Last week, I was working on a client’s materials. We were on something like draft #4 of her dissertation abstract, following on weeks of work on her c.v. and job letter. She’d been working hard, and her materials showed it.
It was Sunday morning, and I was working at the kitchen table, which is the warm weather office space of TPII. Come colder temperatures, I’ll be forced to migrate down to my basement office so that the family can once again eat dinner inside.
I opened her document. I read the first sentence. “Oh nooooooo,” I cried to myself, “Noooo! Not like this!!! This is all wrong! Jargony, wordy, abstract, and convoluted! Didn’t we already already go over all this???”
I clutched my head (literally) in despair, groaned, and then quickly dashed off an email. “You’ve got to rewrite this, especially the first sentence— I’m going to leave this until you get me a new draft.” “No problem!” she wrote back instantly, email being a live-chat-like experience with my clients when they’re working down in the trenches on a piece of writing. “But I’ve got to run to work now so I’ll give you something new later this afternoon.”
I moved on and did other things.
An hour later, I felt a nagging sense of guilt—had I been unjust, and overhasty, in my condemnation of the sentence? Was it really that bad? And did it justify postponing a reading of the whole piece? I re-opened the document.
I re-read the first sentence. Yes, it really was that bad. It was just a bad sentence. She’d fallen back on all of her old writing habits—the ones we’d spent weeks, through revision after revision, identifying and eradicating.
But this time I kept reading, and what did I find? After that sentence, a beautifully crafted, expertly-written dissertation abstract. An abstract that displayed ALL of the skills that this client had gained over the past weeks. An abstract that was, frankly, spectacular.
How did I miss this? I wondered (as I quickly dashed off another email, that said, in essence, “mea culpa, sorry I unnecessarily freaked you out right before work!”)
I thought back to the moment an hour earlier when I’d first opened the file.
At that exact moment, my 10 year old son and his sleepover buddy had just run into the kitchen, chattering loudly, chasing the rabbit, knocking a plate onto the floor, shattering it, and demanding waffles for breakfast.
“You can make pancakes yourselves,” I had said, as I do, every Sunday morning. “But weeee doooon’t waaaaant tooooo” was the response. “Weeee waaaannttt YOOUUUU tooo maaake WAAAFFLES.” “Yeah, well, too bad,” I replied, “I’m busy. I’m sure your pancakes will be delicious.”
At that moment my partner walked into the kitchen, took in the scene—boys milling, me frowning at my laptop, typing furiously—and quietly took out the waffle-iron. She browned some sausage we had in the fridge, fried some eggs, and mixed up some waffles. Acutely conscious of the studied silence I nevertheless continued typing away. I didn’t ask her to make waffles! I told myself. I never said we’d have waffles. This is not my responsibility! My partner studied the growing pile of dishes in the sink. I kept typing. I shall continue, I told myself: this is important! But it was no good. My mind was now firmly in that kitchen, irritatedly aware of the boys, now spilling syrup on the deck furniture outside, and guiltily conscious of the judgment emanating from the general area of the sink.
That’s how I missed it. When only half your brain (and half is really generous here) is on the piece of writing, you miss things.
Why mention this on the blog? Because, dear readers, this is all too often how your job and grant materials are read. Especially now that so many job and grant applications are online. No longer do reviewers go into a small, airless office to pore intently through manila folders. Now, they access these documents online, usually from anywhere. And certainly women faculty, and any faculty with children, will be doing a LOT of this work at home, sometimes, right there at the kitchen table.
If your piece of writing—whatever it is— doesn’t sparkle from the first sentence, grab that reader, impress her, engage her, inspire her to keep reading, flow naturally and seamlessly into a paragraph and then into an essay built on dynamic argument, fine-toothed organization, and vivid, energetic wordcraft….if it doesn’t do those things, your piece of writing will be firmly closed, placed into the reject box, and never opened again.
Your piece of writing is competing with chattering children, ringing phones, pinging text messages, the teenager flouncing, the waffles burning and the partner judging. Above all, the partner… asking, once again: Really? You really can’t stop that for 10 minutes and make breakfast? I’d just like to point out that you didn’t wash the dishes last night, after dinner, like you promised, and now there are twice as many in the sink. But don’t worry. I’ll just get those. Really, it’s my pleasure.
There is no room in this wired age of non-existent boundaries for leisurely contemplation, at least not of your application materials.
I caught myself (why, I’m still not exactly sure) and had the time and inclination to go back and double-check. You can’t count on that. Actually, you can more safely count on the opposite. Most faculty on a selection committee are far too time-stressed to give any application more than a few minutes apiece. Anything in the first sentence and first paragraph has got to be beyond good—it’s gotta be genius. And by genius, I mean: substantive (no filler), concise (no rambling), direct (no digressions), simple (but not simplistic), dynamic (not stagnant) and—the word that all of my clients will recognize—punchy. What is punchy? It is writing that reaches off the page and grabs the reader’s collar and DEMANDS that they keep reading. And writing is rarely born punchy. No, it gets punchy in one way—editing and revising, editing and revising, editing and revising.
Your application materials need to be punchy enough, from the very first word, to beat the waffles.
Michael J. Lichens says
This might be one of the better ways I’ve read to explain why the opening paragraph is so important. Thanks so much!
Wow, thank you for justifying why I slave over opening paragraphs as I do. No, they cannot be ‘good enough,’ the writing must be stellar, pose no obstacles to the reader, and most importantly leave them appetized for more. So important! Academic writing doesn’t open with a pitch, it opens with the closer, honestly. The attitude of the reader is decided within a few lines and it typically doesn’t change too much from that later on. Thank you for reminding me that the document I spent months to craft so very assiduously is being read in all of 8 minutes by someone listening for their toaster oven to buzz.
Great post. But I was thinking at one point, in answer to your “I caught myself (why, I’m still not exactly sure) and had the time and inclination to go back and double-check” Well, I’d hope she would… that’s a paying client!