The opening paragraph is arguably the most important paragraph in any paper. This is the paragraph where you grab your
readers’ attention. In essence, you are telling your readers why they should care about what you’ve written. How, for example, can you make a male reader be interested in preventing
breast cancer? How can you
make a dog lover interested in cats? You’re making them want to read more regardless of their predispositions and prejudices.
This is not to say that every paper should appeal to every audience. Who your target audience is should be apparent in the opening paragraph, but it should be done
without coming right out and saying it.
You are also setting the tone of your paper. Will it be serious? Playful? Formal or informal? Unfortunately, you might tell your readers, should they choose to continue, that this is going
to be a painful paper to read, even if you don’t intend to do so. Misspelled words, run on sentences, dangling modifiers, generalizations, and blatantly sexist or racist comments, to name a few, will tell your readers more than you
could ever imagine.
Closely related to tone is expertise. Why should we believe you? This is especially tough if
you can’t refer to yourself. If you’re wanting me to believe that you’re an expert on, say, photosintasis, you’d
probably better start off by spelling it correctly.
More so, the opening paragraph clearly
states your thesis. This is your purpose. There should be no doubt exactly what it is you intend for your readers to know when they are finished
with your paper after they’ve read the first paragraph.
stated thesis should be as short as possible. There should be no conjunctions: No and’s, but’s, or’s, or so’s. It should be unambiguous. It should avoid words like
maybe and might and could. And typically, it should appear at the end of your opening paragraph.
And you should do all of this in four or five sentences.
Things to avoid in opening paragraphs:
Self-explanatory phrases. These are phrases that, for all practical purposes, are pointless. For example: The purpose of this paper is... In the following pages... You will see... You will be convinced... Remember, if you are writing about the process of writing
your paper, then you are off topic.
Unnecessary repetition. This is true of your entire
paper, but especially so in the opening paragraph.
Self-referencing pronouns. The paper is not about you
– not in the opening paragraph, not anywhere. The only exceptions to this are if you are using an anecdote that involves you, or you need to establish
your personal expertise on the subject. But even then, keep it to a minimum.
Beginning an essay with a question has been done so many times by so many people that it has become a cliché. When you start a paper with a question, it pretty much tells your reader,
"Nothing new here." And that's probably not how you want to start your paper. Indeed, you shouldn't
ask any questions at all in your opening paragraph (or the entire paper, as far as that
goes). And this includes both rhetorical questions (those that you ask but don't intend for anybody to answer, or those
you ask and immediately answer) or factual questions -- questions you don't have answers for. Whereas questions can
be very powerful if used correctly, they can also get tedious really quickly, and they can even make you look like
you don't know, which is never good. So don't use them at all.
Two general ways to grab your audiences’ attention:
Facts. You can grab somebody’s
attention with facts. Consider
the following fictitious example:
In a recent survey, 70% of all high school students
admitted that they drank alcohol on a regular basis. Of that 70%, 40% further admitted that they had driven at least once while being intoxicated. (Anderson) As startling as that may be, these students
are in danger of becoming an even worse statistic: 50% of all automotive fatalities that involve teenagers also involve alcohol. (Eldridge)
can be very powerful, but you want to be careful and not bog your reader down with too much information in the opening paragraph. After all, that’s what
the rest of the paper is for.
Note that when you use facts, you must tell where you got them
in the form of in-text citations, whether it’s in the first paragraph, the last paragraph, or anywhere in-between.
Anecdotes. These are stories, either true or made up. Consider the possible example:
Mary Ann had trusted her boyfriend when Brandon said he was sober enough to drive. After all, they had been out many times before
drinking with his friends and made it home safely. Only tonight, when Brandon swerved across the center line, like he had done so many times before,
the oncoming lane wasn’t empty. Fortunately,
this story isn’t true for Brandon or Mary Ann.
Be careful with anecdotes. First of all, they must be believable if they’re
not true (and you need to tell us if they are or not), and, most importantly, they can’t be over the top. Nobody likes to have her or his emotions played
with. Quite often, if
you’re trying to grab somebody’s attention with an overly emotional story, you will turn that person off and lose
her or him altogether.
And then there’s a combination of the two. Consider the following: Mary Ann had trusted her boyfriend when Brandon
said he was sober enough to drive. Only
tonight, when Brandon swerved across the center line, like he had done so many times before, the oncoming lane wasn’t
empty. Fortunately, this
story isn’t true for Brandon or Mary Ann, but unfortunately, it’s far too true for the approximate 4,000 teenagers
who are killed every year in alcohol-related automobile accidents. (Eldridge) Don’t succumb to tragedy. Don’t drink and drive.
* Please note that I made up all the
above numbers, including the statistics. Even the in-text citations are bogus. So please don't repeat them as
if they are true.
Having explained all that, you are now to write an opening paragraph for your Research Paper.
It should include the following:
- An attention grabber.
- An acknowledgement of who your target audience is.
- The tone.
- A hint of expertise.
- A clear, unambiguous thesis
In addition, it should avoid:
- Self-explanatory phrases,
such as telling me what your paper "will do."
- Unnecessary repetition.
- Self-referencing pronouns.
- Grammar or usage errors.