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Writing a killer first paragraph


Let’s swap roles for a moment. You’re a lecturer staring at a pile of 80 summative essays. Each one has to be carefully and fairly evaluated; the whole task is going to take days. You pick up the first essay from the pile and start reading. What’s going to spark your interest? What’s going to make the next twenty minutes or so enjoyable for you?

Successful writing is all about grabbing the reader’s attention, and keeping it. Good writing is confident and sure-footed; it says, ‘Listen to me, I’ve got something important to say.’ A reader’s impressions start being established in the very first lines. A professional marker will, of course, stick with an essay (good or bad) doggedly to the end, but if you don’t get that first paragraph right, you’re missing a chance to establish a good first impression.

So it’s worth investing some time in that introductory paragraph. The introduction should encapsulate the whole essay and your arguments in a nutshell. It should sketch out the territory and give clear markers about where your essay is going to go. It should be a microcosm of the essay as a whole, and above all it should establish your authority in being able to answer the question in an interesting, informed, intelligent way. Ask yourself: if I had to answer this question in only a few sentences, what would I write? This should be your introduction.

Let’s imagine that you’re answering the following question: What can children suffering from autism and the case of Genie tell us about how typically developing children acquire language?

Here’s a good introductory paragraph for this essay (with acknowledgements to my colleague Elizabeth Meins):

Acquiring fluency in their native language is something that most children do effortlessly in the first three years of life. Does this mean that the ability to acquire language is innate, or is the rich social and linguistic interaction that children experience from birth responsible for this rapid acquisition? Since ethical constraints mean that it is impossible to test these hypotheses experimentally, researchers have relied on language deficits in atypical cases to try to establish the mechanisms involved in normal language acquisition. The language skills of children with autism and those who have experienced severe early social deprivation suggest that there may be different developmental determinants and pathways for specific aspects of language (e.g., syntax and pragmatics). Data from atypical cases suggest that the early ability to engage in joint attentional episodes and to grasp symbolic representation may be essential for the full acquisition of the major defining feature of human development: language.

What’s good about this introduction? For a start, it has a certain amount of academic gravitas. It is not wordy or jargonistic or obscure, but it nevertheless reads as though it were written by someone who knows what she’s talking about. This author has engaged with her discipline, read lots of academic work in the subject, and is showing that she knows how to speak the lingo.

This paragraph also gives the reader a clear idea of where the essay is going. It doesn’t needlessly duplicate information that is also given later, but it does provide a sort of gloss or commentary on it. It says: this is the kind of essay you’re going to get, and this is why it’s going to be interesting. It touches on the main points of the argument that is going to be made (i.e., that we can learn about typical language acquisition by looking at how joint attention and symbolic representation are affected in atypical cases) in a way that makes its agenda very clear.

Here, then, are a few tips for writing an intro:

1. Don’t simply repeat the title. 
There’s nothing worse than reading an essay that simply regurgitates the essay question in a boring way. Show how you intend to address the question, or point out some interesting fact about the question, or comment on it in some way—but don’t just give the reader the question again. It’s the classic opening gambit of he who does not know what to say.

2. Think ‘funnel’. 
A good plan is to start with the general and move to the specific. Why is the study of language acquisition important? Because, for one thing, language is supposed to be a quintessentially human characteristic. Why should we spend time looking at atypical development? Because, generally speaking, the study of atypical psychology can tell us a lot about typical psychology. Move from general points to specific points that set up your argument, just as the mouth of a funnel narrows towards its base and gathers the material in. (See the clip below for more on the funnel metaphor.)

3. Don’t waste words on banal, subjective or journalistic openings.
“Memory is one of the most fascinating aspects of human psychology.” Well, excuse me while I yawn loudly. There are plenty of people out there who are willing to write bland pop psychology; don’t let yourself be one of them.

4. If you need to define terms, then make it interesting. 
Another perennial switch-off is the essay that begins by defining, in a boring, kid’s-encyclopaedia kind of way, the main terms and concepts that are going to be used. Now, it might be extremely important that you define terms, especially if common usages of those terms are ambiguous, or if the concept has a specificity in psychology that it doesn’t have in everyday speech. But save it for later, or at least do it in a way that doesn’t send your reader to sleep.

5. Don’t repeat yourself.
Don’t duplicate material that will appear later in the essay. You will give the impression that you are not in control of your material; that the essay is writing you, rather than the other way round. Comment on what is to come; sketch out the argument with a few deft strokes; point to a historical connection or an interesting quote, or a news story that is relevant to the issue. But don’t waste words saying things twice.

6. Avoid the dull road map. 
Yes, your essay should signpost where your argument is going and tell the reader how you are going to get there. But avoid the intro that says ‘First I will do this. And then I will do that. And then I will do the next thing.’ Those essays are Dullsville. You can go there if you want, but don’t leave your map for us to read.

Finally, you might find the following clip useful:

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