Starting your essay is probably the most difficult thing to do in the whole writing process.
How do you stop staring at the blank page, and get things moving?
How do you grab the attention of the reader from the very beginning? How do you make a great impression on your teachers, editors, or the college admissions committee? By the way, if you’re struggling with your essay, you can get professional help from a company like the Princeton Review. They’ll make sure you’ll get a high score.
How to start your essay? – The most straightforward advice
In his famous book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”, Stephen King said: “the scariest moment is always just before you start.” So the best thing to do is to write anything as soon as you can.
It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just sit down and write anything, because the Muse comes to those who are brave enough to start. Maybe you’ll throw half of it away, but at least you’ll have something to hang on to.
How to begin your essay? – The lengthier and more appropriate advice
The aim of an academic essay is usually to persuade readers to change their minds about something. It can also be a descriptive, expository, argumentative or narrative essay.
But regardless of the format of the essay, the introduction should still have these basic ingredients:
- Introduce the topic – let the reader know what is it about straight away.
- Put the topic in an appropriate context. Frame it, and provide some background information.
- Narrow down the focus. If your essay is too broad, you’ll lose the interest of the reader and fail to address the important issue.
- Answer an important question or make a strong statement which you’ll defend throughout the essay.
- Orientate the reader. In the beginning, you need to answer questions like who, what, when and how. Remember that the reader probably doesn’t know all the facts that you do.
- Briefly mention the main ideas you are going to discuss in the essay.
How long should an essay introduction be?
It all depends on the overall length of your essay. If it’s a standard, five-paragraph college essay, the introduction should only take one paragraph.
But if you’re writing something longer, for example, a five-page interpretation of a literary work, the introduction could take two to three paragraphs.
The aim of the introductory paragraph
The first paragraph is always tricky because it serves a double purpose. It has to clearly state what the essay will be about, but at the same time, it needs to hook the readers and motivate them to read on.
That’s why you need a perfect balance between clinical precision and artistic flair.
If you truly want to learn how to begin an essay, there are really three best ways to do it:
- Read as many great essays as possible
- Write as many great essays as possible
- Check examples of great essay introductory paragraphs (that’s what you can see below)
20 Great examples and strategies for starting your essay:
I picked examples coming from master essayists just to give you a taste of what a nice opening paragraph looks like. Let them inspire you:
1. Describe a setting and start with an emotional punch
I’ve been to Australia twice so far, but according to my father I’ve never actually seen it. He made this observation at the home of my cousin Joan, whom he and I visited just before Christmas last year, and it came on the heels of an equally aggressive comment. – David Sedaris, Laugh, Kookaburra
2. Start with a deeply personal story from your childhood
One Sunday morning when I was a boy, my father came out of his office and handed me a poem. It was about a honeybee counselling a flea to flee a doggy and see the sea. The barbiturates my father took to regulate his emotions made him insomniac, and I understood that he’d been awake most of the night, laboring over these lines, listing all the words he could think of ending in a long “e.” – Charles D’Ambrosio – Documents
3. Create a mysterious atmosphere
Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. – Virginia Woolf – Death of the Moth
4. Throw the reader straight into the middle of the events
Earlier this summer I was walking down West End Avenue in Manhattan and remembered, with a sadness that nearly knocked me off my feet, just why I came to New York seven years ago and just why I am now about to leave. – Meghan Daum – My Misspent Youth
5. Start with universal questions of life and death
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. – Roger Ebert – Go Gentle Into That Good Night
6. Start with a question and then answer it
What is the charm of necklaces? Why would anyone put something extra around their neck and then invest it with special significance? A necklace doesn’t afford warmth in cold weather, like a scarf, or protection in combat, like chain mail; it only decorates. We might say, it borrows meaning from what it surrounds and sets off, the head with its supremely important material contents, and the face, that register of the soul.- Emily R. Grosholz – On Necklaces
7. Start with irony
In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me. – George Orwell – Shooting an Elephant
8. Begin by creating great expectations of what’s to come (use the introduction as a bait)
At a dinner party that will forever be green in the memory of those who attended it, somebody was complaining not just about the epic badness of the novels of Robert Ludlum but also about the badness of their titles. (You know the sort of pretentiousness: The Bourne Supremacy, The Aquitaine Progression, The Ludlum Impersonation, and so forth.) Then it happily occurred to another guest to wonder aloud what a Shakespeare play might be called if named in the Ludlum manner. – Christopher Hitchens – Assassins of The Mind
9. Start with a puzzle (notice how you start to wonder who is she talking about in this introduction)
The first time I heard her I didn’t hear her at all. My parents did not prepare me. (The natural thing in these situations is to blame the parents.) She was nowhere to be found on their four-foot-tall wood-veneer hi-fi. Given the variety of voices you got to hear on that contraption, her absence was a little strange. – Zadie Smith – Some Notes on Attunement
10. Start with dark humor
When I was young, I thought Life: A User’s Manual would teach me how to live and Suicide: A User’s Manual how to die. – Édouard Levé – When I Look at a Strawberry, I Think of a Tongue
11. Start with an unusual question that will pull the readers in
Do you know what a twerp is? When I was in Shortridge High School in Indianapolis 65 years ago, a twerp was a guy who stuck a set of false teeth up his butt and bit the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs. (And a snarf was a guy who sniffed the seats of girls’ bicycles.) – Kurt Vonnegut – Dispatch From A Man Without a Country
12. Commence by taking the reader into the world of mystery and awe
The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. (Cf. the paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, La Pasiega, etc.) The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality. – Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation
13. State your thesis at the very beginning – be clear about it
Science has beauty, power, and majesty that can provide spiritual as well as practical fulfillment. But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way providing easy answers, casually pressing our awe buttons, and cheapening the experience. – Carl Sagan – Does Truth Matter – Science, Pseudoscience, and Civilization
14. Start with the obvious that’s not so obvious after all
To do something well you have to like it. That idea is not exactly novel. We’ve got it down to four words: “Do what you love.” But it’s not enough just to tell people that. Doing what you love is complicated. – Paul Graham – How To Do What You Love
15. Be unpredictable and highly intellectual
Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect. – Joan Didion – On Self Respect
16. Get straight to the point
The enormous, pungent, and extremely well marketed Maine Lobster Festival is held every late July in the state’s midcoast region, meaning the western side of Penobscot Bay, the nerve stem of Maine’s lobster industry. – David Foster Wallace – Consider The Lobster
17. Start in deeply emotional, poetic manner
The collie wakes me up about three times a night, summoning me from a great distance as I row my boat through a dim, complicated dream. She’s on the shoreline, barking. Wake up. She’s staring at me with her head slightly tipped to the side, long nose, gazing eyes, toenails clenched to get a purchase on the wood floor. We used to call her the face of love. – Jo Ann Beard – The Fourth State of Matter
18. Begin by describing the place and circumstances in great detail. Notice how after reading this opening statement, you already know your surroundings
Two blocks away from the Mississippi State Capitol, and on the same street with it, where our house was when I was a child growing up in Jackson, it was possible to have a little pasture behind your backyard where you could keep a Jersey cow, which we did. My mother herself milked her. A thrifty homemaker, wife, mother of three, she also did all her own cooking. And as far as I can recall, she never set foot inside a grocery store. It wasn’t necessary. – Eudora Welty – The Little Store
19. Start by presenting an original idea (frame it in a way that the reader never considered before)
Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, but the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases. In Gandhi’s case the questions on feels inclined to ask are: to what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity — by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power — and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud? – George Orwell – Reflections on Gandhi
20. Be clear-headed and approach the subject as objectively as possible
Fantasists and zealots can be found on both sides of the debate over guns in America. On the one hand, many gun-rights advocates reject even the most sensible restrictions on the sale of weapons to the public. On the other, proponents of stricter gun laws often seem unable to understand why a good person would ever want ready access to a loaded firearm. Between these two extremes, we must find grounds for a rational discussion about the problem of gun violence. – Sam Harris – The Riddle of The Gun
Did you enjoy this article about how to get going with your essay? Do you have any other examples of good introductions? Please let me know by leaving a comment below.