The Cookbook Continues—Opening Hooks for Essays

Over the last three weeks, I’ve written about the essay research phase, the essay writing phase, and the essay editing phase. This week, it’s time to focus on opening hooks for essays.

If you are striving for an A+, a catchy opening hook can help get you the grade.

The more time you have for grooming your essay opening, the more opportunity you have to make the right choice. Ideally, you’ll want your opening hook to indicate why the thesis is important or what the background is. Again, the key is to start your essay research on the very first day it’s assigned—and work on the essay for at least an hour or more a day until it’s ready to be submitted.

We all love recipes for success, so how about one for essay openings? But this one is less of a recipe and more of a smorgasbord.

The only ingredients needed for this recipe are an imagination, computer, a news article database, and an essay in progress, preferably on the first or later full draft. Optional are books on academic writing. Here are four I love to recommend: Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing, Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science, any book by Roy Stuart Clark, and, if you want to inject humor into your introduction, Joe Toplyn’s Comedy Writing for Late Night TV .

Here are a variety of hooks with which to open your paper:

  • Start with an interesting or startling statistic or fact. For instance, for a paper on children from divorced families, you could say, “Over 80% of convicts are from broken homes.” (I’m not sure of the exact statistic.) Just make sure you cite the source in your paper.
  • Provide a funny anecdote. An anecdote is a story, preferably one you cite. (Only use personal anecdotes in opinion papers or presentations, never in a formal essay, unless your prof grants you permission.) You’ll want to end your anecdote, if it’s a funny one, with words containing the following sounds: b, p, d, t, k, g. These are the funniest sounding letters, with k being the most hilarious. And placing words with these letters at the end of your sentence makes them pop.
  • Provide a serious anecdote. For anecdotes, you can search news stories for something that might be relevant, and weave that story in a one to three sentence opener. For instance, if your article is about the day the war ended, search news stories for that exact date to find a story that might reveal the state of the times. Or if your story is about a topic, such as childhood cancers, search news stories about childhood cancer. You’ll likely come up with a compelling, touching story from a young cancer survivor.
  • On the flipside, you can open with a joke, but use this sparingly, or ask your prof if it’s workable. For instance, you could write, “What strategy do stock traders and farmers have in common? Nail and bail. A study on Dirty Thirties successful farmers who shorted the stock market demonstrates how a falling market can churn out millionaires.”
  • Ask a rhetorical question. Rhetorical questions are not really questions. They are meant to make an indisputable or dramatic point. Here’s an example of a rhetorical question: “Do divorcees intend to harm—even kill—their children? Statistically, divorce spikes the risk of childhood suicide.”
  • You can debunk a popular belief. For example, “The trend in psychology is to use ‘I-statements’ to lessen the blow of arguments. Despite this trend, I-statements are still conflictual, however nicely couched they may appear.”
  • A short startling statement can open your essay: “Once a child is born, divorce is nothing short of criminal.”
  • Start with a quote. An ideal quote to use is from a leading-edge thinker on your topic, perhaps your best quote you’ve found in your research: “According to Maneault, an expert on childhood psychology …”. Just make sure the quote leads in nicely to your thesis statement. And be sure to include the citation. (You can also search news story related to your essay topic to find a compelling direct quote.)

Once you write the opening hook, then provide a sentence to three on both the background behind the topic and the context on why the topic is important. Follow-up with your thesis statement. And that’s your opening.

But how do you end your paper with a punch? That’s another page in the Cookbook.

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