How NOT To Begin an Essay
In my last blog post, I gave you a couple of my favorite pieces of advice. My tip for curing writer’s block urged you to just start writing. You can go back and delete your free-written first sentence (or sentences) when you edit your draft, I reminded you. And you really should go back and fix up your first few sentences. Because it’s important for your reader to get a good first impression, you want to make sure that you have a strong opening sentence. As much as it may help you get started writing, “the cat sat on the mat” is not exactly the best way to begin an essay.
So how do you begin an essay? How do you start out interestingly, engagingly, relevantly? What’s the trick for that?
Sorry, but there isn’t one. There’s no one way to help you begin your essay. Each essay is unique, and needs to be introduced in a way that befits its content and audience. Rather than giving you a list of commandments on how to begin an essay, I’ve decided to give you a list of the top three ways not to begin your essay. Or any essay.
1. “Oscar Wilde once wrote, ‘…”
When you begin an essay with a quotation, you set your reader up to see your writing in comparison with the author of your opening sentence. The first sentence you give your reader should be in your own words. You don’t want your readers to go into the reading experience oriented toward someone else’s writing style. Hook them with your own words. Only introduce new voices once your reader has had a chance to become immersed in yours.
2. “The Oxford English Dictionary defines…”
This opening move is a similar offense to the beginning-with-a-quotation one. But whereas an opening quotation is usually chosen because it is compelling or eloquent, a dictionary definition is generally the blandest possible presentation of a term. (Unless you’re writing a linguistic investigation of some sort…) Yes, defining your terms is important. But if you begin an essay with a dictionary definition, you’re having readers enter your paper with an understanding of you as an uncreative, uninspired writer. Which is no way to begin an essay.
3. “I am writing this essay to…”
The old writer’s adage of “show, don’t tell” pretty much covers this one. The purpose of your essay, its argument, its conclusions–these should all be emergent properties of the essay itself. Don’t be redundant by stating them explicitly when you begin your essay. When you write such obvious statements, you communicate to your readers that you think they are incapable of noticing these facts for themselves. Which means you either think they’re stupid, or your point is too opaque. Either way, having to tell your reader what your essay is about is a surefire sign that you’re writing a bad essay.
Go ahead, break my rules. Begin an essay with a dictionary definition, followed by a quotation, followed by a statement of what your essay will be about. Does that sound like an essay you want to read?
Writing is a creative process. And the beginning of your essay should be the result of creative thought and revision based on the content of your essay. You may start out with any of these (horribly cliched) opening sentences, if it helps you frame your argument. In fact, I encourage you to try doing so. But remember that editing is the most important part of the writing process. Go back and fix that opening sentence. Turn your quotation of Oscar Wilde into your own clever turn of phrase, your dictionary definition into the definition you arrived at by the conclusion of your essay, your “this essay will be about” into an actual introduction to what your essay will be about.
Maybe, by the end of your revisions, you’ll decide you really do want to begin your essay with a quotation. Maybe a dictionary definition really is the most apt way to get your readers into the proper mindset. In the end, there’s no right or wrong way to begin an essay. Just make sure your essay begins with a well-crafted hook. Because if your hackneyed opening sentence deters your readers, then you’ve wasted all the time you spent writing the rest of the paper.