Student Question

I want to write about my belief that everyone should be like a child, and I want to show how I implement that belief in my life. I want the beginning to be interesting. How do I do that?

My Response

Let's start with what not to do. You don't want to come out and open with, "I believe everyone should be like a child." Why not? There's no suspense. Now I know that the rest of the essay is just going to explain why you think this. Boring.

Remember, letting someone get to know you through an essay differs from someone getting to know you through a conversation. If you were sitting down to talk to me, then saying "I believe everyone should be like a child" would be great. I'd ask you for details, and you'd tell me more about your philosophy, and we'd be fine. In conversation, we rely on general statements because they're more efficient. I might ask you what type of person your sister is, and you'll tell me she's funny but careless. Perfect - I get what you're saying.

But the essay is different. We're no longer conveying information through a dialog. Instead, we're conveying information through a monologue. Because the reader doesn't have the chance to interrupt to redirect the conversation to points that interest her, the writer has the burden of keeping the reader entertained. To lure the reader in, we have to make the reader wonder what will happen next. We all know the idea of the cliffhanger ending, the one that leaves us in suspense. But we need cliffhanger openings, too. That first sentence has to give the reader some kind of puzzle, however small, to solve. That often means thrusting the reader into the middle of a scene.

So to write a cliffhanger opening, you can't use a general statement ("I believe X."). Instead, you have to choose a particular moment in your life to narrate. It could be a moment that led to the development of your philosophy, or it could be a moment when you tried to implement your philosophy. You're going to write details that let the reader experience everything you saw, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted in that moment. When you describe a particular moment with sensory information, you bring the reader into a scene instead of just talking at her.

After you've finished describing the details of your moment, then you can summarize what they mean. But the point is you do details first, then summary. If you do summary first ("I am childlike."), then details, your essay will be clear (like an English essay - thesis, then evidence), but also boring.

OK. So you're going to open with details of a particular moment in your life, not a general statement about what you believe or who you are. What next? That opening sentence must have an air of mystery. It should withhold certain details to make the reader wonder what will happen next.

"I had to get back." Get back where? And why? "I had to find out what she was doing here again." Who is she? Why is she there? Why does the narrator care she's there?

These are two examples I just made up. (More examples in my ebook.) You can see that concealing details doesn't require an amazing sentence. The technique of using vague words (back, she, here) to create mystery is simple. Of course, yes, you should try to do something more snazzy for your actual essay.

As you write, think of your reader as a passenger with a short attention span. If you drive that reader down a straight road, he'll get bored because he'll see exactly where you're taking him. That's like sitting through one of those awful Powerpoint presentations where the speaker just reads from the slides. But if you drive that reader around a bend, he'll start wondering where you're going. He'll start to look for clues. That's the reader you want - engaged.

To summarize, you can make your opening interesting by doing two things. First, figure out your cliffhanger opening by describing a specific moment with sensory information (not by making a general statement). Second, use vague words and phrases to create a mystery for the reader to unravel. That's it!

Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.