Starting An Essay First Sentence

The writer of the academic essay aims to persuade readers of an idea based on evidence. The beginning of the essay is a crucial first step in this process. In order to engage readers and establish your authority, the beginning of your essay has to accomplish certain business. Your beginning should introduce the essay, focus it, and orient readers.

Introduce the Essay.The beginning lets your readers know what the essay is about, the topic. The essay's topic does not exist in a vacuum, however; part of letting readers know what your essay is about means establishing the essay's context, the frame within which you will approach your topic. For instance, in an essay about the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, the context may be a particular legal theory about the speech right; it may be historical information concerning the writing of the amendment; it may be a contemporary dispute over flag burning; or it may be a question raised by the text itself. The point here is that, in establishing the essay's context, you are also limiting your topic. That is, you are framing an approach to your topic that necessarily eliminates other approaches. Thus, when you determine your context, you simultaneously narrow your topic and take a big step toward focusing your essay. Here's an example.

When Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening was published in 1899, critics condemned the book as immoral. One typical critic, writing in the Providence Journal, feared that the novel might "fall into the hands of youth, leading them to dwell on things that only matured persons can understand, and promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires" (150). A reviewer in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch wrote that "there is much that is very improper in it, not to say positively unseemly."

The paragraph goes on. But as you can see, Chopin's novel (the topic) is introduced in the context of the critical and moral controversy its publication engendered.

Focus the Essay. Beyond introducing your topic, your beginning must also let readers know what the central issue is. What question or problem will you be thinking about? You can pose a question that will lead to your idea (in which case, your idea will be the answer to your question), or you can make a thesis statement. Or you can do both: you can ask a question and immediately suggest the answer that your essay will argue. Here's an example from an essay about Memorial Hall.

Further analysis of Memorial Hall, and of the archival sources that describe the process of building it, suggests that the past may not be the central subject of the hall but only a medium. What message, then, does the building convey, and why are the fallen soldiers of such importance to the alumni who built it? Part of the answer, it seems, is that Memorial Hall is an educational tool, an attempt by the Harvard community of the 1870s to influence the future by shaping our memory of their times. The commemoration of those students and graduates who died for the Union during the Civil War is one aspect of this alumni message to the future, but it may not be the central idea.

The fullness of your idea will not emerge until your conclusion, but your beginning must clearly indicate the direction your idea will take, must set your essay on that road. And whether you focus your essay by posing a question, stating a thesis, or combining these approaches, by the end of your beginning, readers should know what you're writing about, and why—and why they might want to read on.

Orient Readers. Orienting readers, locating them in your discussion, means providing information and explanations wherever necessary for your readers' understanding. Orienting is important throughout your essay, but it is crucial in the beginning. Readers who don't have the information they need to follow your discussion will get lost and quit reading. (Your teachers, of course, will trudge on.) Supplying the necessary information to orient your readers may be as simple as answering the journalist's questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why. It may mean providing a brief overview of events or a summary of the text you'll be analyzing. If the source text is brief, such as the First Amendment, you might just quote it. If the text is well known, your summary, for most audiences, won't need to be more than an identifying phrase or two:

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's tragedy of `star-crossed lovers' destroyed by the blood feud between their two families, the minor characters . . .

Often, however, you will want to summarize your source more fully so that readers can follow your analysis of it.

Questions of Length and Order. How long should the beginning be? The length should be proportionate to the length and complexity of the whole essay. For instance, if you're writing a five-page essay analyzing a single text, your beginning should be brief, no more than one or two paragraphs. On the other hand, it may take a couple of pages to set up a ten-page essay.

Does the business of the beginning have to be addressed in a particular order? No, but the order should be logical. Usually, for instance, the question or statement that focuses the essay comes at the end of the beginning, where it serves as the jumping-off point for the middle, or main body, of the essay. Topic and context are often intertwined, but the context may be established before the particular topic is introduced. In other words, the order in which you accomplish the business of the beginning is flexible and should be determined by your purpose.

Opening Strategies.There is still the further question of how to start. What makes a good opening? You can start with specific facts and information, a keynote quotation, a question, an anecdote, or an image. But whatever sort of opening you choose, it should be directly related to your focus. A snappy quotation that doesn't help establish the context for your essay or that later plays no part in your thinking will only mislead readers and blur your focus. Be as direct and specific as you can be. This means you should avoid two types of openings:

  • The history-of-the-world (or long-distance) opening, which aims to establish a context for the essay by getting a long running start: "Ever since the dawn of civilized life, societies have struggled to reconcile the need for change with the need for order." What are we talking about here, political revolution or a new brand of soft drink? Get to it.
  • The funnel opening (a variation on the same theme), which starts with something broad and general and "funnels" its way down to a specific topic. If your essay is an argument about state-mandated prayer in public schools, don't start by generalizing about religion; start with the specific topic at hand.

Remember. After working your way through the whole draft, testing your thinking against the evidence, perhaps changing direction or modifying the idea you started with, go back to your beginning and make sure it still provides a clear focus for the essay. Then clarify and sharpen your focus as needed. Clear, direct beginnings rarely present themselves ready-made; they must be written, and rewritten, into the sort of sharp-eyed clarity that engages readers and establishes your authority.

Copyright 1999, Patricia Kain, for the Writing Center at Harvard University


A good opening line hooks your attention by doing one of seven things brilliantly.

Its job is to make you read this second sentence, which has the singular task of propelling your eyes towards the third sentence. This one.

Go back and read the first line of this article again. It uses ‘Opening Line Strategy #3’…

Opening Line Strategy #3

This strategy deploys an element of ‘curiosity’ to encourage you to read further. Curiosity is a potent editorial weapon that can be used to great effect in headlines and sub-headings.

In an ideal world, this approach should leave you wanting to know more. Or it should create a question that can only be answered by reading on. Here, the question the first sentence should intrigue you with is: “what are the seven things that opening lines do brilliantly?”

Here’s another curious example from The Atlantic:

You may not believe me, but I have news about global warming: Good news, and better news.

And another from The Guardian newspaper:

About a month ago, to my embarrassment, I learned I’d been tying my shoelaces wrongly my whole life.

Both lines leave you asking questions. Good and better news about global warming, you say? Great! What is it? Am I tying my shoelaces incorrectly? Surely there’s only one way to tie shoelaces?

Opening Line Strategy #3 is also used to great effect to kick off John Scalzi’s sci-fi novel Old Man’s War, where he writes:

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.

Curiosity is just one of seven different approaches that you can use to increase the eyeball-pulling power of your article’s first line. As for the others, let’s start at the beginning…

Opening Line Strategy #1

A first line can simply set up the line that follows it. Or the one after that. You can use it to create expectation or intrigue, which following lines can elaborate on or contrast.

Here’s an example from Wired.com:

In the hype tsunami prior to Facebook’s May IPO, I doubt anyone wrote these words: “Instead of social media, you should invest in macaroni and cheese.” As it turns out, that’s exactly what you should have done.

And take a look at this one from Slate.com:

The dinosaurs of our childhood aren’t around anymore. The sluggish, swamp-bound pea-brains that haunted museum halls and trundled through picture books have been eviscerated by agile, hot-blooded, and, often, feathery dinosaurs that more accurately reflect what Tyrannosaurus rex and kin were actually like.

Opening Line Strategy #2

Asking a question of your reader is another smart way to keep them squarely focused on your content. Like this example from one of our own posts:

Did you know that there are 7 writing mistakes that a spell checker won’t spot?

Opening Line Strategy #4

By posing a question in Opening Line Strategy #2, you’re setting up an expectation that the second sentence will start to answer it. Showing some empathy towards a common problem can also be a winning opener.

Here’s a good example of a question that does exactly that from writetodone.com:

Have you ever thought you could be a great writer… if only you had the time?

This one from Firepole Marketing also hopes to tap into reader discontent, suggesting that ‘hey, we’ve all been there…':

We’ve all struggled to increase traffic, and every wannabe guru has a bag of tricks they’re eager to sell you.

Opening Line Strategy #5

An effective way to hold a reader’s attention is to disrupt their expectations, surprise them or swerve away from what is generally considered to be the ‘norm’.

Take this first sentence from George Orwell’s classic novel 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

This opener from The Atlantic also promises to reveal information that you might not be aware of.

Behind every Google Map, there is a much more complex map that’s the key to your queries but hidden from your view.

Opening Line Strategy #6

If you’re struggling for an opening sentence or can’t think of how to start an article, try using a quote or an interesting statistic. Using information from an external source can often help you to catch the eye and hold a reader’s attention.

Check out this opening line from Fast Company:

Nearly 66% of companies on the Fortune 100 list in 1990 are not on the list some twenty-odd years later.

Opening Line Strategy #7

This last strategy is the simplest of the bunch. It requires little thought and just a little bit of bravery. Nevertheless, it can be a surprisingly effective tactic.

It is simply this: try deleting your first paragraph.

If you haven’t consciously optimized your opening line, there’s a good chance that deleting it (and your first paragraph) will make your article better. Why? Because intro paragraphs often ramble and often don’t get to the point quickly enough.

There are occasions when this approach is deliberate. The so-called ‘delayed intro’ is a tactic that you’ll often see in magazine or newspaper features. The writer either goes off on a loosely connected tangent before looping back to relevancy or uses the intro paragraph(s) to set the scene.

This works well in newspapers and magazines, where longer form writing is consumed in a linear way. But on the web, readers tend to skip and scan. If they’re not hooked by the content of your first paragraph, then they could abandon your content before they reach the end.

Deleting your first paragraph can be painful. But it’s often the most effective way to avoid unnecessary padding. Try it. This strategy won’t work for every article or blog post. But it might just give your content a little more ‘kerpow’ up-front.

A great first line doesn’t matter if…

There you have it. Seven ways to start an article with a killer opening line. If I’ve missed any, feel free to point them out in the comments section below.

As a general rule, your first line is the next most important bit of writing after your headline. Your second line is the next most important bit of writing after your first line. And so on. If you see any good lines, swipe them. Add them to a text file so you can use them as inspiration next time or as a sledgehammer to break through writer’s block.

Of course, there will hopefully come a time where none of these strategies will matter. When you’ve built up a loyal audience for your content, they will typically come back for WHAT you say, rather than HOW you say it.

But until then, try an Opening Line Strategy…

Main image by UNE Photos

Tagged as: article writing, how to start an article, marginal gains, opening lines, write faster

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