Beginnings and endings can be the most challenging part of crafting any piece of writing and, in many ways, the most important. Part of the reason that they are so difficult is that writers tend to worry about them too much. There is so much hype on the necessity of thoroughly introducing the subject and ending with sharply drawn conclusions that anxious essayists compensate by going overboard. They feel that in order to appear mature and worldly their essays must contain profound insights and sweeping observations.
Some of the essayists you will find in our packages decided to add a title to their essay, although most did not. "The Key To Medical Advancement," and "One Memorable Sailing Practice" are two examples. Our favorite is the tongue-in-cheek title introducing the humorous essay: "On the Eighth Day, God Created No-Trump?" Titles are definitely not required, and if you are wondering whether or not to add one to yours, remember the old adage: when in doubt, leave it out.
One of the biggest complaints that our admissions officers had were essayists who tried to say too much in their introductions. "Just tell the story!" wrote one officer repeatedly in response to numerous essays.
Many good essays are crippled by bad beginnings. Look, for example, at the following introductions and what admissions officers had to say about them:
Of the many ironies which exist in life, one stands out in my mind: the same information which you would like to attain from others is often the same knowledge they would least like to divulge. As competition continues to grow in all areas, many who strive for an advantage must act tactfully and follow Polonius's advice in Hamlet that states, "By indirections find directions out" (II, i, L. 65). A perfect example comes to mind.
"The beginning is very awkward, even pretentious. This is a simple story that needs a simple style of writing. The author is trying too hard to impress."
"This essay begins with an awkwardly written pseudo-profundity. 'What the heck is he talking about?' is my immediate reaction."
"I can do without the gratuitous quote from Hamlet. Please! The question was not, 'How many intellectual push-ups can you do?' It would have been much better to begin with his brother's pleading. Like this: 'Where is it?' my brother yelled. But, I wouldn't answer. 'Where is it?' he screamed. I made a dash for the door, but he cut me off, threw me to the floor and landed on top of me. Placing a question at the beginning of an essay is a great hook for catching the reader's attention."
"Machiavelli aside, the student takes too long to get to the story."
I am learning, both through observations and first-hand experiences, that there are many mishaps in life which seem to be unexplainable and unfair, and yet have devastating consequences. Disease fits into this category. Its atrocity does not stem from the fact that it is a rare or uncommon occurrence, since illness and disease pervade our lives as we hear numerous stories of sick people and come into contact with them each day. However, there is a marked difference between reading in the newspaper that a famous rock star or sports icon has tested HIV positive and discovering that your own mother has been diagnosed with cancer.
"I wish this kid had started the essay with his mom sitting him down in the rocking chair. That would have been a powerful beginning. In general, using the introduction of the essay to paint a scene or mood can be very effective."
Interestingly enough, both these essays would have been greatly improved had the writers simply eliminated their introductions altogether. This is true in a surprising number of cases.
Do yourself a favor and forget about beginnings and endings during the first stages of writing. Instead of crafting your introductory paragraph first, just write down in your own words, for yourself only, the main point or points that you are going to try to make in your essay. They should not be grand or worldly. Simple and specific is better. It may be as simple as "prove that I have teamwork skills because of the time I took the blame at soccer practice" or "explain that I am different now from four years ago because I learned to rely on others during my Outward Bound trip." Then dive straight into the body of the essay, starting with your first point.
What? No Introduction?
When you have finished writing the rest of your rough draft, you may discover that you dont need an introduction at all. But isnt that risky? Maybe. But believe it or not, more essays have been ruined by forced and unnecessary introductions than have been ruined by the lack of one. Largely this is because of the misconception of what an introduction is supposed to accomplish.
This is especially true if you are writing your essay as a narrative. It might feel risky or uncomfortable just letting the story stand on its own. You might be afraid that your reader will miss the point. But the point should be made in the story through the telling not before or after it. If you really cannot resist, then offer your observations and explanations in the conclusion instead of the introduction, leaving you free to begin your essay with the action.
The most important part of any beginning is, of course, the lead. The lead is the first sentence of your essay and plays the dual role of setting the theme of your essay and engaging the reader. The introduction should not be overly formal. You don't want an admissions officer to start reading your essay and think, "Here we go again." Although admissions officers will try to give the entire essay a fair reading, they are only human if you lose them after the first sentence, the rest of your essay will not get the attention it deserves.
Just as you should not worry about your introduction until you have gotten an initial draft on paper, you should not begin the writing process by writing the lead. Often you will spot the lead floating around in the middle of your first draft of the essay. Many essayists miss great lead opportunities by burying the most interesting sentences in the middle of their essays.
A good lead does not have to be shocking to be effective. There are many different kinds of effective leads. You will find examples of some of them listed below. All examples were taken from essays that you can find in our package selections.
Standard leads are the most common leads used. A typical standard lead answers one or more of the six basic questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. It gives the reader an idea of what to expect. A summary lead is a standard lead that answers most of these questions in one sentence. Perhaps the most standard of all standard leads is the one that simply rephrases the question that was asked. The problem with this kind of lead is that, although it is a logical beginning, it can be dull. The advantage is that it sets your reader up for a focused and well-structured essay. If you live up to that expectation, the impact of your points is heightened. Rephrasing the question is also useful for short essays when you need to get to the point quickly.
"Of all the characters that Ive met through books and movies, two stand out as people that I most want to emulate."
"I am most interested in a career in psychoneuroimmunology."
"I have learned a great many things from participating in varsity football."
This lead attempts to add interest by being obtuse or funny. It can leave you wondering what the essay will be about, or make you smile:
"If you like storms that clear a path of change and arcs that bridge communication gaps, slide down my rainbow into the whirlwind of my life."
"It is weird being a high school bridge player in Lincoln, Nebraska."
This lead takes the reader into the middle of a piece of action. It is perfect for short essays where space needs to be conserved or for narrative essays that begin with a story.
"Struck with sudden panic, I hastily flipped through the many papers in my travel folder until I spotted the ticket."
"Reluctantly smearing sunblock over every exposed inch of my fifty-three pound body, I prepared mentally for the arduous task that lay ahead of me."
"A faint twinge of excitement floated through my body that night."
Personal or Revealing Lead
This lead reveals something about the writer. It is always in the first person and usually takes an informal, conversational tone:
"For some reason, my parents felt the necessity to inundate me at a young age with extracurricular activities."
"Ever since I was little, I've had this overwhelming desire to travel the world."
"It's not that I'm a weak guy, just that I had been somewhat self-conscious about my strength early on in my high school career."
This type of lead can be a direct quotation or a paraphrase. It is most effective when the quote you choose is unusual, funny, or obscure, and not too long. Choose a quote with a meaning you plan to reveal to the reader as the essay progresses. Some admissions officers caution using this kind of lead because it can seem like you are trying to impress them or sound smart. Do not use a proverb or cliche, and do not interpret the quote in your essay. The admissions committee is more interested in how you respond to it and what that response says about you:
"Within his poem, 'Sailing to Byzantium', William Butler Yeats speaks of escaping from the natural world to a land of paradise."
"A Greek philosopher once said, 'In argument, truth is born.'
This lead takes the reader into a conversation. It can take the form of an actual dialog between two people or can simply be a snippet of personal thought:
"What are your intellectual interests?
"Well, gee. I dont really know."
"'Je deteste des Americains, said the old Swiss woman sitting across from me."
The final sentence or two of your essay is also critical. It must finish your thought or assertion, and it is an important part of creating a positive and memorable image. Endings are the last experience an admissions officer has with your essay, so you need to make those words and thoughts count. A standard close merely summarizes the main points you have made. But you should not feel obligated to tie everything up into a neat bow. The essay can conclude with some ambiguity, if appropriate, as long as it offers insights.
If you have introduced a clever or unusual thought in the first paragraph, try referring back to it in your conclusion. The aim is for the admissions officer to leave your essay thinking, "That was a satisfying read," and "I wish there were more."
One essayist, for example, closes with:
"Perhaps, one day, many years from now, a weary young seeker will venture through a thick tangle of vegetation to be welcomed by the roar of a shimmering cataract. Within the shadows formed by the play of sunlight on a cascade of water, will be an old man, bent with age, sitting with feet crossed; the light in his eyes undimmed with the passage of time. And the old man will speak of his own voyage to Byzantium."
The reference to Byzantium in the last sentence ties back to the first:
"Within his poem, Sailing to Byzantium, William Butler Yeats speaks of escaping from the natural world to a land of paradise."
This stylistic touch wraps the essay up nicely and shows that time was spent in planning and structuring.
Some last sentences aim to get a laugh, and others present a single, strong image. Some of the admissions officers' favorites from the essays in this book are:
"I had everything I'd ever need. I was no longer doubting myself among strangers; I was making music with friends."
"Understanding my queerness has become a process, a process of deciding that my difference will no longer isolate, relegate, or alienate me. Instead, it will build me a space from which I can expose the perversity in calling someone perverse."
"Only now, some of my dreams are finally starting to come true as I live vicariously through the ink of my foreign friends."
"Plus I learned two things. One: I can pride myself on the smallest triviality. Two: I'm glad we don't measure strength in our gym classes with the bench press."
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