Keeping it Real: On Crafting an Effective Opening Paragraph by Mike Velez

posted May 3, 2017, 5:24 PM by Writing Center
Over time, I have come to recognize gaffes students sometimes make when writing the opening paragraph of that needlessly feared behemoth: the college essay. I say upfront that some of these suggestions come from a writing instructor’s viewpoint.  File under: writing tips.

Before we begin, the myth that the writer must begin writing with the opening paragraph somehow persists. Should we blame the (in)famous five paragraph model essay™ so often taught in high schools across the land?  This technique does have its advantages, especially if you feel more comfortable starting with the first paragraph.

But no law states that you have to write this way (though some instructors might). If you prefer to start with the conclusion and write your essay backwards in a working draft, who’s to know? Just ensure that your opening paragraph and thesis statement serves as a “roadmap” for the rest of your essay when you go back and revise.

That said, avoid these hazards when planning and drafting your opening paragraph. These suggestions apply to several collegiate writing genres, including the personal essay.

Avoid overly personal or cutesy openings. Note well if you have been tasked with writing a formal essay such as a research paper. Even as you want to get your reader’s attention as quickly and effectively as you can, tie your narrative hook to the requirements of the essay genre.

Imagine writing a research essay that supports controlling the rate of emission of greenhouse gasses; which opener do you think best sets up a nuanced and creditable argument?

  1. ·         I have detested greenhouse gasses as long as I can remember. It symbolizes everything we should hate about late-stage capitalism….
  2. ·         Imagine you are a baby polar bear desperately stuck on the last floe of ice in the Arctic Sea; alone and cold, you wonder where you will find your next meal. Meanwhile, your stomach growls… grrrrrlllll… 
  3. ·         A looming danger exists on the horizon. We can’t see it, but if the bizarre weather patterns of the last several years suggest the future; we will most certainly feel it….

Did you choose the third option? It does not come right out and state “In this essay, I will argue against greenhouse gasses” (you also want to avoid telling your reader what you are writing about- just write it) but it sets up a curiosity in the reader’s mind that will hopefully entice said reader.

The other two beginnings seem less appropriate for a formal essay. The first gets to the point in a fiery denunciation but a little more objective distance from the topic better serves the requirements of a research paper. It might make a great blog post, however. I’d probably upvote it.

The second example draws on pathos a little too much. I have seen variants of the latter example crop up now and again. While not altogether a bad strategy, it’s easy to overdo it. Also, most readers will sense when their emotions are being played to at the expense of a good argument. Pathos can be more effective when you spoon-feed it to your reader.

 Steer clear of lengthy “throat-clearing” beginnings. I once thought this strategy a connivance of lazy, procrastinating writers desiring to pad their word count.

It achieves word count, if nothing else. But it can become a bad habit.

Let’s say you now have to write a literary analysis of Hamlet. You intend to argue that Hamlet initially only pretends to be insane. His unresolved feelings regarding his family, however, eventually lead to genuine psychotic break. 

Ever since the dawn of time, people around the world and in every corner of the globe, have lived and loved, while seeking pleasure in art. These arts include music, poetry, and of course, the written and spoken word. Words. Think of all the words that have appeared in all of the literary works from ancient history to today’s society. It’s crazy when you think about all the great works of art that have helped so many people in so many distant parts of the globe and across space and time….

If this were a movie, it would appear as an extreme long shot so lengthy there wouldn’t time for a plot; the movie might consist of this one shot and then segue to the end credits due to time constraints! I may exaggerate somewhat, but I have read opening paragraphs filled with similar padding, with nary a mention of the literary work at hand.

Having read such an opener, do you know what literary work the essay is meant to address? If it went on like this, would you ever know? Get to the point. Many think Hamlet to be a work of literary and dramatic merit (my take: and endlessly fascinating as well).

However, this lengthy meditation on the power of art is not only off-topic but generally misleading. Should we expect to read on about art or Hamlet? An essay can address both, but both cannot share the single spotlight an essay thesis throws on its topic.

At some point, I began to realize that students write introductions like this not to cynically increase the word count but because they believe that college writing is supposed to look like this. Or, grimmer still, that college instructors expect such florid prose. If so, let me dissuade you as to the latter! I’ll touch on why later in the conclusion.

 When are too many questions simply too many?

How acceptable are rhetorical questions in an essay? Do they detract from your thesis? Can they serve as a thesis statement? Sometimes? Often? And why should we care?

Use questions sparingly. Asking too many questions can seem overly general, off-topic, or even manipulative. My advice: include no more than one rhetorical question per essay. And always answer any question you ask; this is just being fair to your reader.

While more a matter of style, my recommendation would be to eliminate such questions entirely in/from both your opening and concluding paragraphs. It’s tempting to use them to highlight a point by framing it as an answer- on a question your reader hasn’t really asked. Let your writing plant questions in your reader’s mind and let it answer them via clear writing and organization. 

 Hanging your opening paragraph on another’s quote or a definition.

First sentence:

As the great writer Voltaire wrote, “Judge a man by his questions and not by his answers;” according to dictionary.com, a question is defined as “a problem for discussion or under discussion; a matter for investigation.”

This seems a weak strategy to frame your essay along someone else’s ideas or a dictionary definition (does any reader seriously need to have the word “question” defined for them?).

Even more so when placed at the very beginning of your essay? Impress your reader with your observations in the beginning, the middle, and at the end of your essay. You can always include such a quote elsewhere if it supports your stance.

(Some students have told me that their junior high or High School teachers required them to include a quote from a famous person in this way, often in the conclusion. Nonetheless, college academic prose seldom, if ever, requires this).

 

Take Your Lessons Where You Can

So far, I decided to go with a list of don’ts here. Search around, and you will find many fine lists of positive advice—the do’s—for writing an opening paragraph.

Finally, I will share some advice that an instructor indirectly offered me.

As a newly minted undergraduate, I loved writing but had seldom been all that challenged by my high school English curriculum. My first college English instructor had a youngish, but intense, style. He held everyone accountable.  My first essay came back with numerous, hand-written margin comments. Looking back, it contained solid advice, far more substantial than the few “nice work here!” comments I’d generally found in my high school papers.

But I hadn’t realized that he expected everyone to read and act on this advice. The first paper came back with a comment along the lines of “please get to your point sooner” written in the margin. The next assignment due date came around. I had worked diligently on this second essay, but I didn’t put myself out too much. I certainly hadn’t thought to review the flow because it seemed to work. I thought I had taken into account of all of the comments from draft one.

Do you sense where I’m going with this? A week later, class met again. Essays are passed back. Mine has a red line neatly drawn down and across the first paragraph. No other comments, save for “Please see me during office hours” written across the top. Fairly disconcerted, I showed up at the designated place and time.

He said hi. We talked some. And then, he seemed to apologize and pointed me to a pile of essays piled at the edge of his desk.

“Right now, I got sixty students. I try to give each essay as much time as I can… I ‘d probably read too many essays when I got to yours. You did that long, rambling opening thing again and I just lost patience Revise it and get it back to me. I’ll read it with fresh eyes.”

This is a true story. It doesn’t often happen, I admit. But the point stayed with me: instructors and professors are not grading machines. This one may well love your quirky style while this other one may roll their eyes at it. This one is a stickler for commas, while this other one seems more interested in how closely you followed the instructions. As you go forward, the instructions narrow. Consider your major and season to taste.

You can—and should—expect this. Indeed, prepare for it. Get your prose clear and impeccable so you can deliver what you really want to convey regardless of the instructor’s predilections.

But avoid pushing your instructor’s patience with a weak, misleading, or incomprehensible beginning. When revising that final draft, imagine that yours will be the last in the pile. Your instructor seems fair, but at this point, he or she might be a little tired. They have read about Global Warming for the 22nd time. They have marked and commented final drafts 22nd times. And maybe, all in a row.

And not just on Global Warming. It could be “Why Gun Control is Needed.”

Eventually, depending on your major, it might be “Best Practices in Designing a Network” or “Case Studies in Juridical Malfeasance” or “A Survey of Hotelier Supply Chains.” Etc.

Now, they reach for your essay. They read your title, nod, and move on to the opening paragraph.

Ponder this possible scenario for a moment. Now, re-read your opening paragraph: is this really the best way to draw them in? Are you getting to the point?

If in doubt, consider leaving it out. Perhaps you can use it on the next essay. The more you write, the more ways you will learn to keep it real: to both the assignment as well as to yourself.

Write well and be heard.

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