Can You Start And Essay With A Question

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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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The writer of the academic essay aims to persuade readers of an idea based on evidence. The beginning of the essay is a crucial first step in this process. In order to engage readers and establish your authority, the beginning of your essay has to accomplish certain business. Your beginning should introduce the essay, focus it, and orient readers.

Introduce the Essay.The beginning lets your readers know what the essay is about, the topic. The essay's topic does not exist in a vacuum, however; part of letting readers know what your essay is about means establishing the essay's context, the frame within which you will approach your topic. For instance, in an essay about the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, the context may be a particular legal theory about the speech right; it may be historical information concerning the writing of the amendment; it may be a contemporary dispute over flag burning; or it may be a question raised by the text itself. The point here is that, in establishing the essay's context, you are also limiting your topic. That is, you are framing an approach to your topic that necessarily eliminates other approaches. Thus, when you determine your context, you simultaneously narrow your topic and take a big step toward focusing your essay. Here's an example.

When Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening was published in 1899, critics condemned the book as immoral. One typical critic, writing in the Providence Journal, feared that the novel might "fall into the hands of youth, leading them to dwell on things that only matured persons can understand, and promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires" (150). A reviewer in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch wrote that "there is much that is very improper in it, not to say positively unseemly."

The paragraph goes on. But as you can see, Chopin's novel (the topic) is introduced in the context of the critical and moral controversy its publication engendered.

Focus the Essay. Beyond introducing your topic, your beginning must also let readers know what the central issue is. What question or problem will you be thinking about? You can pose a question that will lead to your idea (in which case, your idea will be the answer to your question), or you can make a thesis statement. Or you can do both: you can ask a question and immediately suggest the answer that your essay will argue. Here's an example from an essay about Memorial Hall.

Further analysis of Memorial Hall, and of the archival sources that describe the process of building it, suggests that the past may not be the central subject of the hall but only a medium. What message, then, does the building convey, and why are the fallen soldiers of such importance to the alumni who built it? Part of the answer, it seems, is that Memorial Hall is an educational tool, an attempt by the Harvard community of the 1870s to influence the future by shaping our memory of their times. The commemoration of those students and graduates who died for the Union during the Civil War is one aspect of this alumni message to the future, but it may not be the central idea.

The fullness of your idea will not emerge until your conclusion, but your beginning must clearly indicate the direction your idea will take, must set your essay on that road. And whether you focus your essay by posing a question, stating a thesis, or combining these approaches, by the end of your beginning, readers should know what you're writing about, and why—and why they might want to read on.

Orient Readers. Orienting readers, locating them in your discussion, means providing information and explanations wherever necessary for your readers' understanding. Orienting is important throughout your essay, but it is crucial in the beginning. Readers who don't have the information they need to follow your discussion will get lost and quit reading. (Your teachers, of course, will trudge on.) Supplying the necessary information to orient your readers may be as simple as answering the journalist's questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why. It may mean providing a brief overview of events or a summary of the text you'll be analyzing. If the source text is brief, such as the First Amendment, you might just quote it. If the text is well known, your summary, for most audiences, won't need to be more than an identifying phrase or two:

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's tragedy of `star-crossed lovers' destroyed by the blood feud between their two families, the minor characters . . .

Often, however, you will want to summarize your source more fully so that readers can follow your analysis of it.

Questions of Length and Order. How long should the beginning be? The length should be proportionate to the length and complexity of the whole essay. For instance, if you're writing a five-page essay analyzing a single text, your beginning should be brief, no more than one or two paragraphs. On the other hand, it may take a couple of pages to set up a ten-page essay.

Does the business of the beginning have to be addressed in a particular order? No, but the order should be logical. Usually, for instance, the question or statement that focuses the essay comes at the end of the beginning, where it serves as the jumping-off point for the middle, or main body, of the essay. Topic and context are often intertwined, but the context may be established before the particular topic is introduced. In other words, the order in which you accomplish the business of the beginning is flexible and should be determined by your purpose.

Opening Strategies.There is still the further question of how to start. What makes a good opening? You can start with specific facts and information, a keynote quotation, a question, an anecdote, or an image. But whatever sort of opening you choose, it should be directly related to your focus. A snappy quotation that doesn't help establish the context for your essay or that later plays no part in your thinking will only mislead readers and blur your focus. Be as direct and specific as you can be. This means you should avoid two types of openings:

  • The history-of-the-world (or long-distance) opening, which aims to establish a context for the essay by getting a long running start: "Ever since the dawn of civilized life, societies have struggled to reconcile the need for change with the need for order." What are we talking about here, political revolution or a new brand of soft drink? Get to it.
  • The funnel opening (a variation on the same theme), which starts with something broad and general and "funnels" its way down to a specific topic. If your essay is an argument about state-mandated prayer in public schools, don't start by generalizing about religion; start with the specific topic at hand.

Remember. After working your way through the whole draft, testing your thinking against the evidence, perhaps changing direction or modifying the idea you started with, go back to your beginning and make sure it still provides a clear focus for the essay. Then clarify and sharpen your focus as needed. Clear, direct beginnings rarely present themselves ready-made; they must be written, and rewritten, into the sort of sharp-eyed clarity that engages readers and establishes your authority.

Copyright 1999, Patricia Kain, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

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