?Let’s start at the very beginning,? Julie Andrews warbles in The Sound of Music, telling the von Trapp children that It’s ?a very good place to start.? And in the academic writing world, whether You’re putting together your first university paper or creating your doctoral thesis, the beginning is always, always a very good place to start.
Unfortunately, It’s often left until the last minute?or overlooked entirely?at the expense of the entire written work.
A good, strong opening paragraph is crucial to a cohesive paper or essay. In some ways it is the most important part of your paper since it sets the tone for the rest and provides both you and your audience with an outline of what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. It is the first time your audience will see not only your writing style but also the structure and quality of your arguments.
What should a good introductory paragraph look like? Many describe an opening paragraph as a road map to the rest of the essay, and That’s an excellent model to follow. A strong introduction should introduce the topic, flowing from general to specific; describe the argument; and outline the steps (analysis) that will prove that argument.
The style should reflect the nature, tone, and content of your paper, so while an opening paragraph has elements of an outline, it shouldn’t read like one. ?First I will do this. Then I will do this? is a good outline strategy, but an opening paragraph should be interesting and engaging, looking to argument strength and sentence variation to make it stand out.
But don’t get too hung up on creating the perfect ?hook,? either. Engaging your reader is important, but a flashy lead-in is unnecessary (and diminishes your argument). Instead, focus on creating a good link between the reader and the topic or argument, keeping the tone even and professional. As one former English teacher I know puts it, ?don’t overdo it. You’re not selling used cars, You’re writing a paper.?
The best time to start writing the opening paragraph is, well, the beginning. While some advocate holding off until later in the writing process, making the introductory paragraph your very first task offers benefits that you’ll miss if you skip the introduction and move directly to the rest of the essay.
When You’re ready to write your essay, you should have a good idea of what you want to say, but you may be less clear about how to get it out of your head and onto the paper (or screen). Forcing yourself to summarize everything into a single paragraph is an invaluable exercise that will require you to organize your ideas?crucial to a cohesive paper. It will also provide you with a good plan to guide you through the structure of your paper. You’ll be grateful when you get to argument number three and aren’t sure in which direction you should be heading.
When you’ve completed writing out your analysis and arguments, It’s always worth a second look at your introductory paragraph. Frequently you’ll find that your approach has shifted slightly, whether in terms of argument or analysis. If your opening paragraph is no longer an accurate road map to your essay, then go back and revise it?even if You’re technically ready to write your conclusion.
The opening paragraph is an introduction not just to your paper but to your argument. Keep it concise, cohesive, and even, and make sure it reflects your argument, analysis, and the main point You’re trying to get across. If your opening paragraph lays out your argument in an understandable, engaging, and informative way you won’t need anything else to keep your audience reading.
The first of our popular column “The Writer’s Toolbox” was originally published in the November 01, 2013 issue (no. 41) shortly after I became the editor. It holds a special place for me as Christina was my first “new” writer and one of my best editors for my own writing. I was very excited to know that she’d be sharing her knowledge with the entire AU student body. Observant readers may note that this reprint uses the current column graphic rather than the very odd picture I’d initially selected for the column. Call it part of my learning curve.