“A good start is half the work”Old Irish Proverb
HOW TO START AN ESSAY: A COMPLETE GUIDE
Getting started is often the hardest part of writing an essay and it’s one of the main reasons our students are prone to leaving their writing tasks to the last possible minute.
But, what if we were able to give our students some tried and tested tips and strategies to help them get started?
What if we could give them an assortment of strategies that they could pull out of their writer’s toolbox and kickstart their essays at any time?
In this article, we’ll take a look at some tried and tested methods to get your students’ writing rolling with a momentum that will take them all the way through to their essays’ conclusion.
A COMPLETE UNIT ON WRITING HOOKS, LEADS & INTRODUCTIONS
Teach your students to write STRONG LEADS, ENGAGING HOOKS and MAGNETIC INTRODUCTIONS for ALL TEXT TYPES with this engaging PARAGRAPH WRITING UNIT designed to take students from zero to hero over FIVE STRATEGIC LESSONS.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF AN ESSAY’S INTRODUCTION?
Essentially, the purpose of the introduction is to achieve two things:
1. To orientate the reader
2. To motivate the reader to keep reading.
An effective introduction will provide the reader with a clear idea of what the essay will be about it. To do this, it may need to provide some necessary background information or exposition.
Once this is achieved, the writer will then make a thesis statement that informs the reader of the main ‘thrust’ of the essay’s position, the supporting arguments of which will be explored throughout the body paragraphs of the remainder of the essay.
How to write a strong thesis statement and support it through well-crafted arguments in the body paragraphs are complex skills in their own right and beyond the scope of this essay.
Luckily, however, you can find more detail on these aspects of essay writing in other articles on this site.
For now, our main focus is on how to grab the reader’s attention right from the get-go.
After all, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step or, in this case, a single opening sentence.
HOW TO HOOK THE READER WITH ATTENTION-GRABBING OPENING SENTENCES
We all know that every essay has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But, if our students don’t learn to grab the reader’s attention from the opening sentence, they’ll struggle to keep their readers engaged long enough to make it through the middle to the final full stop.
To become effective essay writers, your students will need to get good at writing attention-grabbing opening sentences. The best way of achieving this is to use ‘hooks’.
There are several kinds of hooks that students can choose from. In this article we’ll take a look at some of the most effective of these:
1. The Attention-Grabbing Anecdote
2. The Bold Pronouncement!
3. The Engaging Fact
4. Using an Interesting Quote
5. Posing a Rhetorical Question
6. Presenting a Contrast
How appropriate each of these hooks is will depend on the nature of the essay being written and students will need to consider the topic, purpose, tone, and audience of the essay they’re writing, before deciding on how best to open it.
Let’s take a look at each of these essay hooks in turn, along with a practice activity students can undertake to put their knowledge of each hook into action.
ESSAY STARTER TIP 1. THE ATTENTION-GRABBING ANECDOTE
Anecdotes are an effective way for the student to engage the reader’s attention right from the start.
When the anecdote is based on the writer’s personal life, they are a great way to create intimacy between the writer and the reader from the outset.
Anecdotes are an especially useful starting point when the essay explores more abstract themes as they climb down the ladder of abstraction and fit the broader theme of the essay to the shape of the writer’s life.
Anecdotes work because they are personal and because they’re personal they infuse the underlying theme of the essay with emotion.
This expression of emotion helps the writer to form a bond with the reader. And it is this bond that helps encourage the reader to continue reading.
Readers find this an engaging approach, particularly when the topic is complex and difficult.
Anecdotes provide an ‘in’ to the writing’s wider theme and encourage the reader to read on.
Put it into Practice!
One way to help students access their personal stories is through the use of sentence starters, writing prompts, or well-known stories and their themes.
First, instruct students to choose a theme to write about. For example, if we look at the theme of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, something like: we shouldn’t tell lies or people may not believe us when we tell the truth.
Fairytales and fables are great places for students to find simple themes or moral lessons to explore for this activity.
Once they’ve chosen a theme, encourage the students to recall a time when this theme was at play in their own lives. In the case above, a time when they paid the cost, whether seriously or humorously, for not telling the truth.
This memory will form the basis for a personal anecdote that will form a ‘hook’. Students can practice replicating this process for various essay topics.
It’s important when writing their anecdotes that students attempt to capture their personal voice.
One way to help them achieve this is to instruct them to write as if they were orally telling their story to a friend.
This ‘vocal’ style of writing helps to create the intimacy between writer and reader that is the hallmark of this type of opening.
ESSAY STARTER TIP 2. THE BOLD PRONOUNCEMENT!
As the old cliché “Go big or go home!” would have it, making a bold pronouncement at the start of an essay is one surefire way to catch the reader’s attention.
Bold statements exude confidence and assure the reader that this writer has something to say that’s worth hearing. A bold statement placed right at the beginning suggests the writer isn’t going to hedge their bets or perch passively on a fence throughout their essay.
The bold pronouncement technique isn’t only useful for writing a compelling opening sentence, the formula can be used to generate a dramatic title for the essay.
For example, the recent New York Times bestseller ‘Everybody Lies’ by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a good example of the bold pronouncement in action.
Put it into Practice!
Give the students a list of familiar tales, again Aesop’s Fables make for a good resource.
In groups, have them identify the underlying theme or moral of some tales. For this activity, these can take the place of an essay’s thesis statement.
Then, ask the students to discuss in their groups and collaborate to write a bold pronouncement based on the story.
Their pronouncement should be short, pithy, and, most importantly, as bold as bold can be.
ESSAY STARTER TIP 3. THE ENGAGING FACT
In our cynical age of ‘fake news’, opening an essay with a fact or statistic is a great way for a student to give authority to their writing from the very beginning.
Students should choose the statistic or fact carefully, it should be related to their general thesis and it needs to be noteworthy enough to spark the reader’s curiosity.
This is best accomplished by selecting an unusual or surprising fact or statistic to begin the essay with.
Put it into Practice!
This technique can work well as an extension of the bold pronouncement activity above.
When students have identified each of the underlying themes of each of the fables, have them do some internet research to identify related facts and statistics.
Students highlight the most interesting of these and consider how they would use them as a hook in writing an essay on the topic.
ESSAY STARTER TIP 4. USE AN INTERESTING QUOTATION
This strategy is as straightforward as it sounds. The student begins their essay by quoting an authority or a well-known figure on the essay’s topic or related topic.
This quote provides a springboard into the subject of the essay while making sure the reader is engaged.
The quotation selected doesn’t have to be in line with the student’s thesis statement.
In fact, opening with a quotation the student disagrees with can be a great way to generate a debate that grasps the reader’s attention from the outset.
Put it into Practice
To gain practice in this strategy, organize the students into groups, and have them generate a list of possible thesis statements for their essays.
Once they have a list of statements, they now need to generate a list of possible quotations related to their hypothetical essay’s central argument.
There are several websites dedicated to curating pertinent quotations from figures of note on an apparently inexhaustible array of topics. These types of sites are invaluable resources for tracking down interesting quotations for any essay.
ESSAY STARTER TIP 5. POSING A RHETORICAL QUESTION
What better way to get a reader thinking than to open with a question?
See what I did there?
Beginning an essay with a question not only indicates to the reader the direction the essay is headed in but challenges them to respond personally to the topic.
Rhetorical questions are asked to make a point and to get the reader thinking, rather than to elicit an answer.
One effective way to use a rhetorical question in an introduction is to craft a rhetorical question from the thesis statement and use it as the opening sentence.
The student can then end the opening paragraph with the thesis statement itself.
In this way, the student has presented their thesis statement as the answer to the rhetorical question asked at the outset.
Rhetorical questions also make for useful transitions between paragraphs.
Putting it into Practice
To get some experience posing rhetorical questions, organize your students into small groups, and give each group a list of essay thesis statements suited to their age and abilities.
Task the students to rephrase each of the statements as questions.
For example, if we start with the thesis statement “Health is more important than wealth”, we might reverse engineer a rhetorical question such as “What use is a million dollars to a dying man?”
ESSAY STARTER TIP 6. PRESENTING A CONTRAST
In this opening, the writer presents a contrast between the image of the subject and its reality.
Often, this strategy is an effective opener when misconceptions on the subject are widespread.
For example, if the thesis statement is something along the lines of “Wealth doesn’t bring happiness”, the writer might open with a scene describing a lonely, unhappy person surrounded by wealth and opulence.
This scene would contrast a luxurious setting with an impoverished emotional state insinuating the thrust of the essay’s central thesis in the process.
Put it into Practice
For this activity, you can use the same list of thesis statements as in the activity above.
In their groups, challenge students to set up a scene of contrast to evoke the essay’s central contention just as in the example above.
The scene of contrast can be a factual one in a documentary or anecdotal style or a fictionalized account.
Whether the students are using a factual or fictional scene for their contrast, dramatizing it can make it much more persuasive and impactful.
AN UNBAITED HOOK
A good writer avoids cliché. Merriam-Webster defines cliché as:
1: a trite phrase or expression; also, the idea expressed by it
2: a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation
3: something (such as a menu item) that has become overly familiar or commonplace
You and your students will have seen the dictionary quote opening a thousand times; you may even have used it a dozen times yourself!
It’s an easy opening, too easy! We’ve all seen it many times and, as a result, it has very little impact on us anymore.
Let the clichéd dictionary opening rest and let definitions recline in the comfort of dictionaries where they belong.
THE END OF THE BEGINNING
These aren’t the only options available for opening essays, but they do represent some of the best options available to students struggling to get started.
With practice, students will soon be able to select the best strategies for their needs in a variety of contexts.
To reinforce their understanding of different strategies for opening essays, encourage them to pay attention to the different choices writers make each time they begin reading a new nonfiction text.
Just like getting good at essay writing itself, getting good at writing openings requires trial and error and lots and lots of practice.
USEFUL VIDEO TUTORIALS ON WRITING AN ESSAY INTRODUCTION
Content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh. A former principal of an international school and university English lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book the Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing can be found here. Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.