Writing Effective (and Requisite) Essay Openers

When we write for college courses, we write for an audience other than ourselves. And it's an audience of more than one-the professor who assigned the piece. A good way to think of (and never forget) audience is to imagine we are writing the assignment for a popular magazine that sits in multiple copies on the shelves of an equally popular bookstore. For each magazine sold, pretend, we get a percentage.

Our goal, then, is to have as large and widespread a readership as possible-to hook as many browsers as we can-with an effective opener (also known as an introduction). We therefore must engage, first, before we entertain, educate, or inform.

First the Caveats and Comments on Ineffective (Bad) Openers

NO to SNORE openers ? Forget burdening or alienating your readers with comments of how many people in many countries have many different ideas about life and society and all those other blah, blah, blah hard-to-wrap-the-brain-around opening commentaries?which really just send the reader off to find a more intriguing read.

NO to OBVIOUS ? Similar to the snore generalizations, the obvious comments in an opener will have eyes (if not heads) rolling as readers take in the TV is mental masturbation or ads are used to manipulate us statements you can avoid--by using an old Marshall McCluhan quote or Cleo awards description, for example, instead.

NO to HYPERBOLE ? Putting myself through school as a waitress, I had a number of regular customers who were writers, too, they said. They would talk at me all through my shift, reciting their best work. One insisted on reiterating his description of the verdant rolling hills that kissed the edges of the glistening waters at the feet of the majestic span of the Golden Gate Bridge?until I would get so mental I would fantasize about bringing the heft of the glistening glass coffee pot screaming down onto his head. In other words, do not exaggerate. Do not bring in heavy drama and description that will overwhelm and, again, alienate your readers. Stick with the truth. Stick with the openers that work.

We Use Modes for Engaging Openers...and I'm going to Use One Here, Out of Necessity...and Spite

I once read a how-to article on web content writing, on making a site that brings traffic (the attention of many). I had already begrudgingly given in to the understanding that web content writing is very different than academic writing--it has different goals, different audiences, and different elements that lend themselves to an 'A' piece of writing. In fact, it is so different that to write for the web we have to unravel all we have worked to weave, have to unlearn all we have learned as college English writers.

Don't Confuse Web Content/Writing and Academic Writing

So the writer of this article says to start web copy you skip the opener and go directly to the main point (what we in academia know as the thesis). Okay. This made sense, I thought, as web readers read differently: they read fast, they skim, they scan, they skip...to draw the most usable info in the shortest amount of time. (Probably the way you are reading now, hoping I get on with the point).

-I was with Mr. Web when he explained these facts.

-I was with him as he noted the research findings that back up the rationale for sacrificing good academic exposition for web text.

-And I was there with his tips and tricks, which were great...until he went too far, editorializing about writers who actually use openers:

He claimed that writers who rely on openers don't have "the courage" to just get to the point. So he lost me.

Don't Let Anyone Shame Your Learning Writing Tricks

We can adapt to just about any rhetorical style. We can adjust our notions of what makes for good writing. But we should balk when a how-to writer insults other methods of writing. We should even disregard implications of cowardice as unnecessary ad hominem attacks. False attacks. Fallacious and floppy and frivolous teaching. Screw that.

Readers of Academic Essay Writing Appreciate (even Prefer) a Good Opener

Openers in academic writing, whether in a creatively developed literary response or a historical survey, are imperative. They are a gentler way of drawing in, luring our readers. They are at first quite challenging to get right, but our mastering them--which is possible--has nothing to do with courage, which comes from the French word, "coeur," heart. We have plenty of heart. We're studying English, for hell sake.

Against my wishes, then, this page opens with a declaration and gets right to the point. At first. But it also has a "grabber" slipped in--because we're looking at grabbers and because, well, I can't help it. I want to model decent prose for you.

Samples of Effective Essay Openers by Mode/Type

Even better, I'll share with you some samples, written by my former students (who have granted permission for the use of their work as models):

****People Love Stories. We Love to Tell Stories. The Narrative Opener:

Once upon a time, during the era of slavery, whites were afraid of blacks, and the "word" was born. That's why someone came up with the "word." Two hundred years later around my sister's house, the children still use this "word". Sometimes I even hear myself say this "word." But guess what? I check myself and correct myself, because when you use the "word" to address someone, no matter who you are or what color you are, it is totally disrespectful.

The word: "nigger". (1)

****To Establish Credibility, Try a Sober, Scholarly Introduction. The Statistics/Facts Opener:

By the age of forty-four, 47 percent of American women will have had an abortion. (Day 6) To describe this statistic as anything other than a tragedy is to deny the sanctity of human life. The Christian abortion debate rests upon the moral and theological dimension[s] of this issue. To examine the moral dimensions of abortion without examining the social realm is to ignore the mutually dependent relationship that surrounds this debate. (2)

****Appealing to the Senses Lures and Keeps Readers Interested. The Descriptive Opener:

Rain is pelting my car relentlessly as I drive home from [XXX] College. Cars rushing on the freeway cause the water on the pavement to burst into a fine mist, surrounding each and every vehicle with a billowing sheet of opaqueness. Finally, I arrive in front of my little two-bedroom home. With a sigh of relief, I enter my living room.

Lately, this house has turned into a haven of safety, sheltering me as much from nature's elements as from the unpredictable and unprovoked malevolence I experience from one of my instructors. My dread is heightened by the fact that I appear to be the primary recipient of this teacher's outbursts of viciousness. Slowly, my gaze shifts across the room and comes to rest on the play I have to read for my English class. It is Mamet's Oleanna. I pick up the book and soon find myself drawn into the story. Quickly, it becomes clear to me that this play [deals with] the relationship between a teacher (John) and his student (Carol). While both characters show evidence of an interesting variety of behaviors, John mesmerizes me to a greater degree. I begin to wonder whether John displays symptoms of an underlying psychological disorder. (3)

Put the Readers in the Frame, Inside the Paper. The Direct Address Opener:

You are in the midst of a blazing inferno. Your mind is moving at the speed of light. Yet you are paralyzed by fear. The silence is deafening between the confinement of the four walls. You are no longer in control. You wonder how the communication between the members of the family has ceased, specifically between Mother and Father. Each passing day, only silence can be heard. The usual chatter at the dinner table is considerably lessened. It comes down to, "Pass the corn, please." Or one excusing oneself from the table. (4)

Advance Trust, Establish Authority from the Start. The Authoritative Quote Opener:

"Generations of students have studied calculus without ever seeing its power." This statement is found in an article by K.C. Cole titled, "Bringing Calculus Down to Earth," from The Los Angeles Times. I most certainly agree with Cole. At one point earlier in the course of the class (calculus), I was not sure about the use of calculus and the importance of it. Others like me, such as friends, felt the same way. For this reason, I would assume, I am doing this research. This research is for students like myself to realize that "there is something about calculus," as Cole states in the article.... (5)

Keep with the Traditional "Show, Don't Tell" Lesson. The Example Opener:

Sex is great. To me, it is all about feelings and experiences--the feeling of flesh against flesh, the experience of orgasm after orgasm. Sometimes, even, there is that feeling of being special, wanted, and loved. I suppose my parents had sex. It is not really an image I like to bring to mind. But when my father has sex with someone other than my mom, how am I supposed to feel then? (6)

Engage by Asking for the Readers' Opinion and Thoughtful Participation. The Profound Rhetorical Question Opener:

Is the play, True West, written by actor/writer Sam Shepard, a sublimation of his own sibling rivalry or a rationalization of one? He writes of two brothers who are equal in intelligence but opposite in character. The older brother lives by his wit and the younger by his pen. In his unique style, Shepard uses many symbols describing the keen emotions that make up these two brothers. He also uses metaphors that reel you, the audience, into the depths of anger, pain, and the reality of life.... (7)

Finally, the Encouragement of Effective (Good) Openers

YES to APPROPRIATE introductory material. That is, use an opener that is relevant to your essay topic. Use an opener that fits the material. For example, a definition of alcoholism (which might work if you were writing a book) might be too clumsy for a cause and effect paper studying the influences of alcoholism on the family.

YES to APT openers. Do the modes that you are best at writing. And do what you best like doing. Write what works for you, your audience, and your assignment.

YES, modes overlap. A narrative opener will have descriptive details. A quote may be combined with statistics and facts. But instead of tripping on what the exact boundaries are between modes or types of writing passages, focus on the specifics of one type of opener as you understand it. The rest will be bonus material that merely enhances your style.

And YES to engaging, alluring introductions that lead your readers in to the place where your thesis/opinion sits waiting to declare your bold, informed truths. Which should never be denied or neglected?any more than your audience should be.

End Notes

(1) Bronson, A. "The Word."

(2) Roncella, L. "Judging Abortion."

(3) Prince, U. "Who Cares? [A Study of Oleanna]"

(4) Tolosa, W. "Dark silence."

(5) Pham, D. "Calculus as a Necessary Tool."

(6) Guiterrez, R. "Dad, Why Cheat?"

(7) Stark, C. "[...a Study of the Psychology of True West]."

N.H.-born prize-winning poet, creative nonfiction writer, memoirist, and award-winning Assoc. Prof. of English, Roxanne is also web content and freelance writer/founder of http://www.roxannewrites.com, a support site for academic, memoir, mental disability, and creative writers who need a nudge, a nod, or just ideas?of which Roxanne has 1,000s, so do stop in for a visit, as this sentence can't possibly get any longer??.

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