How To Start Writing My Essay

The writer of the academic essay aims to persuade readers of an idea based on evidence. The beginning of the essay is a crucial first step in this process. In order to engage readers and establish your authority, the beginning of your essay has to accomplish certain business. Your beginning should introduce the essay, focus it, and orient readers.

Introduce the Essay.The beginning lets your readers know what the essay is about, the topic. The essay's topic does not exist in a vacuum, however; part of letting readers know what your essay is about means establishing the essay's context, the frame within which you will approach your topic. For instance, in an essay about the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, the context may be a particular legal theory about the speech right; it may be historical information concerning the writing of the amendment; it may be a contemporary dispute over flag burning; or it may be a question raised by the text itself. The point here is that, in establishing the essay's context, you are also limiting your topic. That is, you are framing an approach to your topic that necessarily eliminates other approaches. Thus, when you determine your context, you simultaneously narrow your topic and take a big step toward focusing your essay. Here's an example.

When Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening was published in 1899, critics condemned the book as immoral. One typical critic, writing in the Providence Journal, feared that the novel might "fall into the hands of youth, leading them to dwell on things that only matured persons can understand, and promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires" (150). A reviewer in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch wrote that "there is much that is very improper in it, not to say positively unseemly."

The paragraph goes on. But as you can see, Chopin's novel (the topic) is introduced in the context of the critical and moral controversy its publication engendered.

Focus the Essay. Beyond introducing your topic, your beginning must also let readers know what the central issue is. What question or problem will you be thinking about? You can pose a question that will lead to your idea (in which case, your idea will be the answer to your question), or you can make a thesis statement. Or you can do both: you can ask a question and immediately suggest the answer that your essay will argue. Here's an example from an essay about Memorial Hall.

Further analysis of Memorial Hall, and of the archival sources that describe the process of building it, suggests that the past may not be the central subject of the hall but only a medium. What message, then, does the building convey, and why are the fallen soldiers of such importance to the alumni who built it? Part of the answer, it seems, is that Memorial Hall is an educational tool, an attempt by the Harvard community of the 1870s to influence the future by shaping our memory of their times. The commemoration of those students and graduates who died for the Union during the Civil War is one aspect of this alumni message to the future, but it may not be the central idea.

The fullness of your idea will not emerge until your conclusion, but your beginning must clearly indicate the direction your idea will take, must set your essay on that road. And whether you focus your essay by posing a question, stating a thesis, or combining these approaches, by the end of your beginning, readers should know what you're writing about, and why—and why they might want to read on.

Orient Readers. Orienting readers, locating them in your discussion, means providing information and explanations wherever necessary for your readers' understanding. Orienting is important throughout your essay, but it is crucial in the beginning. Readers who don't have the information they need to follow your discussion will get lost and quit reading. (Your teachers, of course, will trudge on.) Supplying the necessary information to orient your readers may be as simple as answering the journalist's questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why. It may mean providing a brief overview of events or a summary of the text you'll be analyzing. If the source text is brief, such as the First Amendment, you might just quote it. If the text is well known, your summary, for most audiences, won't need to be more than an identifying phrase or two:

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's tragedy of `star-crossed lovers' destroyed by the blood feud between their two families, the minor characters . . .

Often, however, you will want to summarize your source more fully so that readers can follow your analysis of it.

Questions of Length and Order. How long should the beginning be? The length should be proportionate to the length and complexity of the whole essay. For instance, if you're writing a five-page essay analyzing a single text, your beginning should be brief, no more than one or two paragraphs. On the other hand, it may take a couple of pages to set up a ten-page essay.

Does the business of the beginning have to be addressed in a particular order? No, but the order should be logical. Usually, for instance, the question or statement that focuses the essay comes at the end of the beginning, where it serves as the jumping-off point for the middle, or main body, of the essay. Topic and context are often intertwined, but the context may be established before the particular topic is introduced. In other words, the order in which you accomplish the business of the beginning is flexible and should be determined by your purpose.

Opening Strategies.There is still the further question of how to start. What makes a good opening? You can start with specific facts and information, a keynote quotation, a question, an anecdote, or an image. But whatever sort of opening you choose, it should be directly related to your focus. A snappy quotation that doesn't help establish the context for your essay or that later plays no part in your thinking will only mislead readers and blur your focus. Be as direct and specific as you can be. This means you should avoid two types of openings:

  • The history-of-the-world (or long-distance) opening, which aims to establish a context for the essay by getting a long running start: "Ever since the dawn of civilized life, societies have struggled to reconcile the need for change with the need for order." What are we talking about here, political revolution or a new brand of soft drink? Get to it.
  • The funnel opening (a variation on the same theme), which starts with something broad and general and "funnels" its way down to a specific topic. If your essay is an argument about state-mandated prayer in public schools, don't start by generalizing about religion; start with the specific topic at hand.

Remember. After working your way through the whole draft, testing your thinking against the evidence, perhaps changing direction or modifying the idea you started with, go back to your beginning and make sure it still provides a clear focus for the essay. Then clarify and sharpen your focus as needed. Clear, direct beginnings rarely present themselves ready-made; they must be written, and rewritten, into the sort of sharp-eyed clarity that engages readers and establishes your authority.

Copyright 1999, Patricia Kain, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

By Scott Berkun, Aug. 28 2006 (#54)

Writing is easy, it’s quality that’s hard. Any idiot who knows 5 words can write a sentence (e.g. “Dufus big much Scott is”). It might be without grammar, broken, or inaccurate but it is still writing. This means when people can’t start they’re likely imagining the polished precision of the finished work. That vision makes the clumsy junkyard that all beginnings must be, impossible to accept. While it’s true that good voice, tone, rhythm, ideas and grammar are essential to good writing, they’re never introduced all at once. I promise you, the first draft of Strunk and White didn’t follow Strunk and White. The secret, if you can’t start, is to begin without constraints. Deliberately write badly, but write.

For this reason writer’s block is a sham. Anyone who wrote yesterday can write today, it’s just a question of if they can do it to their own satisfaction. It’s not the fear of writing that blocks people, it’s fear of not writing well; something quite different. Certainly every writer has moments of doubt, but the way out is to properly frame what’s going on, and writer’s block, as commonly misunderstood, is a red herring.

Consider this: Have you ever been blocked while playing Frisbee? Eating doughnuts? Dancing naked in your living room? Those are joyful things and there’s nothing at stake: if you fail, who cares? Nobody. If there are no rules, and no judgment, psychological blocks are impossible. And remember writers like making up names and overthinking things: there is no term for architect-block, painter-block, juggler-block or composer-block. Every creative pursuit faces similar pressures, but they don’t obsess about it the way writers seem to do.

So play. Loosen up. Smile. Break the framework that’s making it impossible to start. Forget the deadline and the assignment and just be an open mind with a pen. Remember that until you say you’re finished, you can break all the rules. If you can’t get started, your psychology is making the challenge bigger than you can handle. Thinking of the book, the chapter, the page, the paragraph, is all too big if while you’re thinking, the page remains blank. Like a weightlifter out of his class, a writer with a blank page needs to lighten the load.

Writing hacks for starting

In the grand tradition of lists and books of hacks, writing hacks are clever little actions that give you leverage and put the dynamics in your favor. Here in part 1 it’s all about how to start.

Start with a word. The first goal is to get one word on the page. It can be any word, but you have to choose it, and put it down. I’m partial to the ridiculous[1], so for me it’s often Papaya, Pomegranate or Throat-warbler-man-grove (If you’re thinking that’s not a word, go back two paragraphs). If one word was easy, go for two. Still feeling lucky? Go for a small sentence. It doesn’t matter what the words are, but get them down. Write the lyrics to the song on the radio, the names of people you’ve slept with, your favorite Dr. Seuss lines, it just doesn’t matter. Once all the magic muscles in your little fingers get going, you’ll soon find yourself, in between rounds of one fish blue fish, writing some intelligent things. If your energy fades, repeat. Return to the unit of writing anyone can do, and build up again.

Write about how it feels not to be able to write. It’s sneaky, but damn, this works every time. The voice in our heads is always saying something, so put it down. Writer-weenies call this free writing, implying something unfortunate about other kinds of writing, but I find it easier to think of as listening. Imagine yourself as a recording device, writing down the radio broadcast of some other person who happens to live in your head. If you think this is weird, write about why it’s weird (See: you can’t lose – there’s always a way). Eventually your mind will hit thoughts on the topic itself and, presto, you’re on your way.

Have a conversation. Since you can’t get “converse with a friend” block, call up your buddy and talk. Get their opinions on whatever you’re writing, or throw them a bit of yours. Take notes about the conversation. Guess what? You’ve started writing. Friends are too busy? Go to a café or bar. I’ve found that if you tell bartenders you’re a writer, after they stop laughing, they’ll happily chat and occasionally give you free drinks. In a pinch, or if you’re a loner, talk with your dog. No dog? Create an imaginary friend (or three). Perhaps I’m insane, but I talk to myself all the time, and sometimes I even like the answers. If you know a writer friend, be writer buddies, available by phone to help each other get started.

Read something you hate. Opinions come easy to me, but some days I’m as indifferent as the wind. To get started I’ll read things that I can’t stand, express opinions in violent opposition to mine[2] and, when pressed, are written so poorly my eyes burn straight through the pages. A paragraph of outstanding tripe is intellectual smelling salts. It puts me on my feet, sticking and jabbing like Muhammad Ali, raving and ranting on the page. I can rarely use those first rant-laden riffs, but it puts me in the ring. Sometimes its love you need, so go to your masters: Emerson, Fitzgerald, Orwell, King, get your nose into whoever’s writing get you jazzed. Writers often write about writing[3], a trick few arts can follow; so reflective motivation from writers is easy to find.

Warm up. Do you imagine Olympic sprinters wake up and immediately sprint around the house? Of course not (unless they drank too much the night before). No one performs well without easing muscles and emotions into place. And everyone warms up differently. Sometimes responding to e-mail works because hey, that’s a kind of writing. Or type the alphabet forwards and backwards. Maybe revise something old and unfinished to get warm. My ritual is to type in quotes from good books I’ve read to get the fingers in rhythm and my mind thinking good writer thoughts. More exercises here and here.

Make lists. Nonfiction often starts for me as bulleted lists. I imagine what things the finished work would answer, how it would do it and I write it down. Not that I know how to fill them, but what might good section headings be? List making is never as threatening as “writing”, so go there first (There is no shopping list block, is there?). I kick the list around for awhile, changing, moving, shuffling, and then once it has critical mass, I put in a document and go. And I’m always ready to leave the list, and my plan behind, if I find a sweet spot: the list is a tool, not a contract. I have dozens of essay ideas in various states of list form, in a Moleskine, slowly growing until they’re ready.

Switch to something harder. My wife is an artist, and for years she’s worked on two paintings at the same time, switching between them. Why? When she’s hit a wall on one project, the second project is a godsend: it’s an escape that’s still productive. I use this hack as follows: when stuck on project A, including not being able to start, I’ll joyfully switch to project B, thinking I’m pulling one over (on myself of course, but even the idiocy of self-delusion is tolerable to the acid misery of returning to A). But 20 minutes later when I hit a wall on Project B, a wall that, by comparison, seems like the Maginot line, I’m more than happy to return to A, even if it’s a blank page. I’ve forgotten A’s particular horrors, and jump in, possibly over the hurdle that seemed impossible before.

Run like hell. I can’t write if my body isn’t happy and my body feels happy when it has been used: it likes to run or lift or almost anything. So think physical: let your body get out the stresses that block your mind. Go for a run, mow the lawn, chase your cat, do something to get your body moving, and your mind relaxed. If you move your body, your mind will follow. Maybe take a bath, get a massage, have sex, anything physical and positive. If you get into the activity enough I bet you’ll have a moment when your body is finally happy enough to let your mind do its work.

Whiskey. Yes, alcohol is writing’s seductive little mistress. A well timed shot of whiskey can work wonders for the jittery, neurotic mind. It’s the shock to the system that works for me, so when I can’t start, there are alcohol free alternatives to get things flowing: a cold shower, an underwear clad run up the driveway, a shot of espresso, a peek at my naked wife, the list goes on. Don’t depend on these (as the more you use, the less they work, except for the last one), but occasionally they’re the only way.

Rummage your scrap pile. In 1994 I started writing a novel[4]. By this I mean I created a word document named “My Novel”, hit save and then got drunk with friends. The next day, terrified as I was to return, I created a second document, called “My Novel – notes”. And in there I wrote down every idea that came to me about what might be in the novel. Only had one at first (“The narrator gets drunk. And then…well…hmmm”) but more came the next day. It was a hard core rule: If I had any idea at any time, I wrote it down immediately. No exceptions (Thus, the moleskine). I’d think of snippets of dialog, lines of narrative, names for characters, or bits of plot, and stick them in, rarely looking at the previous bits. Eventually I had enough material to psyche myself up for the dive back into “My novel” as it wasn’t a blank page anymore.

Smart writers have stockpiles of old ideas to arm themselves against the evils of the blank page. When stuck, rummage. Laugh at the goofy ideas. Groan at the pretentious ones (there will be many). Feel the occasional awe of not remembering writing something that shines or happens to fits your blank page. Like a flea market or garage sale, let ideas feel cheap, light and easy to throw around. If you can do that, new work will get off the ground almost on its own.

Notes
[1] I sometimes write “I have nothing to say” and repeat it on the page. I’ll go and go until I get so pissed off that I decide it’s less painful to write something real than it is to watch myself type this idiotic phrase forever. We always have something to say: we’re just not always brave enough to say it. A little self torture can sometimes bring it out.

[2] True story. This essay started when someone sent me a link to this essay on When you can’t get started, which you might like, but I had trouble with. Halfway through I had so many ideas I jumped into a blank page and didn’t stop until I had a draft of much of this essay. Mind you, as a writer I know this subject well, and had done plenty of thinking on this topic beforehand.

[3] By the act of writing “writers often write about writing” I’m writing about writers often writing about writing, which means you’re reading about writing about writers writing about writing. Say that ten times fast and I’ll give you a cookie.

[4] I wrote the novel on and off for 10 years, and finished in 2005 (with draft #5). Currently unpublished.

Further advice: 

I thought for sure there would be many essays titled “writing hacks” but I only found one when I wrote this. Most links are to things about writing code hacks.

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