Catching the Reader’s Attention
A good essay begins with an invitation into a rich discussion. The writing is crafted in such a way that it sparks anticipation and excitement in the heart and mind of the reader. Simply stating your opinion or the topic of the essay will never accomplish this. Engaging writing requires thoughtful attention to creating a hook for the reader.
Hooks can be created in an infinite number of ways, but here is a list of approaches that often prove valuable. Note that this is a list that you have likely seen before (most schools provide such a list), but be sure to read on as it is in the implementation of these ideas that they either succeed or fail:
- Start with a thought-provoking quotation.
- Start with a thought-provoking question.
- Tell a thought-provoking story.
- Make a surprising statement.
- Present a simile or a metaphor to introduce your essay topic.
Each of these options presents an approach to opening an essay that can work if it is implemented effectively. Of course, implementing them effectively is where things get tricky.
A Thought-Provoking Quotation:
Depending on the topic of your essay and the resources you have available, it can be very effective to begin with a direct quotation from a relevant source on your topic that brings up key ideas or presents controversial opinions. You, as the author, can then respond to them and establish your position in relation to this statement. Be certain the quotation you choose directly relates to your chosen topic.
A Thought Provoking Question
Opening essays with questions is dangerous because they only work if the question causes your reader to genuinely wonder about something. Simplistic or obvious questions turn your reader off, so try another approach unless you are sure you have a question that really ties your essay topic to something personal for the reader or to some intriguing idea in the world.
A Thought-Provoking Story
As a fiction writer, this is my personal favorite. There are two options available here. One approach is to tell a true story in close-up intimate detail that directly relates to your topic. The other option is to craft a story around the factual details of your topic and helps to humanize it—taking your reader into the personal human experience of someone in a given situation related to your subject. Simply be sure to tell the story well and don’t forget to craft the story in such a way that it leads directly to the central point of your essay.
Make a Surprising Statement
This one is also a tricky way to go unless you have come across a very striking fact or are dealing with a controversial subject. In order for this approach to work, the statement must include something that will genuinely surprise the reader, which is difficult to do. In addition to shock value, the statement must also have direct relevance to your topic so that a strong transition can still be made into your central argument.
Present a Simile or Metaphor
Similes and metaphors are among the most powerful linguistic devices available. When used well, they can bring profound interest and insight to a given topic. Using them well is, of course, the hard part. The trick to using them well is be sure that the nature of the symbol you use shares a great deal in common with the subtleties of the topic you are discussing. The broader and more specific those connections are, the stronger its linguistic power.
The very best way to use a simile or metaphor in an essay is to introduce it with the opening paragraph and then continue to weave the connections between the symbol and the subject throughout the entire essay, eventually bringing the idea back together in the conclusion to create a circular structure to the writing. This requires insightful thinking and hard writing work, but makes for an exceptional essay.
Clearly Establishing Your Purpose
With your reader’s attention now in place, you must be certain that you also directly address the question or prompt to which you have been asked to respond. A colorful and engaging opening story is all well and good, but it is worthless if it does not lead into a straight and clear statement of your thesis (also known as “topic sentence” or “position statement”).
Keep in mind that, contrary to what is often taught in elementary school, the opening paragraph does not necessarily require a complete listing of the main points of your essay, though that can be helpful at times. The only non-negotiable requirement for an introduction is a direct and clear statement of purpose somewhere within that first paragraph. With more creative openings, it generally occurs near the close of the first paragraph, anticipating the deeper explanations that take place in the body paragraphs of the essay. Feel free to be creative, but do not forget to directly address the question you have been asked!
The quality of an essay introduction often determines whether the essay gets read in the first place. Even if it has to be read, as in the case of essay writing assignments in a university setting, a fine introduction gives the reader a good initial impression, entices the reader to read on, and encourages the reader to give an excellent evaluation at the end.
Hence, an essay introduction serves to attract the reader’s interest, introduce the topic, and explain what the essay will be about. Correspondingly, an essay introduction contains three features that usually appear in the following order: an attention-getter, some background information and the central idea.
Getting the reader’s attention
Some common strategies used to attract the reader’s interest to an essay are:
- Relate a dramatic anecdote.
- Expose a commonly held belief.
- Present surprising facts and statistics.
- Use a fitting quotation.
- Ask a provocative question.
- Tell a vivid personal story.
- Define a key term.
- Present an interesting observation.
- Create a unique scenario.
Providing background information
Providing background information in an essay introduction serves as a bridge to link the reader to the topic of an essay. But exactly how long this bridge should be is largely dependent on how much information the writer thinks the reader will need in order to understand the issue being discussed in the essay and appreciate the importance of the issue. For much university writing (for which the readership may not be restricted to lecturers alone), one good rule of thumb for students to determine whether enough background information has been provided is to read the draft introduction to fellow students from other faculties and see whether they understand what is being talked about.
Stating the central idea
The central idea or thesis statement in an essay introduction is the most important part of the essay and is thus indispensable. The thesis statement is usually one or two sentences long and tells the reader what the whole essay is going to be about.
A thesis statement can be direct or indirect. A direct thesis statement gives a specific outline of the essay. For example, one of my students (in his essay entitled ‘The Qualities of a Successful Technopreneur’) wrote the following thesis statement: “The three core qualities that a technopreneur must possess to be successful are vision, a never-say-quit attitude and an innovative mind.” This sentence tells the reader what the essay is going to be about (i.e. the qualities a technopreneur must possess in order to succeed) and provides a structural outline (i.e. that the essay will comprise three main parts, each portion respectively covering one of the three qualities mentioned).
In an indirect thesis statement, no such outline is provided; however, the reader will still know what aspect of the topic the essay is going to discuss. For example, on the same topic, another of my students wrote this thesis statement: “In today’s rapidly changing technology market, only technopreneurs who possess certain qualities will succeed while those who do not will falter and fall in the battlefield.” From this sentence, the reader can still expect the essay to talk about some qualities of a successful technopreneur; but he/she will neither know exactly which and how many qualities the essay will cover, nor predict how many parts the writer will discuss in the main body paragraphs. The suspense given by an indirect thesis statement sometimes gives the reader a good reason to read on.
Once aware of the three features of an essay introduction and some of the options for the presentation of each feature, students can experiment with different options to see which one(s) creates the best effect for each essay.