In explicit announcement you literally state in some fashion or other, "This is my subject." The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead begins Religion in the Making like this:
It is my purpose to consider the type of justification which is available for belief in the doctrines of religion.
The words "It is my purpose" make this an explicit announcement. It would have been implicit had Whitehead begun:
Belief in the doctrines of religion may be justified in various ways.
This sentence does not literally tell readers what the subject is, but the subject is clearly implied.
Because of its clarity, scholars and scientists writing for their colleagues often use explicit announcement. On less formal occasions it may seem heavy-handed. A school theme, for instance, ought not to begin "The purpose of this paper is to contrast college and high school." It is smoother to establish the subject by implication: "College and high school differ in several ways." Readers don't have to be hit over the head. Implicit announcements may appear as rhetorical questions, as in this essay about historians:
What is the historian?
The historian is he who tells a true story in writing.
Consider the members of that definition. Hilaire Belloc
Similarly the theme on college and high school might have opened:
In what ways do college and high school differ?
Opening questions, however, can sound mechanical. While better than no announcement at all, or the clumsiness of "The purpose of this paper is," rhetorical questions are not very original. Use them for announcement only when you can do so with originality or when all other alternatives are less attractive.
The same advice holds for opening with a dictionary definition, another way of announcing subjects implicitly. Nothing is inherently wrong in starting off with a quote from a reputable dictionary, but it is trite. Of course a clever or an unusual definition may make a good opening. John Dos Pas-sos's definition of college as "four years under the ethercone" is certainly novel and provocative and might make a fine beginning.
When the purpose of an essay is to define a word or idea, it is legitimate to start from the dictionary. But these exceptions admitted, the dictionary quotation, like the rhetorical question, has been overworked as a way of implying the subject.
Immediate and Delayed Announcement Your second choice involves whether to announce the subject immediately or to delay. This opening line of an essay called "Selected Snobberies" by the English novelist Aldous Huxley falls into the first category:
Letting readers in on the subject at once is a no-nonsense, businesslike procedure. But an immediate announcement may not hold much allure. If the subject is of great interest, or if the statement is startling or provocative (like Huxley's), it will catch a reader's eye. Generally, however, immediate announcement is longer on clarity than on interest.
So you may prefer to delay identifying the subject. Delay is usually achieved by beginning broadly and narrowing until you get down to the subject. The critic Susan Sontag, for instance, uses this beginning for an essay defining "Camp" (a deliberately pretentious style in popular art and entertainment):
Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility—unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with goes by the name of "Camp."
Less commonly the subject may be delayed by focusing outward, opening with a specific detail or example and broadening to arrive at the subject. Aldous Huxley opens an essay on "Tragedy and the Whole Truth" in this manner:
There were six of them, the best and the bravest of the hero's companions. Turning back from his post in the bows, Odysseus was in time to see them lifted, struggling, into the air, to hear their screams, the desperate repetition of his own name. The survivors could only look on, helplessly, while Scylla "at the mouth of her cave devoured them, still screaming, still stretching out their hands to me in the frightful struggle." And Odysseus adds that it was the most dreadful and lamentable sight he ever saw in all his "explorings of the passes of the sea." We can believe it; Homer's brief description (the too-poetical simile is a later interpolation) convinces us.
Later, the danger passed, Odysseus and his men went ashore for the night, and, on the Sicilian beach, prepared their pared it, says Homer, "expertly." The Twelfth Book of the Odyssey concludes with these words: "When they had satisfied their thirst and hunger, they thought of their dear companions and wept, and in the midst of their tears sleep came gently upon them."
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the rarely the older literatures ever told it! Bits of the truth, yes; every good book gives us bits of the truth, would not be a good book if it did not. But the whole truth, no. Of the great writers of the past incredibly few have given us that. Homer—the Homer of the Odyssey—is one of those few.
It is not until the third paragraph that Huxley closes in on his subject, of which the episode from the Odyssey is an example.
Delayed announcement has several advantages. It piques readers' curiosity. They know from the title that the opening sentences do not reveal the subject, and they are drawn in to see where they are headed. Curiosity has a limit, however; you can tease readers too long.
A broad beginning can also clarify a subject, perhaps supplying background or offering examples. Finally, delayed announcement can be entertaining in its own right. There is a pleasure like that of watching a high-wire performer in observing an accomplished writer close in on a subject.
More immediate announcement, on the other hand, is called for in situations where getting to the point is more important than angling for readers or entertaining them. How you announce your then, as with so much in writing, depends on purpose—that is, on your reason for addressing your readers.
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