"So tell me, " I said to my first year students in class yesterday, "What do I need to do to write a bad introduction?"
They looked puzzled at first, but a few students understood what I was doing and jumped in with ideas, and the rest of the class followed. Soon they were all shouting out suggestions. Be really general and abstract! Use big, abstract words, but say nothing. Use cliches! Quote the dictionary. Use a cliche but put it in quotes as if that somehow makes it better. Don't ever get to your point. Be vague. Be irrelevant. Don't vary your sentence structure! Don't include any interesting details. Use tired old phrases. Write confusing, convoluted sentences. Be redundant. Above all, be boring.
Then I put the students in pairs, gave them a topic — violence on television — and told them that they need to write a bad introduction, using all that we had talked about. They set to the task eagerly, with me spurring them on, "Use another cliche! Be boring!" This exercise always brings chatter and laughter as they brainstorm ways to write badly.
The best students, not surprisingly, wrote the worst introductions. One enterprising duo managed to use the phrase "in the modern world of today" four times. Another introduction began with the sentence, "Throughout history, television has always been part of history." Of course, they couldn't resist exaggerating the paragraphs to the point where they became funny and interesting, a parody of bad writing rather than bad writing itself. Read aloud, they weren't mediocre and boring, but hilariously funny. As we went around the room, reading them aloud, everyone laughed and clapped at the best ones – or should I say the worst ones?
We analyzed what was especially bad about each introduction, labeling certain practices as "classically bad." Most of us have that kind of stuff in our first drafts, I told them. The key is to notice it, and edit it out.
I know from experience that this exercise works. Once you've read a whole bunch of dreadfully bad introductions, you can't help notice that kind of stuff in your own writing. For the rest of the class period, we were workshopping drafts of an essay that's due next week, and I heard many students say, "I need to rewrite this introduction." One student, grinning, showed me his essay, pointing to the very first sentence where he had crossed a phrase out with bold black pen: "In the modern world of today."