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Writing A Great Introduction - A Case Study
Close reading of Jia Tolentino's "The Pitfalls and the Potential of the New Minimalism"
People are told to not judge a book by its cover, but everyone judges an article by its opening paragraphs. We all do it! But what is the secret to writing a great introduction? How do you get your audience to keep reading? And what else can you accomplish in the first paragraphs of an article?
Jia Tolentino is a staff writer for the New Yorker, formerly of Jezebel and Hairpin. Culture, identity, and feminism are common themes in her writing. In “The Pitfalls and the Potential of the New Minimalism” Tolentino is discussing minimalism both as a self-help fad, and as a broader philosophical perspective. The entire article is lovely, but the first few paragraphs are extremely well-written, and are packed with great lessons that can be applied to your own writing. I encourage you to read the whole story, but it isn’t necessary to follow this article.
The first job of any introduction is to grab attention. There are a bajillion articles and videos fighting for your reader’s attention. Your headline has hopefully brought in an audience, but your first few paragraphs have to convince your readers to keep reading. It doesn’t matter how good the rest of your article is if no one sticks around to read it.
Authors use a range of devices to capture the reader’s attention. Funny or emotional anecdotes, intriguing questions, and provocative statements are some common devices. Tolentino uses an unconventional route by creating tension through the drama of… home organization?
The new literature of minimalism is full of stressful advice. Pack up all your possessions, unpack things only as needed, give away everything that’s still packed after a month. Or wake up early, pick up every item you own, and consider whether or not it sparks joy. See if you can wear just thirty-three items of clothing for three months. Know that it’s possible to live abundantly with only a hundred possessions. Don’t organize — purge. Digitize your photos. Get rid of the things you bought to impress people. Downsize your apartment. Think constantly about what will enable you to live the best life possible. Never buy anything on sale.
This paragraph is attempting to put you in the shoes of someone battling to organize their home in compliance with the rules of minimalism. Each sentence is as short as possible, making the audience feel cramped. Stress is added by the apparent contradictions we encounter in the list: what exactly is the difference between organizing and purging? How does downsizing my apartment help me organize? Tolentino’s list is also longer than is strictly necessary to prove her point — by using ten examples rather three or four it creates a feeling of being smothered by a mountain of “advice”.
Obviously, this particular writing approach is not useful for most authors, but the lesson is more general: make your audience feel something. In this case, Tolentino made the audience feel stressed and frustrated, but look at almost any good essay or op-ed, and the first paragraph will usually illicit an emotion.
One neat observation — the article still makes sense if the first and second paragraphs are reversed! In fact, you could remove the first paragraph all-together and the article still works. This means that Tolentino has used the first paragraph of her story — arguably the most important piece of the text — and decided to not include any information essential to the narrative, but focus entirely on emotion and feeling. Put in that light, it is obvious that Tolentino puts a lot of emphasis on creating a connection with the reader.
Connecting to the Reader
Tolentino’s job in this essay is pretty difficult. First, she is writing this well after the attention on minimalism had shifted. “Tidying up with Marie Kondo” premiered on Netflix in January of 2019, a full year before Tolentino’s essay was published. Second, she doesn’t exactly know where her audience is coming from. Some of them may love the books, shows, and blogs she is writing about, and others may have bought into the anti-Kondo backlash that came after she opened an online store. How does the author engage with all of these groups at once?
As I waded through this course of study, I felt like a dirty sponge being irradiated in the microwave: I was trapped, unpleasantly, but a cleansing fire was beginning to rage within. I Kondoed my sock drawer, tenderly unravelling lumpy balls of wool and cotton and laying each pair flat. I made daily pilgrimages to Goodwill. When I went home to Texas for the holidays, I entered my parents’ apartment as a whirling dervish of minimalist self-satisfaction, hectoring them to toss out their kitchen doodads and excess Tupperware. Within hours of arrival, I had filled six large trash bags with clothes to donate. “See?!” I howled, irritating myself and everyone around me. “You get rid of the things you don’t need so that you can focus on the things you do!”
This image of a self-deprecating earnest do-gooder is endearing and disarming. It is welcoming to both the minimalism-enthusiast or skeptic, as each audience knows the experience of battling with a Tupperware drawer gone wild, or feeling like a nag who is “irritating myself and everyone around me”. She simultaneously understands the attraction of minimalism, and its absurdity. All this is mixed with some sharp wit.
While the public is not split into clear for/against minimalism groups, a lot of the people clicking on an article titled “The Pitfalls and the Potential of the New Minimalism” are going to have an opinion on the subject. Tolentino has managed to navigate her way through the opening paragraphs while alienating as few readers are possible. As we read later in the article, we see the author’s message is meant to speak to both perspectives. Using a combination of humor, personal stories, and emotion, she manages to draw in a wider audience.
Adding to the Whole
There are a couple clever moves that Tolentino fits into the opening paragraphs of the article that add to the piece as a whole in a charming way. In the fourth paragraph, we get a brief history lesson on Elgin and Mitchell. This provides useful historical information, and shows that “New Minimalism” may not actually be that new. Surprisingly, Elgin reappears in the last two paragraphs of the article! Tolentino put the entire story of Elgin and Mitchell at the beginning or end of the piece, but she decided to break it in half. Call-backs like this create a feeling of completion, and a satisfying “aha” moment for the reader.
A subtler maneuver is the connection between the first two and last two sentences of the article:
The new literature of minimalism is full of stressful advice. Pack up all your possessions, unpack things only as needed, give away everything that’s still packed after a month.
If we put down some baggage, we might move more swiftly. We might address the frantic, frightening, intensifying conditions that have prompted us to think of minimalism as an attractive escape.
There is a subtle mirroring between these sections. Minimalism and packing are the source of stress in the first sentences, but by the end they offer a solution to the real source of our anxieties. Similarities between the start and finish of the essay provide comforting book-ends, despite the essay’s conclusions not being particularly concrete. Even if the reader doesn’t consciously realize this bit of style, it adds to the satisfaction of the reader.
Not A Book Report
If I had to pick something about the start of this article that I wasn’t crazy about, it would be the second paragraph. I’m not going to quote it here, but Tolentino lists about half-a-dozen books and resources she read in preparation of writing this article, providing the briefest possible summary for each. This section is a necessary evil, as the author needs to prove proficiency in the subject. Tolentino is not an expert in minimalist philosophy, but she has “done the reading,” which helps the audience take her seriously.
What I like most about this paragraph is not what it says, but what it doesn’t say. The author includes a highly condensed summary of each book, and stops there. She doesn’t draw out the differences between the books, or provide a review. In most cases, she doesn’t even bring up these books again in the course of the essay. This takes discipline. If I had read an entire book as part of my process in writing an essay I would want to actually write about it!
Novice writers often feel an urge to show off everything they know. Every fact needs to be shared with the world. This is a tendency that people learn from school. When you are writing a book report, you are trying to prove that you 1) read the entire book, and 2) understood its contents. This may impress your middle school English teacher, but it can lead to writing that is bloated and clumsy.
Writing is about creating an engaging experience, not proving how smart you are. Frankly, I don’t give a shit about these books. Tolentino could have provided a longer summary, or shoe-horned in quotes and references to these titles throughout the article, but what would it add? I trust she has done her research, and that is all that needs to be said.
On the score of “judging a book by its cover,” Tolentino’s article didn’t excite me when I looked at the headline. “Minimalism” is not a subject I find compelling, particularly since I was reading this in the summer of 2020; over a year since the Kondo Kraze had peaked. If the writing was weak, this piece would be an unreadable bore, but Tolentino manages to fit a lot of personality and emotion into an abstract essay. Great writing can act as a vehicle for interesting ideas that otherwise don’t fit into the discourse.