Crafting Opening Paragraphs

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Crafting opening paragraphs is an art by itself. Chapter 5 on Drafting makes several suggestions about patterns you might use for opening paragraphs. They’re important because they serve as the lead that pulls your reader into your essay. As such, they need to do several things.

• Introduce you to your readers and establish a first impression.

• Announce your topic

• Set the tone for your writing.

• Let your readers know what to expect.

Because these are crucial functions, it’s worth investing time and thought in crafting a powerful opening paragraph before you submit your final effort. An engaging and forceful opener will get you off to a strong start with your readers. A poor one handicaps you from the beginning. But remember that you don’t have to get your opener right the first time. An effective opening paragraph may well take shape only with your fourth or fifth draft. Often you can’t even write a good first paragraph until you’re fairly well satisfied with the rest of your piece. When you do get to that point you’ll do well to come back and review this section to ensure that your opener does that it needs to do.

Here are two strong opening paragraphs from professional writers. The first is by Michael Dorries who wrote both fiction and nonfiction:

My father, a career army officer, was twenty – seven when he was killed and as a result, I can’t help but take war personally. Over the years his image has coalesced for me as an amalgam of familiar anecdotes: a dashing mixed – blood man from the Northwest who, improbably, could do the rhumba. A soldier who regularly had his quirkier qualities, indistinct, better remembered for his death – my grandmother still wears a gold star on her coat – than for his brief life. (
Michael Dorries : Father’s Day)

The author of the second paragraph, an essayist and fiction writer, opens an engaging personal essay about working in a bakery when he was a fledgling writer trying to support himself.

I like bagels, but I have never felt in their thrall. I never craved them, never viewed them as something special, out of the ordinary or exotic. They were a fact of life, personified when I was growing up, by a local store that baked and sold them, B & T bagels, on Eightieth Street and broad way which was open twenty – four hours a day, seven days a week. Besides selling bagels, the store performed a kind of community service by perfuming the air in its vicinity with the smell of baking bread which gave the chaotic stretch of Broadway north of Seventy – Ninth Street a neighborly, friendly fee. There is something about the smell of baking bread in its diffuse form that civilizes people.

As different as these paragraphs are, one dealing with a grand universal theme and the other with the aroma of baking bread - both do just what opening paragraphs are supposed to do. They engage readers’ attention, they help readers anticipate what is to come and they forecast what the tone and style of the piece will be.

Adapting Opening Paragraphs to Audience and Purpose :

You’ll want to vary your openers according to the kind of writing you’re doing. Your good sense should tell you that provocative first sentence that might be just right for opinion column or an article posted on salon won’t do for a business report, a technical paper and a literary piece.

When you’re writing a straightforward, informative paper for specific readers who have specific expectations, announce your topic directly in the first few sentences. In this situation, your first concern should be not to waste your reader’s time – they‘re often busy, impatient people who want to read defiantly and learn form the piece. For example, the primary audience for Eleanor Hennessy’s paper about the painter Artemisia Gentileschi is the instructor and other student in a women’s studies course. The author wants her first paragraph to announce her topic, state her thesis and briefly indicate how she’s going to develop the thesis.

Hennessy’s first opening, written after several false starts looked like this.

Artemisia Gentileschi, a remarkable painter of seventeenth century Italy, defied every norm of her era artistic, social, economic and sexual – to become one of the best – known painters of her day. To women art historian of the twenty – first century, she has become an icon whose work disproves the allegation that there have been no great women artists. Her career gives us insight into the obstacles women painters faced in here time, but also into ways in which woman artist were sometimes able to circumvent constraints all women endured in that era.

The paragraph worked to get Hennessy started on the paper and the first sentence meets her instructor’s requirement for a thesis sentence. The paragraph also lets her readers know what to anticipate from the paper. As she neared the end of the paper, however, Hennessey realized that she hadn’t included anything about other women artists of the era, partly because she didn’t have space but mostly because she had found Gentileschi so interesting that she wanted for focus entirely on her. So after she finished her second draft she rewrote the opening paragraph.

Artemisia Gentileschi, a talented painter in seventeenth century Italy, defied every norms of her time artists, social, economic and sexual – to emerge as one of the most successful artists of here era. To women arts historians in the twenty – first century she is a hero whose work disproves the allegation that there have been no great women artists. But Gentileschi’s story also appeals to today’s women in ways that go well beyond the specialized world of art history. She has become a feminist icon because of her courage, her self – confidence, her determination and her proud defiance in refusing to bow to the censure of a hostile and judgmental society. She would have been an amazing woman in any time and place. For her to have triumphed as she did in the sexist, repressive culture of seventeenth century Italy seems no less than a miracle.

Notice that this opening is more tightly focused, substituting the specific word talented for the vaguer one remarkable and finishes with sentences that leads directly into the topic of the next paragraphs.

In a book that describes a scientific experiment for the general reader, the science writer Jonathan Weiner starts an account of two biologists working in the Galapagos Islands with this factual description and gives his reader essential details:

There are two kinds of shorelines in the [Galapagos] islands : the visible and the invisible.

The visible shores are the black broken rocks and white broken waves where volcanoes rise out of the pacific. They are the borders of the air and the lava, wave – gnawed rigs around the summits that have given Darwin’s finches their homes in the middle of nowhere. These shores are defined simply by the level of the sea.

The invisible shores are the borders between the birds themselves. These shores are more intricate. They are defined by the secret codes and unwritten rules that wrap each of the thirteen Galapagos finches in a kind of self – invented isolating. These boundaries hold each species apart from the rest [….] so that even though seven or eight may share the some volcanic summit, feed together in mixed flocks, scrape the same cinders for the same seeds, they still breed as much apart as if they were themselves an archipelago of enchanted islands. (
Jonathan Weiner : The Beak of The Finch)

Other Pages in This Section :

  • The External View of Paragraphing

  • The Internal View of Paragraphing

  • Wrestling With Closing Paragraphs

  • Successful Writing Index

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