The novelist and playwright A. B. Yehoshua once noted, “The most difficult and complicated part of the writing process is the beginning.”
Over the years, many of our students have found this to be true. Whether you’re writing a college admissions essay, a scholarship application, or a paper for school, it can be intimidating to sit down and face the blank page. Some writers freeze up, while others find themselves continually writing and rewriting their first few sentences. Sometimes it even seems hard to zoom in on a topic since just the idea of writing a college essay, for instance, is packed with so much emotion. Where to even begin?
As we tell our younger students in our Academic Writing Program, and our Essay Guidance students, the best way to approach an essay is with a plan. Developing a clear idea and argument — usually followed by a well-considered outline — before you sit down to write will help you to produce a thoughtful, compelling piece of prose.
The same holds true for introductions. Having an idea before you begin of what you’d like to say and how you’d like to say it can help you to breeze through the opening of your essay and on to the rest of your argument. Plan to engage your reader from the get-go keeping in mind that this initial engagement might take multiple flubbed attempts.
TOP TIPS FOR WRITING STRONG ESSAY INTRODUCTIONS
To help inspire you as you tackle the always-difficult opening, we’ve listed below some of the most engaging ways to introduce an essay:
With a Quotation
Look at the beginning of this blog post. Notice how we opened? A. B. Yehoshua may be a famous Israeli writer, but, for the purposes of this post, we were more interested in his statement about the difficulty of beginnings.
In fact, opening with a quote relevant to the subject of your essay is a particularly easy way to draw a reader into your argument. It makes clear from the outset that your work is part of a larger, ongoing discussion. If you quote someone well-known to your readers, the familiarity of the speaker will also engage them. Agreeing with the speaker, as we did here, can boost your credibility with your audience; disagreeing with him or her will often surprise them.
If you need proof of the effectiveness of this type of introduction, just take a look at these articles from the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Atlantic. As you’ll see, each of them opens with a quote — and we bet it made you want to keep reading.
With a Question
Starting your essay with a question, another favorite introductory style, draws your reader in by asking them to think. Who is the most important person in your life? What is going to happen if global warming continues? What do you hope to study in college?
Querying your readers can have multiple effects. Asking provocative or even unanswerable questions encourages them to think critically about profound subjects. Asking personal questions invites them to relate the issues in your essay to their own lives. Asking unfamiliar questions can help to ease them into an unknown world. Don’t believe us? Just take a look at these articles from Salon, Harvard Business Review, Stanford Magazine, and JSTOR Daily. Each article uses a very different type of introductory question, but every beginning works to ease readers into the content of the essay.
With a Surprising Fact
For those who don’t want to engage readers through quotations or questions, there’s always shock value. Opening with an unexpected statement or concept — “Off the coast of Finland, immured in the Baltic sea, there is a private island where men are banned”— can attract an audience who wants to know more. These can be factual points, but they don’t have to be. Surprising personal statements can be just as compelling, especially when you’re writing an essay about your own experience. A few years ago, for example, Stanford released a list of its admissions officers’ favorite opening lines from recently submitted application essays. Take a look at some of their choices:
I almost didn’t live through September 11th, 2001.
When I was in eighth grade, I couldn’t read.
I’ll never forget the day when my childhood nightmares about fighting gigantic trolls in the Lord of the Rings series became a reality.
On a hot Hollywood evening, I sat on a bike, sweltering in a winter coat and furry boots.
Here are a few of our favorite college essay opening lines from working with students for over 16 years:
I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn.
I am my own favorite fictional character.
Anyone who says you can’t iron shirts and read a book at the same time hasn’t tried hard enough at either.
As you can see, an unexpected opening line, even if it’s not hugely shocking, can draw our attention and make us want to keep reading.
With an Anecdote
Although it’s a bit more informal than some of our previous suggestions, an anecdotal opening can be a great way to introduce an essay. Anecdotes — either from your personal life or from the lives of others — engage the reader through narrative. For a moment, your essay feels like a story, not a piece of argument or exposition. The characters we encounter appeal to us on narrative and emotional levels, and we become invested in their lives and problems.
Anecdotal introductions are popular in many kinds of commentary, including essays, podcasts, and TV news stories. Creators are particularly fond of using individual stories to introduce larger societal issues. (You can find some written examples of this here, here, and here.) You can use anecdotes in your own writing too, even if you’re planning to make a point about a personal, rather than social or socioeconomic, issue. These types of introductions are particularly handy for college admissions essays, which, as we’ve noted before, generally use stories from your personal life to frame your scholarly interests.
With the Solution to a Problem
Perhaps the most effective way to introduce an argument is to frame your position as the solution to a problem. Set out the status quo for your audience (the expected reading of a book, the usual take on a political issue), explain why that’s wrong or incomplete, and then lay out your thesis, which provides the correct reading or the missing piece. We could, for example, have written the introduction to this blog post as follows:
Many students treat the beginning of each essay as an insurmountable hurdle. They find the blank page overwhelming and complain that the need to fill it with polished prose invites dithering or, worse yet, writer’s block. This view, however, focuses only on the end result rather than on the intermediate steps needed to get there. In fact, as we’ll show in this post, approaching introductions as a series of small steps — picking an introductory form, developing an outline, and only then starting to write — can make beginning an essay a much more approachable process.
As you can see, this paragraph identifies a problem (students struggle to get from the blank page to a finished essay), identifies a flaw in this approach (it ignores intermediate steps), and then lays out a solution (a process of baby steps that begins with selecting an introductory form). As a result, it makes the subject of our argument — you should consider how you want to frame your introduction before you begin writing — seem like an important answer to a pressing problem.
We often see this approach in scholarly research papers (like this scientific paper, which notes a gap in our current knowledge and seeks to address it) and argumentative long-form journalism. It’s an approach that works quite well for school papers, but it’s generally a bit too formal for college application essays or other personal pieces of writing. You can, however, find modified versions of it in some news articles, including this research-focused piece from JSTOR Daily.
ESSAY WRITING: SIMPLY BEGIN
At the end of the day, there’s no wrong way to start a piece. A beginning is just that: a beginning. You’ll have plenty of time to revise and reshape before you’ve finished writing. As always, if you need help along the way; we’re here for you.