What Happened Next
September 10, 2006
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My high school “world history” teacher began her class with a line I’ve (unfortunately) never been able to forget:
The earth formed in a ball of gas and dust. It cooled. It rained. Humans evolved. This year, we’re going to study what happened next.
Without going into specifics, can I just say that somehow her spirit has found its way to Australia, and is now haunting the essays of many of my otherwise talented undergraduates…
Just a small plea, if anyone is reading: yes, I have suggested that you use your first couple of sentences to link your essay to a broader context, so I realise I’m the proximate cause of this particular problem. So let me explain what I mean. The strategic point of contextualising your paper is not to demonstrate that your argument is of world historical import. References to world history, human evolution, global thermonuclear holocaust, or other Powers and Principalities are unecessary and – trust me on this one – usually counter-productive.
The goal, instead, is much more modest: write for the sorts of people who will eventually read your professional or academic writing – busy people, who might have a general background in what you’re discussing, but who aren’t intimately familiar with what you are about to say. Use your first couple of sentences to ease your reader into your thought-space, and to prime them for what you are about to argue. And, most importantly, take pity on your instructor, and don’t give me traumatic flashbacks to my world history class…