Should you use a question to begin an essay? Yes. A rhetorical question is an excellent way to arouse the reader’s curiosity. You might also consider other introductory devices — such as a quotation, a startling statistic, a vivid example, or even a joke — to stimulate the reader’s interest. The most important part of the first paragraph, however, is the thesis, which is the main idea or “promise” of the essay, and your thesis typically belongs in the last sentence of the first paragraph.
The thesis should be located at the end of the first paragraph for two major reasons: direction for you the writer and direction for your readers.
When you write an essay, you don’t want to be wandering all over a subject like a tourist exploring the countryside. Instead, you should have a clear destination in mind and precise directions on how you’re going to get there. One way to keep you focused on your writing task is to imagine that you are a bus driver and that your essay is your bus. Your thesis, then, is the sign on your bus that lets both you and your passengers/readers know where you’re going.
Keep in mind, too, that the more precise your thesis is, the more focused your essay is likely to be. A general idea about football, for example, may give you a start on your journey, but a specific thesis — such as “The three major problems facing the New York Giants” — is clearly superior. Similarly, a thesis like “What I learned this summer,” is adequate, but “Why I will never again work at the county fair” is much more intriguing. A strong thesis allows you to see where you’re going and reminds you of what you need to do to get there.
Directions are also helpful for your readers because most readers are like those who ride the bus. When they climb aboard, they want to know exactly where they’re headed, and they want the ride to be clear and direct. So if you don’t indicate precisely where you’re going, they’re unlikely to go along for the ride. Or, if you say you’re going somewhere, but then you veer off course, they will probably want out. If you promise to write about the three major problems facing the New York Giants or about your summer experience working at the county fair, you better fulfill that promise or risk losing your readers.
As a writing instructor who has read thousands of essays over the years, I find nothing is more frustrating than an essay that rambles on and on and says nothing. When I read these essays, I feel like Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves on the runaway bus in the movie Speed. As the instructor, I have to keep reading, but I feel like the task is going to kill me. Naturally, the grades I assign to these out-of-control essays are much like the maximum posted speeds on our local highways: 55 or 65.
So when you sit down to write your next essay, don’t just hit the accelerator and take off. Instead, pull out a map to figure out where you’re headed and how you’re going to get there. Then, post your destination in a strong thesis sentence at the end of your first paragraph.