“People are violent creatures…”

So begins a student essay on, if I recall correctly, the epic hero. It is a statement that, unfortunately, holds up pretty well, as generalizations go. Even the pickiest writing instructor can find little to quibble with here.

But he’s not done beginning yet. Will he fall into the Profound-Openings Trap? Yes, he will:

“People are violent creatures. Violence has been happening since the dawn of man…”

Okay, maybe not so bad. We don’t have any eye-witness accounts, but as Darwin observed, nature is red in tooth and claw, and “man,” as just another piece of nature, can reasonably be assumed to fit into that observation. So: not necessarily proven, but certainly a reasonable assumption. The second sentence is rather awkward in word choice, but I guess we can say “violence happens,” so we could also say “violence has been happening”—although I’d argue that “acts of violence have been happening” would be a more legitimate way of phrasing it.

Oh, sorry. Still not done beginning. Here it comes:

“People are violent creatures. Violence has been happening since the dawn of man, and probably even before that.”

There’s the Profound Opening. Sweeping generalization about distant history (“yore”), followed by an offered further application. Now, yes, acts of violence surely did “happen” before the “dawn of man,” unless you believe man arrived at the same time as all the other creatures, violent or otherwise. But if my student wanted to suggest that all creatures are violent, then why did he begin with his philosophical observation about people? And if he meant his observation about violence to be specific to people, why oh why did he have to go on to suggest that violent acts by people probably “happened” before the dawn of man?

Doesn’t he equate “dawn” with “first appearance,” “beginning,” or “arrival”? Is “the dawn of man” just another way of saying “a long time ago”?

Something like this seems to have been the case, because you can see him second-guessing himself (almost always a mistake!): “Whoa, wait! ‘Dawn of man’—probably longer than that! I’d better not stop at the dawn of man! I’ll make it longer…”

The link at Profound-Openings Trap will take you to one of the other specimens I’ve saved. I really do appreciate students’ desire to begin an essay with an assertion that has gravitas or philosophical sweep. But they undermine themselves every time by reaching for something SO profound as to be ridiculous. And if the first statement isn’t ridiculous, they keep at it until it becomes ridiculous.

Then they come to class and exchange drafts with other students, and the groups do their best to offer constructive criticism. And NOBODY laughs, or looks puzzled, or suggests a change upon reading these Profound Openings. And that’s what worries me. I’m not sure if it’s a lack of realism, or humility, or reason that makes them deaf to the way such sentences actually strike a thinking reader. I cannot let myself think that such openings were rewarded in high school classes, but possibly the teacher promoted the idea of opening an argument with an interesting generalization and the student lacked the perspective to discriminate between “interesting” and “jaw-dropping” or “laugh-out-loud funny.”

How can this awareness be developed without squashing the high desire? I can sit with a student in my office and discuss the pitfalls of grandiose pronouncements, and I can help him realize the problems with the one he has committed; but with the next paper, there’s another one.

What I hope is that eventually, as he continues to mature, my student will come to understand what is laughable in this kind of opening and learn to replace it with something he actually consciously means, before his audience is no longer his instructor in the privacy of her office, but professional colleagues at an important presentation he’s making, out there in the future.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

20 responses to ““People are violent creatures…”

  • Orange (a/k/a David)

    When I first started writing, the hardest part was the start. I don’t ever remembering advice on how to start. If I ever gave advice to such writers, I would have them imagine the line, “Wanna’ buy a duck?” and go from there. Fortunately for all, no on trusts me to teach writing!

  • Robert Hatfield

    “Out there in the future….and probably beyond that.” I’m sure that’s what you meant to say.

  • peacewisdomprosperity

    Funny post 🙂 I’m unsure if it’s the under-developed young adult brain that has yet to experience enough [great] literature and/or enough introspection to realize the pitfalls of this. I remember my first papers back in College. I have kept most of them and every time I read them I think to myself “Wow, and I thought that was so unique!”

  • kokkieh

    My students had this habit of starting narrative essays with something along the lines of “It was a Wednesday when…” I think I made the error of highlighting “It was a dark and stormy night” as a way not to do it. They invariably remembered my examples, but never the reason why I gave the particular example.

    “I’m not sure if it’s a lack of realism, or humility, or reason that makes them deaf to the way such sentences actually strike a thinking reader.” I think you’ve nailed it here. The average first year student is really still a teenager who thinks he knows everything. They also believe they have the answers to most of humanity’s problems. Every thought they come up with is profound in their mind, and most of their peers agree. (I had a friend who wrote “poetry” in college. Everyone raved over his deep thoughts. I was like, okay, what are you trying to say?)

    Hopefully one grows out of this, and those that don’t go into politics.

  • RAB

    Thanks for this wonderful comment (and astute closing remark!).

  • simon239

    I have only recently started reading this blog, I have to say every post has made me chuckle. Some of these chuckles are the nervous chuckle of an embarrassed man certain that he has made similar, if not worse mistakes, himself, this post is definitely one of those times.

    • RAB

      WE all make mistakes. We don’t all hand them in to a professor without trying to correct them. ;-} Every time I write a blog, I check it obsessively to make sure I haven’t made any egregious ones myself!

  • yearstricken

    Profound-Openings Trap (POT). Hmm..any connection to the other kind of pot?

  • ordinarybutloud

    I always say, “people are brutal.” But I suppose, “people are violent creatures,” works just as well.

    I always leave it at that, though. Ha.

  • storiesfrmiraq.wordpress.com

    Thank you for sharing this post with us. Since, English is my second language, I make a lot errors, but I hope I don’t make such errors.

  • Patrick Ley

    What I tell students about such things is that they are the written equivalent of clearing the throat. You may need to do it, but you also can’t leave it there. Write it, then write your actual essay (or whatever it is you are writing). Once you’ve done that, you can delete the “Profound-Opening” and write a real introduction. Maybe it has a bold statement in it, but having written your whole argument you can pick one you’ve at least attempted to back up in the subsequent contents.

    It’s not even editing, really. Off the cuff openings are so likely to be bad, in my personal experience, that it’s still part of the initial draft. When you edit the “real intro” and the rest of the piece, that’s editing. When you replace the throat-clearing, that’s just polite.

    • RAB

      O fellow laborer in the vineyard—That’s what I do with all the “I think”s. Go ahead and write that in your rough draft, I say; but, since written invisibly at the beginning of every essay are the words “I think,” go back and delete all the ones you’ve written. Sometimes that works. But sometimes they don’t actually see that they’ve written it. With the pompous opening sentence, I have trouble helping them see those things as throat-clearing (an expression one of my old profs was very fond of too): they actually LIKE the sentence. I worked really hard with one student this spring to try to get her to see where the problem lay, and she finally said she understood and would certainly replace it. She did: with something even MORE sweeping, MORE pompous…. Well, as I say about just about everything these days, it’s a process.

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