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Writing Principles

Introductions and Metaphors        


         A teacher friend asked me to visit his English class and talk to his students about the principles of good writing.

        When the subject of an introduction to an essay, term paper, or interview came up, one of the students wanted to know why an intro was necessary, especially a lengthy one.  He went on to note that his high school English teacher, Mr. Rogers, always told them that they should get right to the point.

        I asked him whether or not Mr. Rogers was married.  The student replied yes and said that Rogers had chaperoned the senior prom, along with his wife.  With that information, I offered this response to the student and the class:

        “Am I to assume, then, that when Mr. Rogers proposed to his wife, he got right to the point?” I suppose he said, “Yo, babe!  Church, Saturday, noontime, and don’t be late.”

        When the laughter died down, I went on to add. “ I don’t know Rogers, but I am sure he is not the Fonz.  I bet he picked out the perfect restaurant, had the right music playing, and began whispering ‘sweet nothings’ in her ear while they were dancing.  And then when the moment was right, he got to the heart of the matter--his objective, the proposal.”

        The point I was making is that there are rhythms and patterns in life:  some are natural phenomena and some are emotional ones.  It does not always just storm.  Before the rain, the clouds darken, the wind swirls, thunder booms, and lightning flashes.  And when it comes to something emotional, like proposing marriage, many factors, sensations, and feelings must come together:  faces flush, blood pressures rise, and breathing becomes heavy--like an intro, before the words, “Will you marry me?” Writing a story without an intro is like having sex without foreplay, I added.

        The next issue that was discussed was the use of metaphors as key ingredients of the introduction.  I pointed out that a metaphor is just one type of “hook” to get the reader interested in your subject and to try to predict what the point of the story will be about.  Fish just don’t jump on the hook for the fisherman.  The fisherman must use bait, and it must be the right bait.  Just as the fisherman knows what will lure the fish, the writer must know what metaphor or attention getter will attract (or hook) the reader to want to continue reading.  A good metaphor also has another important purpose to a good piece of writing:  it provides a focus or outline for the writer to follow as he or she makes certain issues clear, and the metaphor allows the grasp the points being made more readily.

        I concluded with an example from Car & Driver magazine.  In the article I cited, the writer was comparing two cars but did not jump right into the statistics, but baited the reader by saying that the cars were as elegant as First Ladies, but one car was like Jackie Kennedy and the other was like Barbara Bush.  Well, I was hooked.  As I was reading, I was hoping to second-guess the writer by trying to figure which car was which First Lady.  I was also able, by use of the metaphor, to follow all the comparisons that the writer made because the metaphor was the organizational pattern.  Not only did I get a good idea of how the two cars differed but also got a good laugh at the same time.  I was informed and entertained at the same time.  And that is what good writing should be about.

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