There are countless ways to begin an essay effectively. As a start, here are 13 introductory strategies accompanied by examples from a wide range of professional writers.
- State your thesis briefly and directly (but avoid making a bald announcement, such as "This essay is about . . .").
It is time, at last, to speak the truth about Thanksgiving, and the truth is this. Thanksgiving is really not such a terrific holiday. . . .
(Michael J. Arlen, "Ode to Thanksgiving." The Camera Age: Essays on Television. Penguin, 1982)
- Pose a question related to your subject and then answer it (or invite your readers to answer it).
What is the charm of necklaces? Why would anyone put something extra around their neck and then invest it with special significance? A necklace doesn't afford warmth in cold weather, like a scarf, or protection in combat, like chain mail; it only decorates. We might say, it borrows meaning from what it surrounds and sets off, the head with its supremely important material contents, and the face, that register of the soul. When photographers discuss the way in which a photograph reduces the reality it represents, they mention not only the passage from three dimensions to two, but also the selection of a point de vue that favors the top of the body rather than the bottom, and the front rather than the back. The face is the jewel in the crown of the body, and so we give it a setting. . . .
(Emily R. Grosholz, "On Necklaces." Prairie Schooner, Summer 2007)
- State an interesting fact about your subject.
The peregrine falcon was brought back from the brink of extinction by a ban on DDT, but also by a peregrine falcon mating hat invented by an ornithologist at Cornell University. If you cannot buy this, Google it. Female falcons had grown dangerously scarce. A few wistful males nevertheless maintained a sort of sexual loitering ground. The hat was imagined, constructed, and then forthrightly worn by the ornithologist as he patrolled this loitering ground, singing, Chee-up! Chee-up! and bowing like an overpolite Japanese Buddhist trying to tell somebody goodbye. . . .
(David James Duncan, "Cherish This Ecstasy." The Sun, July 2008)
- Present your thesis as a recent discovery or revelation.
I've finally figured out the difference between neat people and sloppy people. The distinction is, as always, moral. Neat people are lazier and meaner than sloppy people.
(Suzanne Britt Jordan, "Neat People vs. Sloppy People." Show and Tell. Morning Owl Press, 1983)
- Briefly describe the place that serves as the primary setting of your essay.
It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.
(George Orwell, "A Hanging," 1931)
- Recount an incident that dramatizes your subject.
One October afternoon three years ago while I was visiting my parents, my mother made a request I dreaded and longed to fulfill. She had just poured me a cup of Earl Grey from her Japanese iron teapot, shaped like a little pumpkin; outside, two cardinals splashed in the birdbath in the weak Connecticut sunlight. Her white hair was gathered at the nape of her neck, and her voice was low. “Please help me get Jeff’s pacemaker turned off,” she said, using my father’s first name. I nodded, and my heart knocked.
(Katy Butler, "What Broke My Father's Heart." The New York Times Magazine, June 18, 2010)
- Use the narrative strategy of delay: put off identifying your subject just long enough to pique your readers' interest without frustrating them.
They woof. Though I have photographed them before, I have never heard them speak, for they are mostly silent birds. Lacking a syrinx, the avian equivalent of the human larynx, they are incapable of song. According to field guides the only sounds they make are grunts and hisses, though the Hawk Conservancy in the United Kingdom reports that adults may utter a croaking coo and that young black vultures, when annoyed, emit a kind of immature snarl. . . .
(Lee Zacharias, "Buzzards." Southern Humanities Review, 2007)
- Using the historical present tense, relate an incident from the past as if it were happening now.
Ben and I are sitting side by side in the very back of his mother’s station wagon. We face glowing white headlights of cars following us, our sneakers pressed against the back hatch door. This is our joy--his and mine--to sit turned away from our moms and dads in this place that feels like a secret, as though they are not even in the car with us. They have just taken us out to dinner, and now we are driving home. Years from this evening, I won’t actually be sure that this boy sitting beside me is named Ben. But that doesn’t matter tonight. What I know for certain right now is that I love him, and I need to tell him this fact before we return to our separate houses, next door to each other. We are both five.
(Ryan Van Meter, "First." The Gettysburg Review, Winter 2008)
- Briefly describe a process that leads into your subject.
I like to take my time when I pronounce someone dead. The bare-minimum requirement is one minute with a stethoscope pressed to someone’s chest, listening for a sound that is not there; with my fingers bearing down on the side of someone’s neck, feeling for an absent pulse; with a flashlight beamed into someone’s fixed and dilated pupils, waiting for the constriction that will not come. If I’m in a hurry, I can do all of these in sixty seconds, but when I have the time, I like to take a minute with each task.
(Jane Churchon, "The Dead Book." The Sun, February 2009)
- Reveal a secret about yourself or make a candid observation about your subject.
I spy on my patients. Ought not a doctor to observe his patients by any means and from any stance, that he might the more fully assemble evidence? So I stand in doorways of hospital rooms and gaze. Oh, it is not all that furtive an act. Those in bed need only look up to discover me. But they never do.
(Richard Selzer, "The Discus Thrower." Confessions of a Knife. Simon & Schuster, 1979)
- Open with a riddle, joke, or humorous quotation, and show how it reveals something about your subject.
Q: What did Eve say to Adam on being expelled from the Garden of Eden?
A: "I think we're in a time of transition."
The irony of this joke is not lost as we begin a new century and anxieties about social change seem rife. The implication of this message, covering the first of many periods of transition, is that change is normal; there is, in fact, no era or society in which change is not a permanent feature of the social landscape. . . .
(Betty G. Farrell, Family: The Making of an Idea, an Institution, and a Controversy in American Culture. Westview Press, 1999)
- Offer a contrast between past and present that leads to your thesis.
As a child, I was made to look out the window of a moving car and appreciate the beautiful scenery, with the result that now I don't care much for nature. I prefer parks, ones with radios going chuckawaka chuckawaka and the delicious whiff of bratwurst and cigarette smoke.
(Garrison Keillor, "Walking Down The Canyon." Time, July 31, 2000)
- Offer a contrast between image and reality--that is, between a common misconception and the opposing truth.
They aren’t what most people think they are. Human eyes, touted as ethereal objects by poets and novelists throughout history, are nothing more than white spheres, somewhat larger than your average marble, covered by a leather-like tissue known as sclera and filled with nature’s facsimile of Jell-O. Your beloved’s eyes may pierce your heart, but in all likelihood they closely resemble the eyes of every other person on the planet. At least I hope they do, for otherwise he or she suffers from severe myopia (near-sightedness), hyperopia (far-sightedness), or worse. . . .
(John Gamel, "The Elegant Eye." Alaska Quarterly Review, 2009)
To learn more about getting an essay off to a good start, see these two articles:
- Hookers vs. Chasers: How Not to Begin an Essay
- "Whack at Your Reader at Once": Eight Great Opening Lines