How to start an essay: the opening sentence

By Ali
Category: Academic | Date: Wed 08 Oct, 2008

Often, the hardest words to write in an essay are the opening ones. When you’re doing the first draft, I’d suggest just writing your way through the introduction without worrying too much – you’ll want to come back to it when you’ve got the body and the conclusion of your essay firmly decided upon.

But when you’re revising your essay, you should concentrate on making the opening paragraph as strong as possible – the person marking it will inevitably start forming an opinion of your essay’s worth within the first few words.

If you want to go beyond the standard, rather bland, introduction of “In this essay, I am going to…” you might want to try out some of these openings for your essay:

Quote someone in your field

My favourite way to start off an essay is with a pithy quote. I don’t recommend picking one of the hilarious quotes listed on your Facebook profile, though; instead, try to find something as relevant as possible.

If you’re writing an English essay, a good opening might be a line from one of the plays or books that you mention in the essay – particularly if that line sets up the angle that you’ll be taking on the question.

If you’re studying Politics, a quote from a politician can work very well. Again, make it relevant to the essay (if you’re writing about Thatcherite Britian, “There’s no such thing as society” would be fine, but less so if you’re writing about the Middle Ages…)

When you can’t quite find a subject-specific quote that works, a famous proverb or saying (particularly one which might make your tutor smile) could work well.

The best source of quotes are the textbooks you’re using, but if you’re still stumped, try:

Define key terms

Another good way to open an essay is to define any key terms in the question. This might seem a bit of a bland opening, but it’ll show your tutor or examiner that you know what you’re talking about – and it sets the parameters of the discussion.

For example, a word like “ideology” can be very loaded: if it appears in the question, you’ll want to make clear what definition you’ll be using throughout your essay.

Try not to spend too long defining terms, though; whilst an indepth discussion of one word can be fruitful, doing this for every single word in the question will just indicate that you’re not quite sure what your argument is…

Famous example – A.D. Nuttall’s A Common Sky:

This book is about solipsistic fear; that is, the fear that the external world of trees, tables, bricks and mortar may not exist at all.

Make a bold statement

If you’re feeling brave, you could open your essay with a bang by making a bold statement. (An easy way to do this is to completely disagree with the question or prompt that you’ve been given.)

Make sure you can actually pull this one off by constructing a solid argument throughout the rest of the essay that backs up what you say in the introduction – you can use the essay and the conclusion to modify your starting point slightly, but you don’t want to do a complete U-turn.

A slight variation on the bold statement would be to take two diametrically opposed points of view (perhaps two critics in your field), find a good snappy quote from each, and start off your essay with both these quotes, one after the other.

Famous example – Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.

Use an anecdote

Depending on how formal an essay you’re writing, you might be able to open with an anecdote. This could be from your own life, or a brief story or parable that you’re quoting. It can be an effective way to draw the reader into your essay and, if you’re writing an essay for a competition or for a wide audience, it can be attention-grabbing.

If you do choose to use this opener, be careful not to waffle, and be particularly wary when you’re writing about yourself! Three sentences is probably the maximum you should spend on any anecdote.

Famous example – George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

Pose a question

Essay titles are often statements rather than questions, like “Politics today is dominated by pragmatic concerns, not ideological ones. Discuss.” If you have a title like this, try starting off by posing your own question. In this case, I might start with “Has politics ever been free from pragmatic concerns?” and use the essay to argue that ideology and pragmatical considerations have always both been part of the political landscape.

Using a question as the start of your essay can help give you focus and direction, particularly if the title is broad or doesn’t automatically lead you towards a strong line of argument.

Famous example – Friedrich Nietzsche’s preface to Beyond Good and Evil:

Supposing truth is a woman—-what then?

Over to you

If you’re not quite ready to write the opening lines of your essay yet, try some of these articles…

Further reading:
The Challenge of Affluence: Great Academic First Paragraphs – some inspiration from famous works.
Fifty Orwell Essays from Project Gutenburg. Orwell is a fantastic, easy-to-read yet profound essayist who writes very engagingly.
Ten minute research – if you’re putting off starting your essay, get going here.

Got a great way to start an essay? Ever tried out what you thought was a great way only for your tutor to scribble red-pen comments in the margin? Let us know in the comments…


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