning to write adequately about the phenomenon.
It is with sentence #6 that we learn a bit about how the data will be presented and interpreted, and this helps round out an initial understanding of the study. Notice that if the phrase "drawn from the nine participants" is omitted, a reader is prone to wonder "Why three? I thought there were nine" (from #4). There are good reasons why the author moves from nine participants to three case studies, but these reasons involve conceptual and methodological details that do not demand resolution in the first paragraph. The integrity and coherence of everything to this point suggest that these details will unfold in due course, later in the study.
By now, the rhythm established by parallel structure is implicitly recognized as part of the author's style. Having just read "I became" in #5, we are not rattled to read "I develop" in #6. The cadence set by "emerged, for them," and "emerged, for me," contributes not only to fluency but to reinforcing the two central parts of the thesis (i.e., experience and interpretation).
Tense is an interesting issue in sentence #6, particularly as it relates to signs that the author has taken control of an inquiry. Qualitative theses are often messy to write with respect to tense because of the length of time it usually takes to complete them, coupled with the layers of past tense in experience. Generally, consistency and common sense prescribe tense. But sometimes a shift in tense can be used to foster a reader's confidence that the author is in control of the inquiry. Let me explain.
There is a past/present tense shift from "I became" in #5 to "I develop" in #6. It would be odd to say "I become" in #5, given that what is being written about has clearly happened in the past (during data collection), even though the active present tense and future tense could theoretically be the grammatical convention of the thesis. Past tense seems common sense for #5. In #6 "I develop" could have been written "I developed" and, strictly speaking, that would have been accurate. At the final editing of the thesis, nearly all of the events surrounding it happened in the past. However, the shift to present tense in #6 signals something very important. The contrast between the past tense in #5 and the present tense in #6 signals that the author is writing about the thesis as a work that s/he masters rather than serves. It is as if the author had said, "Okay, here's what I did; now, here's how I'm going to present it." (Such phrasing comes closer to the spirit of the issue than does formal academic prose, although there are other liabilities to colloquial writing.) The shift from past to present tense subtly indicates the move from a passive reporting of the past events of an inquiry to an active construction of the thesis. The shift is a symbol of the author's control of the inquiry and that contributes to our confidence in the author and to our growing engagement with the work.
#7 In subsequent chapters I show how my biography was woven into the epistemological fabric of the interpretations I was making.
This is an interesting sentence as it repeats in different words much of what has already been said in #3 and in #6. Several observations are worth making. First, removing every redundancy often results in choppy reading and modest repetition can help a passage flow. For instance, #7 clearly finishes off a substantive idea and has little to do with #8 other than both sentences talk about the thesis. But the repetition in #7 and #8, once again involving parallel structure ("In subsequent chapters," "In this chapter"), eases entry into #8. A reader senses this and is ready to move on.
Sometimes, as in this case, repetition lets an idea sink in. Again, repetition lets an idea sink in. This thesis is an inquiry in two conceptual parts. One part is about the experience of student teachers. The focus on experience is unremarkable for interpretive inquiry, not uninteresting, but unremarkable; any educational researcher would recognize the genre. The other part is more subtle. Rather than relegate the well-recognized problems of interpretation to discussions of method or limitations, the author makes interpretation problematic with respect to autobiography and incorporates it into the substance of the study--this is not unheard of in an inquiry, but the emphasis is somewhat unusual, and consequently the author is right to expect that the idea might benefit from reiteration. Well-placed repetition keeps a reader connected while slowing the pace so that s/he does not move to the next idea before fully comprehending the one in view.
A final observation about sentence #7 is equally important. The phrase, "the epistemological fabric of the interpretations," is more than window dressing. This thesis is a very fine and rigorously conducted study, but one half of it (concerning the role of autobiography in a researcher's interpretations) sits within a corpus of interpretive work that occasionally is uncharitably accused of navel gazing. Consequently, the phrasing, terms, and meaning of #7 reinforce that the interpretive portion of the study is on a plane equal to the experience portion and is not merely an indulgent frill. Obviously, the first paragraph cannot convince a reader one way or the other on this sensitive issue, but putting the reader onto a path of understanding and into a supportive frame of mind begins in the first paragraph.
#8 In this chapter I will outline the backdrop to the study, including the argumentative thread that runs through it and culminates in the formal statement of the problem this inquiry addresses.
Sentence #8 is about the structure of the chapter. Here again, as with the practical signals in #4, it would be easy to underestimate the value of a sentence like this. Overall, a reader is grateful for signals about structure because, while seldom an end in itself, structure helps a reader construct meaning. The lack of structure and the lack of signs about structure make it all the more difficult for a reader to understand what the author means. Two phrases are particularly important in this sentence because they address the Achilles heal of many qualitative inquiries. The first phrase, "including the argumentative thread," signals that the author is aware of the argument of the thesis and that it will be made transparent and clear, rather than remain implicit, vague, or absent. The second phrase, "culminates in the formal statement of the problem," is important for the same reason. It signals the author's awareness that the thesis emerges from a perceived problem within a field of inquiry. The phrase signals an awareness that in any inquiry, no matter how complex, no matter how subtle, no matter how finely textured, the problem addressed needs to be explicit and it needs to be clear.
Early drafts of theses often lack strong first paragraphs to guide the reader and establish confidence for the demanding task of comprehending the text. There are common difficulties with the initial paragraphs of early drafts. One difficulty is that the conceptual flow that comes from logical linkages among ideas is not reflected in the writing. These are typically linkages that authors intuitively sense but have difficulty articulating. By the time authors come to the initial draft stage, they know that the first chapter must set the context of the inquiry and articulate the significance of the problem. Generally, this takes the form of a step-by-step argument. Painstakingly, methodically, one small clear step is taken at a time until the reader arrives at the destination. While the steps are necessary, they are not easy for an author to take. Placing steps in the right order, making them explicit, showing the way, avoiding unwarranted leaps, and being clear are what make academic writing difficult. The difficulty is compounded in a qualitative thesis because it is both a living creation and an artful re-creation of an inquiry. (The steps are difficult with thesis proposals because the author is cutting the path and drawing the map at the same time.) Early drafts of theses frequently lack strong initial paragraphs because it takes so much effort to put the steps down in the opening chapter that it can lull an author into thinking that the task is done once the steps are clear and in order. What is the difficulty?
Difficulties can be the result of muddled thinking or muddled writing. Or both. Common difficulties are often given the umbrella label "lack of clarity." The reach for clarity can be a stretch because it is a challenge to write linear, fluid prose about a process of inquiry that may seem anything but linear and fluid to the author. At some point, however, the thinking and writing are no longer muddled and a reader is carefully led step-by-step through the first chapter. Each step is sound, each follows the one before. Still, a reader may have difficulty. The difficulty is not a lack of structure or argument. The difficulty is that the overall path is unclear, and it takes too long to come to the point. Frustrated, a reader begins to raise questions, questions that demand immediate answers but that, in the moment, detract from a vision of the whole. This kind of difficulty can be addressed by a strong first paragraph to show the way.
A first paragraph is the starting point for the reader, but not for the author. First paragraphs are most clearly drawn after the thesis is completed. Initial sketches are important for orienting the author, but the final version may be one of the last parts edited. There are veritable lists of writing techniques that are potentially relevant to the strength of a first paragraph, but the appropriateness of any technique depends on both the substance of the inquiry and the writing style of the author. Parallel structure, cadence, repetition, and tense shift helped make the above sample paragraph strong. Other paragraphs will be strong in other ways. Above all, technique is not a matter of mechanical application. The sample paragraph was written, re-written, and written again until it not only sounded right but said what it needed to say. Techniques were used, but they were not consciously "applied," and it was only after the fact (to teach about first paragraphs) that attention was paid to what made the paragraph strong. Attention to detail, attention to meaning, and attention to the needs of the reader strike the attitude for writing a strong first paragraph. As with other signposts in a thesis, first paragraphs call for a slightly different mode of writing, one that takes control by mapping structure. A well-crafted thesis respects the reality of the unfolding events of the inquiry while it goes beyond naively reporting them, and the signs of that process are posted in the first paragraph.
Authors should work within their own style, of course. First paragraphs need not sound and look like the one above, but each must have structure, coherence, and flow to effectively guide readers. Nor should the sparse, guiding clarity of a first paragraph interfere with an author's creative use of other forms of writing in the thesis. The function of the first paragraph is simply to guide readers and help them understand what is to be read. Finally, first paragraphs need not literally come first in the opening chapter of a thesis. A paragraph that is conceptually first may follow one or two paragraphs that set the context. The rule of thumb is not to let too many lines slip by before a clear map is drawn to guide the way.*
*Martin Kofsky and I have had many stimulating conversations about writing. The cast of the sample first paragraph in this article emerged from comments to him about his study, "Mapping the Territory of Teacher Education: An (Auto)Biographical and Literary Inquiry" (1996, Unpublished Ed.D. Thesis, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto). A suggestion to him about showing the path early in the first chapter eventually grew to incorporate thoughts that have accumulated over the years of advising students on their theses. He is an elegant writer. It should come as no surprise that when it came time for final editing, I turned to Martin Kofsky.