Starting an essay can be difficult. You have all these thoughts rolling around in your head, or maybe an outline of the essay sketched out in your class notes. You have ideas and phrases flashing through your consciousness, all of them brilliant, all of them eloquent and pleasing to the mind. But as you stare at the blank page or the flashing cursor, you find that the first words don’t come, or if they come, they don’t sit up the way you want them to. It’s like trying to leash a cobra—if it’d just stop squirming, you might get it done without getting dead.
An opener squirms because it’s busy; a lot of important things need to happen in a relatively short space:
- Attract the reader’s attention
- Give readers a reason to keep reading
- State the thesis or the purpose for writing
- Indicate the structure
- Establish a tone and voice that the reader will find appealing and appropriate to the subject matter.
So it’s no wonder that the opener leads to more frustration than almost any other part of the essay (except, maybe, the conclusion!).
You can always try to write a bad introduction and get on with it, or you can start drafting the middle of the essay and come back to the introduction when you’re ready. But if those choices do not work for you, try following one of these techniques which have stood the test of time for all kinds of writers in all kinds of situations.
Pose a problem
When you write in an academic setting, you do not have to do anything cute or creative to attract a reader’s interest. The essential thing is to pose a problem that serious minds in your field of study will see as important. The following introduction comes from the field of cultural criticism. It poses an intriguing problem in the first sentence, and in subsequent sentences establishes context and understanding by citing sources that have also touched on the issue and why it matters. Lastly, the author states a thesis that explains, in this case, why the ghost of Shakespeare haunts science fiction franchise Star Trek:
It has been for some time a mystery to critics as to why James T. Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise in the television series Star Trek (1966-69) and Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-74) and the first six films in the Star Trek franchise (1979-91), claims Shakespeare as his favourite author. This assertion, writes Stephen Buhler, “comes as something of a surprise” (21). Jean Graham is similarly puzzled by the erudite Kirk, “whose literary knowledge has always been surprisingly extensive for a man who fights and sleeps his way through the galaxy” (24). Buhler’s objection to the characterization of Captain Kirk as a Shakespeare fan is that “any of a number of other characters in” Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the most Shakespeare-saturated entry in the Star Trek canon, “would seem a far better candidate for claiming the poet as his or her favorite” (21). There are thus two interrelated aspects of objections to the Kirk-Shakespeare pairing. First, Kirk, womanizing and violent, is an inappropriate standard-bearer for Shakespeare in Star Trek’s imagined twenty-fourth century. In addition, the franchise provides a host of other, better candidates for the job.
But there is also, I believe, good reason for making Kirk a fan of Shakespeare . . . Through its citations of Shakespeare, especially as they are used in a number of the franchise’s celebratory assimilation narratives, Star Trek reveals itself as a fantasy of unending European expansion, the near-universal superiority of which marks the franchise’s vision of the future as one dominated by an ethos of, if not white supremacy, then at least Anglo-American supremacy. . . The franchise thus serves, I argue, as an inadvertent warning about the potentially pernicious place that Shakespeare continues to occupy in the contemporary popular imagination.
--Christopher Brandon, “Star Trek’s Shakespeare Problem”
There is nothing fancy here: the introduction begins plainly and directly with a problem that fascinates critics of Shakespeare and science fiction alike. However, many other strategies for getting started can be helpful in predisposing the mind of your reader to the important things you have to say. Try one, or more than one, when you find it difficult to begin.
Ask a question
Make your question the reader’s question. Such an opening taps into our inquisitive nature. Obviously, you’ll lead the reader toward an answer to the question—usually at the end of the first paragraph. Here’s an example from a social critic named Joseph Epstein, a former editor of The American Scholar who often wrote under the pen name Aristides:
What’s vulgar? Some people might say that the contraction of the words what and is itself is vulgar. On the other hand, I remember being called a stuffed shirt by a reviewer of a book of mine because I used almost no contractions. I have forgotten the reviewer’s name but I have remembered the criticism. Not being of that category of writers who never forget a compliment, I also remember being called a racist by another reviewer for observing that failure to insist on table manners in children was to risk dining with apaches. The larger criticisms I forget, but, oddly, these goofy little criticisms stick in the teeth like sesame seeds. Yet that last trope—is it, too, vulgar? Ought I really to be picking my teeth in public, even metaphorically?
The trick of the question lead is to ask an open-ended question. If you begin with “what’s vulgar?” a lot of answers can follow. If you begin with “Do you like Buffalo style chicken wings?” readers might say “no,” and stop reading (or wish they could).
Bounce off another writer
Sometimes you can use another piece of writing to do the heavy lifting for you. A good quotation, already interesting in its own phrasing and idea, may give you and your readers the boost you need. Here’s an example from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir:
I was stunned by Mary Karr’s memoir, The Liar’s Club. Not just by its ferocity, its beauty, and by her delightful grasp of the vernacular, but by its totality—she is a woman who remembers everything about her early years.
I am not that way. I lived in an odd, herky-jerky childhood, raised by a single parent who moved around a lot in my earliest years and who—I am not completely sure of this—may have farmed my brother and me out to one of her sisters for awhile because . . . .
What follows are some of those memories, assorted snapshots from the somewhat more coherent days of my adolescence and young manhood. This is not an autobiography. It is, rather, a kind of curriculum vitae—my attempt to show how one writer was formed. Not how one writer was made; I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and story tellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.
Announce Your Presence with Authority
Begin with strength and conviction, and your readers will be putty in your hands:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.
In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. I shall not consider the rhetorical uses of and misuses of bullshit. My aim is simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not—or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept.
--Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit
This writer sounds so sure of himself that many readers are likely to feel they can trust his authority—at least for awhile, anyway. Also, note how he tells us exactly what he plans to do in the rest of his essay.
Scare’em—or at least surprise ‘em
A startling fact or statistic can focus the reader’s attention while troubling the mind. They’ll want clarification, explanation, some way of making sense of the madness. They’re hooked. Here’s Jeff Faux, an economist who writes for a newsmagazine, The Nation:
This past winter both the outgoing director of the CIA and a separate Pentagon report declared political instability in Mexico to be on a par with Pakistan and Iran as top-ranking threats to US national security. It was an exaggeration; Mexico is not yet a "failed state." On the other hand, it is certainly drifting in that direction.
A vicious war among narco-trafficking cartels last year killed at least 6,000 people, including public officials, police and journalists. The country leads the world in kidnappings (Pakistan is second). And with the global crisis, the chronically anemic economy is hemorrhaging jobs, businesses and hope.
Faux’s opener leaves us wonder just how bad off Mexico really is, and what it means for his audience made up mostly of readers in the U.S.
Puzzle over a Paradox
Readers can’t resist a good paradox. It creates discord in the mind and they want it resolved:
Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains. He who thinks himself the master of others is as much a slave as they are. How this situation came about I cannot say, but I can speak to how the situation has become so widely accepted.
--Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract
Tell a Story
Readers like a story. There’s character, there’s conflict, and where there is conflict there is interest:
The locker room of the tennis club. A tall woman enters, removes her towel; she throws it across a bench, faces herself squarely in the mirror, climbs on the scale, looks down.
“I knew it,” she mutters.
“Up or down?” I ask, hoping to suggest that there might be lands and cultures where gaining weight would not be considered a disaster. “Two pounds,” she says, ignoring the suggestion. “Two pounds!”
Then she turns, grabs the towel and swings out at the mirror, smashing it violently, the towel splattering water over the glass.
“Fat pig!” she shouts at her image in the mirror. “You fat, fat, pig!”
--Kim Chernin, “How Women’s Diets Reflect Fear of Power”
Closing Thoughts on Openers
One thing you’ll note about all these openers—not one of them sounds like the writer fears the topic. One of the best writing instructors ever, John Trimble, calls this “walking through the front door.” Avoid sneaking through the back, like this:
From the beginning of time, there has been music. From the first time a caveman banged a stick on a rock, there has been rhythm, and there has been melody since the rise and fall of voice tones. And when it was discovered that a string pulled tight could produce a tone, there have been all kinds of string instruments. There is music all over the world, from China to America, from Africa to Ireland. There have been different types as well, from Japanese opera to Irish punk. And of all the Irish punk bands, none is better than the Stiff Little Fingers.
You get the idea. The writer doesn’t really know what he wants to say, and so begins as big and broad as he can and says nothing for a very long time—if ever. No reader likes to waste time, so begin close to your point and project confidence: “of course you will be interested in what I have to say.”