Essay Introductions: Opening Sentences

It is a fact universally acknowledged that it’s often difficult to find a good opening sentence. My only tip is that it’s probably best to write the first sentence last. For other suggestions, read on…


There’s no shortage of advice on how to tackle writing a tricky opening sentence. At least, not if you’re a novelist, short story writer, journalist, or even a blogger. But what about for those writing essays?

‘The Throes of Creation’ by Leonid Pasternak

It’s something we don’t talk about very often because it seems somehow petty. It’s not something that’s likely to lose you marks. The advice you get from tutors will probably focus instead on the reading you’ve brought in, the evidence you’ve assembled and the argument you present. Those are things you’ll be penalised for getting wrong. A howler of an opening line will be overlooked if you’re solid on those, which is why so many howlers go without comment.

So, what do people get wrong? Common mistakes often boil down to writing the opening to the essay before you quite know what you want to say, over-complicating in an attempt…

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12 Responses to “Essay Introductions: Opening Sentences”

  1. A good essay reads like a novel. It needs character and conflict. The first sentence is best used to introduce one of these.

  2. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.”

  3. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way”

    • A while back, the Physics World magazine (the magazine of the Institute of Physics) interviewed several people about their memories of temporary academic positions. This was my response. 😐

  4. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

    —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

  5. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

    —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

  6. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

    —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

  7. “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'”

  8. So you see, a good first sentence captures the audience and defines the topic and atmosphere of the essay. I rest my case, apart from noting that in writing physics, shorter is better.

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