How to start a great essay

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Essay writing is a great way to practise writing skills, whether your preferred genre is fiction or non-fiction. You need to have a clear goal in mind, your phrasing needs to be both beautiful and clear, and you need to make every word, as when writing poetry, count.

It’s always been a great art form too – although I suppose essayists were something like the newspaper editorial columnists of their day! While columnists write generally on relatively transient and personal ideas, the great essayists wrote meditations where they really thought about the big questions. William Hazlitt and John Stuart Mill wrote essays in the Victorian era on everything from the need to give women the vote, to what the study of philosophy should be or critique of individual poets.

Most of us won’t be writing anything quite that elevated just yet, but we’ve all – I’m sure! – write. As April’s fast approaching and with it Easter, quickly followed by exam season (and the two weeks’ sun that always appear the moment you set foot in the exam hall!) I thought I’d turn a little towards the form of academic writing.

What is a great introduction?

A great introduction is essential for a great essay. It’s like starting out on a journey – if you don’t know where you’re going, you might get there eventually but it’ll take way too long, and it’s not that likely. So, a great introduction needs to:

  • Set up an argument or thesis.
  • Introduce your voice
  • Give the reader a map for the rest of the essay.

Planning from a question

Like I said, essays can be on all sorts of topics – and there’s a list of competitions below if anyone’s interested! The below topics are taken from the Trinity College Cambridge 2014 prize questions:

“People who are bored cannot tell stories” (Walter Benjamin). Is there any worthwhile place for boredom in the study of literature? Is it ever interesting to be bored?

What has been the contribution to human history of domesticated animals?

Is atheism scientific?

and my favourite this year:

If you were a Muggle, living in a Harry Potter world, things might well look to you pretty much as they do in actual fact. So how do you know that you are not such a Muggle? 

Working through question to introduction

Here is a question, written in a similar tone to those set for the AQA LitA AS-level Tennyson paper:

Remind yourself of ‘June Bracken and Heather’, the last poem in the selection. To what extent do you feel that this poem provides an appropriate conclusion to the selection?

You need to understand the question first – it’s asking whether this particular poem has the same themes and ideas that you would find in Tennyson’s poetry elsewhere in this selection by Michael Baron. If you gave someone this poem, would it be a true reflection of what Tennyson does?

From there, obviously you need to decide your broad answer to that question and, because it’s this particular exam board question, you need to compare it to some other poems so you meet the assessment objectives. My initial thoughts on the question would be:

  • It has some similar themes, like love (In Memoriam, Mariana, Lady of Shalott)
  • But it treats those themes differently, not thinking too much about grief (In Memoriam is grief-stricken)
  • It’s a much calmer, more beautiful and accepting poem – a lot of his are about loss (but Crossing the Bar is similar)
  • There’s a broader range of male/female relationships (Merlin & Vivien)

Breaking down an introduction:

That, actually, is a fairly decent essay plan. In a literary essay you have to do other things too like explore language, form and structure, but essentially, that is what I would be talking about as I go through the essay. So the introduction comes next, which I’ve broken into its parts:

“June Bracken and Heather” is an interesting end to the collection as it provides a calm, even serene, ending to the often-anguished discussion of loss, grief and death that frequently epitomises Tennyson’s work.

An opening sentence which shows immediate involvement with the question – gives the writer’s opinion of the poem itself (calm, serene) compared to the rest of the collection (often anguished). It has a very distinctive voice, using some very precise and thoughtful vocabulary (serene, anguished, epitomises) which tells me the writer has a strong opinion on this question and knows what they think of the poetry too.

As Tennyson himself suggested concluding his collections with “Crossing the Bar”, it seems likely that he wanted to end on a reflective note at peace with his age and the events of his life, rather than a more tumultuous emotive poem.

Here’s where we’re bringing in some of the points from the bullet point plan – mentioning Tennyson’s own wishes is interesting, because most people answering this question won’t know that, it suggests some background reading which indicates again you’re really thinking about this. There’s more descriptive language (tumultuous, reflective) which shows the writer’s response to the poetry.

“June Bracken and Heather” similarly portrays a man who is at peace with himself and his relationships, despite the difficulties he has experienced and written about in poems such as In Memoriam, exploring not only Hallam’s death but the subsequent doubt he experienced, or his mythology-inspired works such as Merlin and Vivien, where he explores more complex male/female relationships.

Returning to the original question to add some of the other bullet points – which means I have a very clear idea immediately what this essay is going to cover. The comparisons are interesting because they raise both similarities and differences with the other works, and a range of different themes to be explored later.

The introduction in full:

“June Bracken and Heather” is an interesting end to the collection as it provides a calm, even serene, ending to the often-anguished discussion of loss, grief and death that frequently epitomises Tennyson’s work. As Tennyson himself suggested concluding his collections with “Crossing the Bar”, it seems likely that he wanted to end on a reflective note at peace with his age and the events of his life, rather than a more tumultuous emotive poem. “June Bracken and Heather” similarly portrays a man who is at peace with himself and his relationships, despite the difficulties he has experienced and written about in poems such as In Memoriam, exploring not only Hallam’s death but the subsequent doubt he experienced, or his mythology-inspired works such as Merlin and Vivien, where he explores more complex male/female relationships.

In proportion

Introductions should also be in proportion to your essay. If you’re writing 2-3 pages, a lengthy paragraph is plenty. If you’re writing a page, then a couple of sentences may well be appropriate. In a dissertation, you might well spend a couple of pages setting up your ideas, definitions, and initial thoughts. When someone’s read your introduction, they should have a very clear sense of what they will read next. To follow the metaphor from earlier, it’s like getting in the car and giving the passenger the map with the directions – they’ll know where you’re going, and enjoy the ride more without trying to work it out alongside you.

Competition entries

Cambridge University – range of subjects, for Year 12 students

Commonwealth essay prize (under 18s)

Connells Guide essay prize (sixth form)

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