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Good Ways To Start An English Essay

Okay, so an ear-shattering bang with a fiery-aftermath-type bang isn’t what I’m talking about when I say, “This is how to start an essay with a bang.” (But I bet this adorably suspicious kitten has one heck of a story to tell.)

Adam Rifkin (flickr.com)

So what do I mean when I say, “Start your essay with a bang”?

Let’s start with these headlines. Tell me what they have in common:

If you guessed they’re all catchy, clickable headlines, you’re right. These headlines are so unique that you just have to click to read the story.

That’s exactly the effect you want to create when you write your essay introduction.

Here’s how to how to start an essay to create the same effect.

How to Start an Essay With a Bang

You don’t have to write your introduction first.

Sometimes you won’t know how to start until you’ve finished.

I know that might not make sense, but think about it. If you wait until you’ve finished the body of your paper (the key arguments), you have a better understanding of the contents of your paper. This means you can write a better introduction.

The purpose of an introduction

We all know that an introduction is supposed to introduce the paper. But there’s more to it than that.

A good introduction is like a first impression. Imagine meeting your date’s parents, and you’re nothing but a disheveled, bumbling mess. That first impression sticks.

If your essay introduction is that same bumbling mess, filled with typos and a lack of organization, your readers will remember that too.

An introduction also serves as a map to the rest of your paper. It enables readers to see your argument and understand the point of your paper.

This is where a clear thesis statement comes in. Wrap up your opening paragraph(s) with a specific thesis to let readers know exactly what to expect in your paper.

If you end a well-written introduction with a clear, specific thesis statement, how should you start a well-written introduction? Start with a few lines that grab readers’ attention.

The attention grabber

Even though it may sound like it, an attention grabber isn’t a bad made-for-television sci-fi movie like Sharknado. An attention grabber is actually a strategy to not only get people to actually read your paper, but also to hopefully keep them reading.

Four basic strategies on how to start an essay with an attention grabber

1. An intriguing question

Ask a question that you’ll answer in the body of your paper, or ask a question that will get readers thinking about your topic.

Check out these examples:

  • Have you ever wondered how many chemicals are in your tap water?
  • Can playing video games make people more intelligent?
  • Is pizza a vegetable?

Here’s a sample introduction using an intriguing question:

Is pizza a vegetable? In 2011, this question permeated the news, and parents everywhere wondered how congress could declare pizza a vegetable. The truth is that congress did not determine pizza to be a vegetable. The debate involved pizza sauce and how much of the sauce constituted a serving of vegetables. Whether pizza is a vegetable is still up for debate; however, what is not up for debate is the need to provide more healthy options in public school lunches.

2. A funny , interesting, or out-of the ordinary anecdote

Include a brief story about your topic that sets a scene, engages your readers, and gets them involved in the topic.

Here are a few examples:

  • Imagine a time, long, long ago, before the Internet was invented, when people had to travel to a store to buy something.
  • A young girl and her brother giggle with joy as they run across the park toward the swings. Sadly, their mother was charged with neglect for letting them play in the park just a block from their home.
  • Last semester, Andre showed up for chemistry class ready to take notes about the upcoming exam. He was shocked when, at the beginning of the class, the professor instructed everyone to put away their notes to take the exam. To say the least, Andre wasn’t prepared.

Here’s a sample introduction using an anecdote:

Last semester, Andre showed up for chemistry class ready to take notes about the upcoming exam. He was shocked when, at the beginning of the class, the professor instructed everyone to put away their notes to take the exam. To say the least, Andre wasn’t prepared. Unfortunately for Andre, this wasn’t the first time he wasn’t prepared for class. His habit of procrastination and poor organization has left him struggling to catch up on more than one occasion. While it can be difficult to stay focused in college, if students implement three simple steps, they can organize their schedules, be prepared for class, and improve their grades.

3. A shocking or interesting statistic

Using a shocking statistic grabs readers’ attention simply because it’s hard for them to believe the information could be true. They want to keep reading to learn more.

Check out these examples:

Here’s a sample introduction using a shocking statistic:

Over 16 million children in the United States live in poverty. These children, rather than enjoying carefree days meant for childhood, feel the burden of adult responsibilities. They often go hungry, worry about where their next meals will come from, and worry whether their families will be evicted again. These children wonder if they’ll soon be living in shelters (or worse yet, living in their cars). With the wealth and resources in the United States, such conditions are inexcusable. Additional funding needs to be allocated to help low-income families.

4.  A thought-provoking or astounding quote

Opening your paper with a quote gets readers thinking and involved in your paper.

A word of caution: quote someone with credibility or who is an expert on a topic. Quoting your brother or your roommate is not going to have the same effect as quoting an expert.

Check out these examples:

  • Abraham Lincoln said, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
  • Maya Angelou wisely said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
  • Benjamin Franklin is quoted as stating, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Here’s a sample introduction using a thought-provoking quote:

Benjamin Franklin is quoted as stating, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Any student who has ever neglected to study for a test can attest to this. Many students don’t study because they claim they simply don’t have enough time. While it’s true that colleges students are busy working, participating in sports, attending classes, and studying, the truth is that even busy students need to find time to prepare for class. By using a planner, learning how to study, and scheduling courses appropriately, students can be better prepared and improve their grades.

How to Start an Essay the Wrong Way

Writing introductions isn’t always easy. At times, you might find yourself staring at a blank screen with a severe case of writer’s block. If this happens, don’t write one of the following types of introductions in order to simply have something on paper.

Drew Coffman (flickr.com)

Don’t start with a dictionary definition

It can be tempting (and very easy) to start your essay with something like, “According to Merriam-Webster.com, happiness is a state of well-being and contentment.”

Yeah, it’s an easy way to start your paper, but it certainly isn’t very interesting. Readers already know what happiness means. You don’t need to define it for them.

Keep in mind, if you’re using a definition for a specific term according to a discussion in your class or if you’re defining a complicated term that appears throughout the paper, this strategy may be appropriate.

Don’t write a broad, generalized introduction

You know the type of introduction I’m talking about, the one you write in 22 seconds because you have to get your paper done in no time flat.

It’s the introduction that looks like this:

Imagery allows readers to fully understand and see what the writer is writing about in poetry. It provides readers with a clear vision of what he or she is talking about and is an important element of many poems. Without imagery, writing would be dull and uninteresting. In the poem A Supermarket in California, Allen Ginsberg uses imagery to create a powerful scene.

Nothing about this introduction works. It uses the term “imagery,” but it doesn’t say anything specific about the subject, how it’s used in the poem, or the focus of your paper.

Don’t announce the goal for your paper

Don’t start by telling your readers something like, “This paper will explain how to use shading to draw realistic people.”

This may be an appropriate opening line for an instruction manual. It’s not, however, effective as an opening line for an academic essay.

Rather than announcing your topic, simply incorporate the ideas into a statement.  For instance, you might write, “Artists often struggle to create life-like faces in their artwork; however, shading is an important strategy and a key step in creating realistic figures.”

More Bang for Your Buck

But wait…there’s more!

As if all this awesome advice wasn’t enough, here are a few more articles on how to start an essay with a bang.

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Since the dawn of man, writing has been used to communicate ideas. In academic settings, ideas are typically communicated using formal types of writing such as essays. Most academic essays contain an introductory paragraph, which includes a thesis.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an introduction as, “A preliminary explanation prefixed to or included in a book or other writing; the part of a book which leads up to the subject treated, or explains the author’s design or purpose. Also, the corresponding part of a speech, lecture, etc.”

Michigan State University student Sally used to have a lot of difficulty writing introductions. Once she had suffered through writing dozens of painful introductions, she decided to look up some tips on how to introduce your essay, and after that she got a lot better.

Introductions can be tricky. Because the introduction is the first portion of your essay that the reader encounters, the stakes are fairly high for your introduction to be successful. A good introduction presents a broad overview of your topic and your thesis, and should convince the reader that it is worth their time to actually read the rest of your essay. Below are some tips that will make writing an introduction a little less daunting, and help us all to write essays that don’t make our professors want to bang their heads against the wall.

  1. Start your introduction broad, but not too broad. When I first started writing formal essays, I didn’t really know how broad to go with my intros. A brief paragraph on Hamlet would suddenly include irrelevant details about Shakespeare’s childhood, then grow out to be a history of Western literature, and then a history of the universe itself. Do not write an introduction like this; this kind of intro is confusing and makes the reader wonder where exactly you’re going with your essay.Your introduction should provide the reader with a sense of what they should expect out of your essay, not to expound upon every piece of knowledge ever developed by man. Go ahead and start relatively broad, then narrow to your thesis, but make sure you’re still on topic.
  2. Provide relevant background, but don’t begin your true argument. It’s fine to give a bit of context to your essay in the introduction, but the real meat of your argument should be located in your body paragraphs. A good test to see if information should go in a body or introductory paragraph is to ask yourself a few questions. Is this providing context or evidence? Does this introduce my argument, or try to prove it? True evidence or proof deserves a body paragraph. Context and background most likely belong in your introduction.
  3. Provide a thesis. The majority of the time, your thesis, or main argument, should occur somewhere towards the end of your introduction. It is a typical convention to put your thesis as the last sentence of your first paragraph. My personal opinion is that it can sometimes be awkward to shove your thesis in one specific place if it doesn’t necessarily fit, but if your thesis works in that position, that is the best place for it. That being said, if you absolutely can’t include your thesis in that location, go ahead and stick it somewhere else.
  4. Provide only helpful, relevant information. Anecdotes can be an interesting opener to your essay, but only if the anecdote in question is truly relevant to your topic. Are you writing an essay about Maya Angelou? An anecdote about her childhood might be relevant, and even charming. Are you writing an essay about safety regulations in roller coasters? Go ahead and add an anecdote about a person who was injured while riding a roller coaster. Are you writing an essay about Moby Dick? Perhaps an anecdote about that time your friend read Moby Dick and hated it is not the best way to go. The same is true for statistics, quotes, and other types of information about your topic.
  5. Try to avoid clichés. Some types of introductions may have once been successful, but have been used so often that they have become tired and clichéd. Starting your essay with a definition is a good example of one of these conventions. At this point, starting with a definition is a bit boring, and will cause your reader to tune out.
  6. Don’t feel pressured to write your intro first. Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out exactly what information is relevant to your introduction until you’ve written the piece itself. Personally, I find that my writer’s block is always strongest when writing the introduction. If you are having trouble with your intro, feel free to write some, or all, of your body paragraphs, and then come back to it. You might find it a bit easier to write your introduction once you’re more comfortable with the essay as a whole.
  7. Convince the reader that your essay is worth reading. Your reader should finish the introduction thinking that the essay is interesting or has some sort of relevance to their lives. A good introduction is engaging; it gets the audience thinking about the topic at hand and wondering how you will be proving your argument. Good ways to convince your reader that your essay is worthwhile is to provide information that the reader might question or disagree with. Once they are thinking about the topic, and wondering why you hold your position, they are more likely to be engaged in the rest of the essay.

Basically, a good introduction provides the reader with a brief overview of your topic and an explanation of your thesis. A good introduction is fresh, engaging, and interesting. Successful introductions don’t rely on clichés or irrelevant information to demonstrate their point. Be brief, be concise, be engaging. Good luck.

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