Blog Lab: The First 400 Words of a Post

I’m fascinated by the rhetoric of writing.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about how standard conventions of academic writing apply to other modes of writing. What can blogger Amy learn from teaching college-level composition or introductory fiction courses? For instance, I can craft a strong introductory paragraph for a short, literary essay; I’ve been teaching students how to do this for years.  Can I use what I know about this kind of writing to create (hopefully) great opening gambits for blog posts?

While I don’t have all the answers, I’ve figured out a few significant connections between the first paragraph of an academic essay and the first 400 words of a blog post. Before I get to the “findings” of this blog lab, I want to introduce the test subjects:  two opening gambits–that is, the first 400 words (give or take)–of two individual blog posts.

The first, “Robbed of Knowing: Black Swan‘s Anti-Conclusion” is a rewrite of the first 400 words of a previously-published post.  (You can read the entire post–reworked introduction included–here.)  The second opening gambit belongs to “Elevation 12, 430 ft.: Smile Now, That’s a Hail Storm Behind You,” a piece that likely will be my first post on one of my favorite hobbies, backpacking. (Hence, one of the reasons why this site is named “the ambulant scholar.”)

The First 400 Words, example #1

Robbed of Knowing: Black Swan’s Anti-Conclusion

I’ll cut to the chase: I liked Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (as I did Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and The Wrestler). Would I put Black Swan on my top-five list of cinematic experiences?  Probably not.  But, I liked the film–and more than marginally so.  (A sentiment equivalent to 4 out of 5 Netflix stars, perhaps?)

Despite being enthralled by the acting, cinematography, and dance work, I can’t say that my viewing experience was wholly satisfying, mostly because I had no idea what central message Black Swan was working towards.  “What is the point?,” I remember wondering at the end of the film, credits rolling, as I unplugged my Roku and headed to bed.

A few days later, after I had time to mull over the film, I still didn’t have any answers. What’s worse, my question transformed into something more unsettling: “Is there a point?” Does Black Swan have a chief or singular message? Surely, films of Black Swan’s caliber–ahem, Oscar-nominated productions with renowned directors–should tell viewers something.

Ok. I know what you’re thinking: “But, but, but…isn’t Black Swan about artistic and bodily perfection, sexual repression, stage mothers, ageism, psychological bifurcation, or…?” (The list could go on.) Yes, Black Swan indeed touches on these ideas, but herein lies the rub: Although film has rich thematic content, it by design lacks a central message that would unite these disparate narrative threads, and thus, clarify their relationship to one another.

Such a unifying moment usually occurs in the text’s conclusion (what my Intro to Fiction students would call the “end orientation”). However, this doesn’t happen in Black Swan. Instead, the film builds towards an anti-conclusion. To be sure, Black Swan contains all of the traditional plot elements and also largely presents them in the expected order: exposition, inciting moment, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion. But after we’re ushered rapidly through the falling action, we’re suddenly cut loose from the text, set adrift, and ultimately robbed of knowing the central meaning of our entire viewing journey.

Let me explain.  First, I want to outline what I see as the film’s end orientation.  [Fair warning: SPOILER ALERT.] As I understand it, Black Swan’s conclusion begins with Nina’s violent, deadly confrontation with rival dancer, Lily, (played by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, respectively) in Nina’s private dressing room.

The First 400 Words, example #2

Elevation 12, 430 ft.: Smile Now, That’s a Hail Storm Behind You

A few years ago in March, I went on my first backpacking trip. Destination: Canyonlands National Park outside of Moab, Utah, and as you may know, it’s a desert environment. Temperature-wise, the weather was ideal, but rain was non-existent and water sources were, at times, dangerously scarce. Most of my subsequent backpacking excursions have been similarly dry, at least in one respect: little to no rain, but luckily, fresh-flowing streams near every campsite.

I didn’t realize how good I had it until last summer when I was caught in what objectively could be called the mother of all hail storms while backpacking Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness. Making matters worse, I was above tree line at around 12,000 feet when the storm began. (Meaning: I was the tallest object around, and so if lightening started…) The sky unleashed so much hail so quickly that I was soaked before I could put on my waterproof pants and jacket, which like a good backpacker, I had stashed in an easy-to-reach area of my pack.  But, like a bad backpacker, I had sloppily tied a lot of gear (sleeping pad, hiking poles, an old shoe I found the day before) to the outside of my pack.  As a result, the waterproof cover I bought before the trip didn’t fit over my now-ridiculously oversized, misshapen backpack. And for the first time ever on a backpacking outing, I cried.  Big, fat tears mixed with cold raindrops clinging to my cheeks as I realized with genuine horror that all of my belongings—from my clothes, to sleeping bag, to thermal underwear, to fleece jacket, to medications, to food—were not just getting wet; they were saturated with water. My predicament wasn’t just uncomfortable, it was downright dangerous, and it could prove deadly.

Looking back, none of this should have happened.  Despite my backpacking experience and first-hand knowledge of the Weminuche’s prevailing weather patterns, I ignored or strangely didn’t recognize nearly every warning sign for the nasty weather coming my way.  What could explain this behavior?  Why did I pose for pictures at yet another trail marker—not a care in the world—when a storm practically was brewing over my shoulder?

Now it’s time for the run-down. What am I doing, and why?

As I mentioned, the answers to these questions go back to my understanding of the components of a successful introductory paragraph for a traditional analytical essay, on say, literature, film, or another kind of “text.” (Imagine that?!)

A strong, successful introductory paragraph must orient the reader by giving him or her a “sense of direction.”  By paragraph’s end, the reader should have a pretty good grasp of not only the essay’s general topic, but also the author’s argument about or interpretation of the subject matter. Thus, rule #1: A strong introduction contains an explicitly stated argument, and this material always is placed at the end of the paragraph. At the same time, the reader shouldn’t have access to all of the writer’s thoughts on the subject. Otherwise, the reader has little incentive to keep, well, readingThus, rule #2: A strong introduction contains a concise, yet sufficiently detailed, assertion about the topic. The opening paragraph of a standard academic essay (i.e., on a literary text) should be helpful or “orienting” in another way: it should provide enough contextual/background information about the topic so that the argument makes sense to a reader who potentially has no first-hand knowledge of the text at hand. Thus, rule #3: An introductory paragraph should begin by outlining information about the text (plot details, etc.) that an unfamiliar reader would need to know in order to understand the thesis or argument at the end of the introduction.

Based on my experiences as a blog reader and a new, always learning blogger, some of these rules for traditional, academic writing do apply to blogging. Here’s my working theory regarding effective opening gambits:

  • Get to the point. Quickly. Early in the post, your reader should get a clear sense of both the topic and the direction of the entry.  I think that when readers dive into a text, especially web content, they often ask “what’s in it for me”?  Aim to answer this question within the first 400 words of the post, or perhaps earlier if you can.  In example #1, I stated my interpretation of Black Swan outright: “Although film has rich thematic content, it by design lacks a central message that would unite these disparate narrative threads, and thus, clarify their relationship to one another.” Example #2, however, doesn’t really contain an argument, per se, largely because it represents a different kind of writing (i.e., expository versus analytical). However, this gambit does answer the “what’s in it for me” question. Readers know, based on the last paragraph, that the post will explain the seemingly inexplicable: how could an experienced backpacker who was well-aware of the weather patterns in the Weminuche end up so dangerously under-prepared for a major hail storm?  Also, I think asking a question represents an acceptable, effective way to “get to the point.”  However, in academic writing, it is best to avoid this strategy when crafting a thesis statement.
  • Create incentive to keep going. The opening gambit should resemble a film preview: it should give the audience a good idea of what the post will discuss, but it shouldn’t give away the ending.  So, to mix metaphors, give your readers a reason to buy that ticket (and popcorn, too). 
  • Don’t start too fast, though.  Frame; create context. I take a little time to work up to answering the “what’s in it for me” question by providing either important background information (re: example #1) or an interesting anecdote (re: example #2).
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Posted in Blog Lab, Everything in Between

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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