by Chad Burchett, Editor in Chief of SLAM
Hooks are meant to bait the reader, but why do writers so often get pricked in the process? Here are three simple ideas for starting that next essay off without the wounds of a waywardly cast opening line.
Don’t even try to start the introduction. Too often, writers seek to introduce their introduction, losing readers’ interest somewhere around the third or fourth sentence. Instead, start emphatically—perhaps with your research question or problem. Cut the build-up and get straight to the heart of the matter. Your reader does not need a string of giddy generalizations to ease into the topic. Begin where you began your research: with the issue or problem that got you started. Open with your research question in question form or pose your research problem and make the reader ache for a solution. Borrow an insight from narrative writers and start in medias res (in the midst of things), plunging your reader right into the very marrow of your research.
Unfortunately, writers often assume their readers to be ignorant, providing a lurching prelude to what is merely common knowledge or at least a common question or issue. Presume upon the reader’s general intelligence and move on to the issue or problem at hand, expecting readers to find sufficient orientation to your topic in the research question, problem, and literature review you offer them.
2) Use an Epigraph
If, however, you discover that your topic warrants a prelude before you plunge into the midst of things (often due to the obscurity or specialization of your topic), then consider employing the oft-overlooked epigraph. Although epigrams (pithy quips) may be useful in an argument and epitaphs (tombstone inscriptions) in a eulogy, epigraphs may be just what you need to start your introduction. Epigraphs—short quotations at the beginning of a written work which allude to the theme of the work—usually serve at least three purposes:
- First, they can orient the reader to the conversation surrounding your topic by bringing in a scholarly voice or perspective or by alluding to your thesis.
- Second, they can narrow the focus of your opening lines so that you don’t have to do literary gymnastics contorting unwieldy prelude sentences into the funnel of your introduction.
- Third, they can entice readers and pre-dispose them to entertain your topic and argument by catching readers’ attention with select prose—perfectly tailored for your essay.
In addition to their versatility and functionality, epigraphs possess excellent visual appeal, transforming blocky introductions into—dare one say—elegant ones. All around, epigraphs provide a striking alternative to the unremarkable prose commonly found in the opening lines of introductions (See Turabian 9th edition, 184.108.40.206).
3) Wound with an Anecdote
In research writing, writers participate in a problem/solution genre, meaning the thesis they argue should solve a lingering problem or move toward a resolution of some contemporary issue. Sometimes the research problem writers are addressing seems clear to them but foggy to their readers. This fogginess often results from research problems that seem to be solving a theoretical issue. What readers need is to be shown how desperate, pernicious, and unacceptable the problem actually is. Writers must find an effective way to animate the research problem in their introductory paragraphs. Perhaps the best way is to rehearse the problem in real-life anecdotes that illustrate how painful life will be until the problem is solved.
Prominent new historicist, Stephen Greenblatt, devotes paragraphs of his introductions to anecdotes, making them a distinctive part of his literary style. Although you need not be as prolix as Greenblatt, learn to narrate a contemporary problem and introduce your argument by helping readers feel the need for your solution. If writing on non-violence, recount snapshots of ongoing wars or genocides or public/police tensions. If writing on Felski’s postcritical approach to literature, narrate two different reading experiences: the traditional experience and the experience produced by Felski’s approach. If writing on the lack of spiritual vitality in how protestants observe the ordinances, then rehearse how the scenes are different when a protestant takes communion and when a more sacramental worshiper takes communion. The point is to help readers feel the societal wounds inflicted on them by the research problem. An introductory paragraph that succeeds in exposing wounds not only bypasses sentences of unnecessary explanation but also jumps straight into the essay and instantly snares the readers’ attention.
Instead of starting that next essay off with a statistic or sprawling remark or generalizing introduction to your introduction, consider starting in one of the three ways I just outlined. These three approaches have become invaluable to me as I repeatedly seek to sidestep the nauseating problem of navigating those first few opening lines. In his magnum opus, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that “it’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.” So, start with confidence, having learned to never again dread those opening lines of your essay.
Chad is the Editor in Chief of SLAM and a graduate of C@SE who majored in English and theology and who is currently pursuing an Adv. MDiv and an MA in biblical and theological studies at SEBTS. He hopes to employ his love for writing and his delight in theology to edify the church and evangelize the nations. Chad desires to magnify the beauty and supremacy of Christ through well-crafted art and vivid literature. He enjoys helping others develop their passions and skills with excellence so that the excellencies of Christ might be luminously displayed through them.