How to Start an Essay to Hook Your Reader

Perhaps the most difficult part of writing is the beginning.

Of course, if you were John, and you were writing what became the Bible, it was a little easier. He literally started at the beginning with:

“In the beginning was the Word.”

These few words have captivated people all over the world, no matter what their mother tongue is. But since you are not John, and those iconic words have already been taken, you’ll have to think of other hooks for essays.

A hook is the first sentence (or perhaps two) of your essay. It should not only introduce the work, but reel the readers in. Most people decide after reading just a few opening sentences whether it is worth continuing to read the essay or book. If you cannot hook your reader in the opening sentences, it’s a struggle to convince them that what is to come is of interest. You either have to be blatant and set out your stall in an obvious manner, or you can employ intrigue and curiosity. Obscure is good if it is enigmatic. Vague is unattractive and you’ll lose the reader who likes to know right off whether the text is of interest to them,

Here are some ideas on how to start an essay: what to do, and what not to do.

What not to do

Every year since 1983, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest invites people to compose bad opening lines to novels they have not written. The contest is in honour of the Victorian author, Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, who coined that opening:

“It was a dark and stormy night,…”

This year’s runner-up made me laugh out loud:

Let’s analyse this opening and draw some lessons on how not to start an essay from it.

  1. It’s way too long.

A sentence of 84 words is a sure-fire way to lose your reader. When people read, they need to pause to reflect on and absorb what they’re reading. By the time they get to the “marital odor-blending” end of this sentence, the reader has forgotten the beginning. Result = their attention strays.

  1. There are too many adjectives.

Simplicity in writing is the best hook. As Thomas Jefferson, former president of the United States of America, put it:

The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.

“Antique kerchief”, “old village custom” and best of all “baggy loose panty” are examples in the Bulwer-Lytton Contest runner up category where one word would have sufficed. Don’t bog your reader down in unnecessary adjectives that stop of the rhythm of the text.

  1. Avoid duplication

In the howler of an opening above, the words “baggy” and “loose” mean the same thing. Keep in mind that there are many doublets and triplets (words that mean the same thing) that use without thinking. Here is just one example:

“each and every person”.

  1. Too much information

Similar to what we said above, most readers can only digest a certain amount of information in one go. What are your thoughts on this hook?

“I was at dinner with Frank and Stephanie and Philip and Rudy and Janet and Curtis, and Curtis said something about quiche.”

If you said there are too many names, I agree with you. The problem here is You can’t put seven names at the beginning of an essay. It’s too much for the reader to absorb. From this simple example, we can extrapolate that you should limit the amount of information on any topic that you are writing about.

  1. Use the language of your audience

Many writers completely change their tone and register as soon as they put pen to paper, in the mistaken belief that to be taken seriously you must write big words.

As the poet William Butler Yeats said:

Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.

How many people say “kerchief” or “odor-blending” or even the word “whilst” in spoken language? Don’t go for pretentious words when you can use simple words. Your audience is what matters; and they want to read something that is reader-friendly.

Here’s how to start an essay the right way

  • Use an appropriate literary or famous person quote

There are many excellent sites on the internet that offer collections of quotes, some of which are categorised by theme. They are quite easy to look up and scroll through. Using a concise thought-provokingliterary quote as hooks for essays can serve as a tantalising way of reeling in your reader, but make sure it is relevant. Don’t just take the first quote; you may have to do quite a bit of searching until you find one that is on point.

For example, if you are writing an essay about fishing, you could start your essay with this quote by the great American adventure story writer, Pearl Zane Grey, writing at the turn of last century:

If I fished only to catch fish, my fishing trips would have ended long ago.

It’s got all the elements of a good hook: it fits the subject matter, is short, written simply and makes the reader think.

But now let’s consider this quote:

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.

Written by Mark Twain, one of the most renowned authors for his pithy quotes, it also measures up to the standards of simple words, a short sentence and offers food for thought. In theory, it’s a great quote. It seems a reasonable step for how to start a paper.

But it fails miserably if used in a fishing story, as it is totally off point. You might capture your reader with this quote, but once she realises your story is about fishing and unrelated to the quote, she will switch off.

Apply the same criteria to any quote you use by a famous person when deciding how to start an essay. Although Nelson Mandela is beloved the world over and his quotes very memorable and wise, using this quote for a fishing story won’t cut it for the same reason as above.

Death is something inevitable.

It’s just not relevantunless your essay is about someone who died fishing, and even then, dying while fishing is not inevitable. Quotes from famous people are also useful to support an argument you are going to make in an essay. Once again, make sure they are relevant but also that the famous person is someone who your audience will relate to. Hitler had some memorable quotes, for example, but it would be a very bad idea to use one unless it relates directly to an essay on Nazi Germany or autocratic, genocidal leaders.

  • Start with something personal

This can be a very arresting way of starting an essay, provided your essay allows for writing in the first person. Assuming it does, ambush is a great way to start an essay. For example:

I had no idea I had a malignant tumour.

While the subject matter is grim, the way it is introduced catches the reader off guard and will probably entice him to read further.

If you are good at writing humour, that’s also a great way to start. But make sure it really is funny. It may just be funny to you. Try it out on a friend or family member first.

  • Ask a question

A well-constructed question, that introduces the reader to the essay, is a great technique to use as opening sentences in an essay. Choose something that will make your readers think, and want to find out more. Avoid simple “Yes” or “No” questions.

Imagine you need to figure out how to start a paper on mental health. This might be a good question hook to start with:

Do people with schizophrenia deserve to live among us?

Conclusion

Deciding on the best hook for an essay can’t be done quickly. We recommend you try out a few different options, and perhaps consult someone else about which works best. In all cases, keep in mind the basic principles of relevance and appropriateness. Also, keep it short and simple.

Remember, you don’t have to be offensive, controversial or rude to hook a reader. Let’s remind ourselves of the longevity of the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night …”. It may seem cliché, even tame by today’s love of sensationalism, but nearly two hundred years after it was first used, it remains the standard example for a classic opening that never fails to illustrate the ways to start an essay.

Categories: Essay writing tips

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