Essay Introductions: Opening Sentences

There’s no shortage of advice on how to tackle writing a tricky opening sentence. At least, not if you’re a novelist, short story writer, journalist, or even a blogger. But what about for those writing essays?

‘The Throes of Creation’ by Leonid Pasternak

It’s something we don’t talk about very often because it seems somehow petty. It’s not something that’s likely to lose you marks. The advice you get from tutors will probably focus instead on the reading you’ve brought in, the evidence you’ve assembled and the argument you present. Those are things you’ll be penalised for getting wrong. A howler of an opening line will be overlooked if you’re solid on those, which is why so many howlers go without comment.

So, what do people get wrong? Common mistakes often boil down to writing the opening to the essay before you quite know what you want to say, over-complicating in an attempt to impress or simply trying to do too much.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when penning that surprisingly difficult opening line.

State your business

It’s worth remembering that every sentence in an essay has a purpose. You probably have a decent idea what the purpose of the introduction is: to establish what will be covered, and perhaps also what will be argued, in the essay. At this point you’re not making the case, but simply stating it. This is important because the rest of the essay will largely be marked on how well it delivers what you’ve promised here. And within the introductory paragraph, the opening sentence has a particular purpose as the topic sentence for the whole essay.

Keep it simple

First impressions count, which is why it’s so tempting to demonstrate your sophistication in the first sentence. Unfortunately, this is usually counter-productive as it can obscure what you’re actually trying to say. This is true for all academic writing, but the opening line is a common place to fall into the trap. It’s easy to think the introduction or even the first (or final) sentence has to summarise the  entire content of the essay: the argument, the evidence and the caveats. It doesn’t. It’s no bad thing for the introduction to include a sentence (probably the last rather than first) that sums up the fundamental point you want to make, but that’s not the same as summarising everything you have to say. A good trick for getting used to doing this is the old one of trying to put across your main point in a tweet or on a post-it note.

Stay on topic

That might sound obvious, but striking a balance between the general and the specific is a constant struggle in writing History at all levels, from the student essay to the professor’s tome. Introductions and conclusions are the easiest places in an essay to drift off-topic when trying to put your own topic within a bigger picture. The danger is it ends up reading like one of Philomena Cunk’s bold statements, like “Time has existed since before time began”. Instead of something broad like “Women have been second-class citizens throughout history” – which could only be backed up by a far broader study than possible in an undergraduate essay – it would be better to keep more focused. For example: “The proper place of women in British society was a contentious issue in the years following the First World War.” Once again here, the important thing is not to promise more than you’re going to deliver in the rest of the essay.

Avoid dictionary definitions

There’s nothing wrong with defining key concepts you’ll be discussing. Indeed, that may be a worthwhile part of stating your business. However, the balance between general and specific crops up here. Don’t rely on sources that are so general they have little usefulness in answering your specific question. The Oxford English Dictionary is great if you’ve come across a term for the first time. But if you want to say your essay on nineteenth-century politics is going to focus on Liberalism, you’ll do better to quote from a scholarly source that says what the term meant in the time and place you’re interested in, such as Raymond Williams’ Keywords.

Come back to the beginning

The opening sentence is probably one of the last things you’ll write. If the main point you want to make hasn’t changed at all while you’ve been working on your essay, it suggests you haven’t learnt much. This may mean bigger changes to other parts of your introductory paragraph than the opening sentence, but it’s no bad thing to come back to it once the whole essay is written. Making sure it’s clear from the very first sentence what the essay will cover and what it will argue can only make it easier for your tutor to identity and give you credit for the work you’ve put in.

3 Replies to “Essay Introductions: Opening Sentences”

  1. Great advice – and very much appreciate the Philomena Clunk reference!

    I do feel there’s a bit of pressure to be interesting in the first sentence though, as well as to the point. I think this can be achieved by being bold and declarative, even provocative – there’s time enough in the rest of the article/essay for caveats, after all. But I’d be interested to hear others’ opinions on this.

  2. Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    It is a fact universally acknowledged that it’s often difficult to find a good opening sentence. My only tip is that it’s probably best to write the first sentence last. For other suggestions, read on…

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