Deanna Babcock, consultant
Throughout history, students have continuously used generic opening sentences in their essays. Teachers continue seeing papers with the same types of openings again and again and, despite any attempts to change students’ habits, they keep cropping up. A likely reason is that students are being told to avoid certain sentences in their introductions (if they are told at all) without being taught what to do instead.
There are a number of phrases that can begin an assigned paper, but are ineffective, too general, or just plain boring. An example of this is, in fact, “throughout history…”
Here are some other phrases you should avoid:
- “Since the beginning of time/history/mankind…”
- “Everyone/we all…”
- “So and so dictionary defines ____ as…”
These phrases are very broad and essentially ‘empty,’ and your instructor will likely see them as having no important value to your paper. They are also very general and start off the topic too broadly. If you are writing about different dog breeds, defining either the term “dog” or “breed” is unnecessary and does nothing for your essay. Telling us that “dogs have existed since the beginning of time” is not necessarily true and is also vague and pointless, and saying “we all love dogs” or “everyone has a favorite dog breed” can isolate readers who are not dog fans and cause them to lose interest.
Clichés are best avoided, as their meanings are abstract and likely will not add anything to your ideas, especially at the very beginning of the paper. “All that glitters is not gold” is a common saying, but is so common that it would be too general to start a paper with. Use your own words instead to be original and express your individual ideas. If you’re not sure, check here for more examples of cliches.
So what should you do instead? There are other ways of starting an essay that avoid these general phrases and cut straight to the point while still grabbing your reader’s attention. Here are some other ways to start your paper:
Start straight off with your topic.
Not a general idea, but the specifics. If you are writing about the themes of a novel, your readers do not need to know much, if any, background information on the author or the novel itself. Briefly discuss your specific subject, paving a clear path for your thesis statement and the rest of your paper.
General: “There are many different breeds of dogs.”
Specific: “Knowing the difference between dog breeds can help pet owners and shelter workers do what is best for each dog.”
Figure out the scope of your paper.
What can you realistically address in terms of time, place, and audience? You will likely never write a paper that requires you to address everything about your subject “since the beginning of time.” It would also be simpler to discuss a smaller scope than the entire world (think countries, states, even cities), and to address an audience who might actually be interested in or have reason to read about your topic. If you are writing about a recent issue, your audience likely does not need to understand the entire history of the issue to understand your stance on it.
General: “We should all consider the issue of poverty throughout the world/throughout history.”
Specific: “Legislators should consider the current problems facing those in poverty in the city of ___ when creating new laws.”
Begin with a rhetorical question.
Keep the question open so it could not be answered with a simple yes or no. Ask something that the audience should not already have the answer to; the question indicates what you plan to answer in your essay. It should also be something that you are able to answer. If you only have 5 pages, you should not tackle a question about how to solve world hunger, but you could address a smaller issue related to hunger problems.
General: “How can we solve world hunger?”
Specific: “What can we do about widespread hunger in so-and-so city/state/country?”
Additionally, these questions could be phrased as statements, where the question is implied rather than directly asked. These create a question in the reader’s mind that can be assumed to have an answer provided.
General: “There are several ways we could go about solving the problem of world hunger.”
Specific: “The hunger problem in ____ can be dealt with, if we…”
There are a number of other ways to begin an introduction; these are certainly not the only ones. Keep in mind that your first sentence should spark the reader’s attention and make him or her want to continue reading, and remain as close to your topic as possible.
For more tips on beginning a paper, check out the University of Louisville Writing Center’s handout on introductions. The UNC Writing Center’s page on introductions is another good resource.
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