How to Start an Essay

The most common essay-writing mistake made by students is starting to write an essay introduction before they are ready to do so.

Before you start an essay, you should always ask yourself this: what, precisely, am I going to argue? If I had just ten seconds to summarise my argument, what would I say?

If you are ready to write your introduction, you should be able to fire off three to five key points straightaway. If you can’t do this, it is likely that you need to go back and re-read or re-work your essay plan. With a good plan and a good structure, you should be able to summarise all your main points on a single post-it note.

Cautionary Notes on writing an essay introduction

If you are writing an essay for assessment, the examiner will not have long to determine the standard of your work. In many cases, they will have decided roughly what grade to give you by the time they reach the end of your introduction. For this reason, a clear introduction is very important. However, you will only achieve this clarity if you have planned the essay in detail.

How long should my introduction be?

The length of your introduction will vary, to some degree, from essay to essay. However, as a very rough guide, you should aim for about 10-15 per cent of your total word count. So, for a 2,500-word essay, your introduction would be about 300-350 words in length.

An Introduction should…

These are the four main tasks of writing an introduction, as set out in The Missing Manual. Your introduction should deal with each of them in order.

  1. Demonstrate an appreciation and knowledge of the subject.
  2. Acknowledge the two-sided nature of the debate – ‘Some have argued …’
  3. Clearly state the likely outcome of the essay –  ‘However, this essay will demonstrate that …’ 
  4. Explain the structure of what follows – summarise your 3-5 main points.

The dreaded opening sentence

A lot of people get stuck on how to write an introduction simply because they can’t think what the opening sentence should say. They spend so long wondering how to start an essay that they could have written whole paragraphs before they get going. The trick is not to be too precious about your opening sentence – you will probably end up re-drafting it anyway, so – as long as your plan is in good shape – you should just get something down and get things moving.

The opening sentence should be quite general: it should ‘set the scene’, demonstrating that you understand the core issues which make up the topic at hand. Let’s take a classic example:

What is Art?
 The question of what constitutes art can seem as old as art itself,  such is the frequency of its recurrence. While disagreements about  similar terms, such as 'music' or 'expression', might be resolved  swiftly and painlessly by reaching for the nearest dictionary, curiosity  and strength of feeling are not so easily extinguished when it comes to  the question: 'what is art?' Whether the discussion takes place at an  academic conference or in the local pub, it seems no two definitions or  opinions are ever quite the same. 

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Essay length: 3,250 
Intro length: 450-500

Section One:
This opening statement is 83 words in length. 

This opening statement is not analytical, as the later parts of your essay will need to be, but it demonstrates an awareness that there is a discussion to be had. It says: ‘a discussion is going on and I am going to join in.’ 

If you read it carefully, this excerpt basically says the same thing three times. Sentence one explains that the debate seems to have a long history because people keep talking about it. Sentence two says, art is harder to define than other related words, so people keep talking about it. And sentence three goes on: no matter who they are, people keep talking about it … and disagreeing with each other.

This repetition is deliberate, and you might not have noticed it when your read the excerpt first time. By spending time on each point, we allow the reader to keep up. So my first three sentences have required the reader to grasp just one point – that the question ‘what is art?’ is contentious. 

Let’s see how this fits within the overall structure of our essay introduction. Above, we noted that an essay introduction should first “demonstrate an appreciation and knowledge of the subject.”. That’s what our opening three sentences have done. Next, we need to “acknowledge the two-sided nature of the debate.” In this case, I will set out the two sides as ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusive’.

Perhaps the single biggest reason why this question so commonly  self-regenerates is that 'art' is very commonly confused with artistic merit.  Exclusivistic definitions of art might suggest that art must conform to  certain standards, certain norms or certain established discourses.  According to this view, to be art something must be in some sense be  'good' or must have 'value'. Without the constraints of form and  technique, an exclusivist might ask, how are we to differentiate between  a painting by one of the Great Masters and something scribbled by an  elephant?  

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Section Two:
This excerpt concedes the two-sided nature of the discussion in 90 words.

In the above section, I am careful to distance myself from the opinions I express, using phrases like ‘according to this view’ and ‘exclusivistic definitions of art might suggest that…’. By doing this, I am creating a balanced essay, but making the reader aware that I don’t necessarily hold these views. In the following section, I will make my own position more clear.

However, as this essay will show, it is a mistake to conflate the  separate concepts of art and artistic merit. It makes no logical sense  to argue that a drawing or sculpture is not art because it is not good  art. As part of an inclusivistic analysis, this study will define art  in the broadest terms: "any means of performed self-expression through  stimulation of the senses."  According to this view, 'bad' art is still art, and a scribble by an  elephant can also be classed as an artistic work so long as it can be  shown to offer a mode of performative expression to the elephant, and if  the senses are stimulated in some way.

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Section Three:
This section sets out the stance of the essay as a whole: it will argue in favour of a very liberal definition of art.  

By the end of this paragraph, the reader can be in no doubt about the general stance this essay will take. Finally, my introduction will clarify the structure which the essay will use to support this stance.

The following study comprises a three-part analysis. First, it will  consider the role of the artist in the interpretation of a completed  work, arguing that - whatever land mammal may have produced it - the  work of art can only be interpreted on its own merits. The signature at  the bottom is not what defines a piece of art. Second, analysis will be  offered on the role of the audience. With interpretive styles such as  cubism and abstract art, is it not the audience that constructs the true  meaning of the artistic work. What, then, it their role is determining  the meaning of art more broadly? Finally, the essay will assess the  changing function of art over time. It will ask not only what is art, but what has art been  throughout history. If the role of art were to represent life, then  painting would have stopped upon production of the camera. This essay  will argue that perhaps the greatest cause for the continual  regeneration of this discussion is the fact that art itself is such a  revolutionary and ever-changing concept.

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Section Four:
This final excerpt clarifies the  structure and argumentation which will follow. It gives very strong  clues about what the essay will conclude.

By the end of this introduction, the examiner knows precisely what I am going to argue and how. Whether s/he agrees or not is not relevant: the important thing is that s/he understands what I want to say. This makes it very easy to mark.