WIS-ful Thinking Blog
Posted on: Thursday, May 17, 2018 - 3:23pm
Topic(s): Writing Tips
Where should you put the main point you’re trying to make in your book, chapter, section, paragraph?
If your goal is clarity, the best place to put a point is usually near the beginning: in the opening section or paragraph of the article, in the first few sentences of the paragraph, in the introductory chapter to the book. This guideline follows from the radical notion that people are more likely to understand what you’re trying to say if you tell it to them.
But exceptions exist, and here are a few.
If you fear that placing your main point in your introduction will cause your audience to toss your work in the trash without reading further, point-last may be your best strategy. Here, in an example from happier times, is a video of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, taking 7 minutes and 12 seconds to answer the simple question of which candidate he plans to vote for in the 2008 Presidential election. Why string it out? I’m guessing he wants to make his case for switching parties before his fellow Republicans learn he’s voting for Obama—and hit the mute button.
At the opposite end of the audience spectrum, your mother will read every word you write. Save your point for last, and send her off at the end with a climactic bang. Similarly, if you’re the graduation speaker, you know nobody’s going anywhere until the diplomas are handed out. Might as well lead in with a few jokes about that sports event everyone’s missing. Go ahead, bowl them over with your originality.
A writer with a flair for drama may want to hold back a point in order to build suspense and stimulate the reader’s curiosity. As an English teacher in a program with many creative writers, I often encounter this objection to point-first writing. I usually let students withhold their answers if they must, as long as the questions they’re asking are crystal-clear in their introductions.
The problem with keeping your point in reserve is that you might not get around to making it at all. I would like to say this too is characteristic of student writing, except I kind of think it might have been the problem with the fifth draft of my last book manuscript.
Very Short Piece
Newspaper opinion columns, like this one, tend to be both quick and point-last. (In their point positioning, they differ from news articles, with their “don’t bury the lead” point-first structure.) If readers can expect a conclusion without turning the page, they can also skip to the final paragraph should they be in a hurry.
You Don’t Actually Want Anyone to Understand You
Take the part of the annual report you’d rather your supervisor didn’t notice, and stick it in the middle of the second-to-last paragraph. I’m going to assume you have good ethical reasons for doing this.
In theory, if point-last is what they do in your field, then by all means do it. In practice, I’m having difficulty thinking of an example. A common lab report format calls for a conclusion section at the end, but also typically requires an abstract at the beginning that summarizes the full article including the conclusion: hence point-first. If anyone has examples of professional or disciplinary conventions that preclude point-first writing, please send them my way.