If you’ve ever attended a formal banquet, you probably noticed that the host doesn’t automatically begin with the evening’s primary purpose. Instead, he or she may start with a joke or a story to warm up the audience and to establish a rapport with those in attendance. In other words, the host wants to secure the audience’s attention first before he or she proceeds with the main idea. When you write an essay, you should also use a strong introductory device to secure your reader’s attention before you proceed.
Unfortunately, too many beginning writers start their essays with bland, matter-of-fact statements such as, “This essay will discuss . . . .” or “I plan to write about . . . .” Those statements, obviously, are not very captivating or interesting. So if you want to capture your reader’s attention, you have to do something different. You have to be creative. Here are nine introductory devices you may want to consider.
A Startling Statement. In his 1986 essay entitled “Just Walk On By,” Brent Staples begins with this line: “My first victim was a woman” (75). That sentence intrigues most readers immediately because they assume the writer is a criminal about to reveal details about his crimes. While Staples is not a criminal, he is often mistaken for a criminal, and his startling introduction kidnaps his readers and allows him to explain how he deals with the unwanted attention. Note, too, that an unusual fact or statistic can also be part of a startling statement.
A Quotation. Sometimes, a direct quote about your subject may also intrigue a reader. To begin his essay entitled “How Do We Find the Student in a World of Academic Gymnasts and Worker Ants,” James T. Baker uses the words of French novelist Anatole France: “The whole art of teaching is only the art of awakening the natural curiosity of young minds” (316). This quote not only attracts readers, but it also allows Baker to later make his point about how difficult it is to actually awaken that curiosity.
A Story. Doctor John Lantos writes about “Life and Death in Neonatal Intensive Care,” and he begins that essay with a story: “It was while I was working in the neonatal intensive-care unit that I first achieved that dream of doctors everywhere: to actually save a patient’s life” (350). That one sentence is obviously the beginning of his story, but because he also hints at the dramatic nature of the experience, the introduction is so much more powerful than a traditional — and bland — once-upon-a-time type introduction.
An Allusion. An allusion is an indirect reference to a well-known person, place, or event from history, from mythology, from literature, or from other works of art. Allusions attract readers because they have to think about the connection the author is trying to make. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr., uses three allusions in his very first line: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation” (506). King is alluding to the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C. Though King’s speech was originally intended for listeners rather than readers, an allusion as an attention-getting device works well in either realm.
A Comparison or Contrast. When former U.S. Open tennis champion Arthur Ashe began his letter to The New York Times in 1977, he began with a strong contrast: “Since my sophomore year at the University of California, Los Angeles, I have become convinced that we blacks spend too much time on the playing fields and too little time in the libraries” (qtd. in Funk, Day, and McMahan (1997) 286). Then, Ashe uses statistics and examples to show that blacks are over represented in the athletic professions and underrepresented in the fields of law, medicine, and engineering.
A Vivid Description. In “Wind,” William Least Heat-Moon writes about a married couple that was literally lifted away by a tornado. He begins with this description: “Paul and Leola Evans are in their early seventies but appear a decade younger, their faces shaped by the prairie wind into strong and pleasing lines” (34).
A Definition. Before Judith Viorst divides and classifies her friends in an essay entitled “Friends, Good Friends, and Such Good Friends,” she begins with a definition: “Women are friends, I once would have said, when they totally love and support and trust each other, and bare to each other the secrets of their souls, and run — no questions asked — to help each other, and tell harsh truths to each other (no, you can’t wear that dress unless you lose ten pounds first) when harsh truths must be told” (143).
An Example. When William Zinsser began his essay about “College Pressures,” he started with an example of a note from a student to a resident dean at Yale University: “Dear Carlos: I desperately need a dean’s excuse from my chem. Midterm which will begin in about 1 hour. All I can say is that I totally blew it this week. I’ve fallen incredibly, inconceivably behind” (308).
A Question. Similarly, when Robert Heilbroner wrote “Don’t Let Stereotypes Warp Your Judgments,” he began with a question to provoke his readers to think: “Is a girl called Gloria apt to be better-looking than one called Bertha” (110)?
So now that you have a much better idea about various techniques you can use to begin an essay, you may be thinking, “Outside of my writing, when am I ever going to use this information?” That’s easy. You can also use any one of these techniques the next time you have to serve as the host of a formal banquet.
Ashe, Arthur. “Send Your Children to the Libraries.” The Simon and Schuster Short Prose Reader, edited by Robert Funk, Susan X. Day, and Elizabeth McMahan, Prentice Hall, 1997, pp. 286–289.
Baker, James T. “How Do We Find the Student in a World of Academic Gymnasts and Worker Ants?” Muller and Wiener, pp. 316–319.
Funk, Robert, Susan X. Day, and Elizabeth McMahan, editors. The Simon and Schuster Short Prose Reader. 2nd ed., Prentice Hall, 2000.
Heat-Moon, William Least. “Wind.” Funk, Day, and McMahan, pp. 34–35.
Heilbroner, Robert. “Don’t Let Stereotypes Warp Your Judgments.” Neuleib, Cain, Ruffus, and Scharton, pp. 110–113.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Muller and Wiener, pp. 506–509.
Lantos, John. “Life and Death in Neonatal Intensive Care.” Muller and Wiener, pp. 350–355.
Muller, Gilbert H., and Harvey S. Wiener, editors. The Short Prose Reader. 10th ed., McGraw-Hill, 2003.
Neuleib, Janice, Kathleen Shine Cain, Stephen Ruffus, and Maurice Scharton, editors. The Mercury Reader: A Custom Publication (Hudson Valley Community College). Vol 2, Pearson, 2001.
Staples, Brent. “ʽJust Walk on By’: A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space.” Funk, Day, and McMahan, pp. 75–78.
Viorst, Judith. “Friends, Good Friends, and Such Good Friends.” Funk, Day, and McMahan, pp. 143–147.
Zinsser, William. “College Pressures.” Neuleib, Cain, Ruffus, and Scharton, pp. 308–16.