How to Begin an Essay: From Quotations to Definitions

Need to find a creative way to start your paper? Learn how to effectively start your essay with a quotation, short story, and definition.

This is a continuation of a discussion on potential ways to begin a formal essay. For more examples and insights, be sure to review the basics of writing introductions. Each style of introduction is important to consider, as how you begin should be influenced by your topic, your audience, and the purpose of your paper.

Connect to Your Audience’s Interests or Values

You could start your composition with a well-known quotation, literary allusion (that your audience would recognize), relevant analogy, or significant statement connected to your audience’s morals, goals, or dreams. This will certainly enable you to immediately interact with your audience.

But like the other strategies for beginning essays, you have to contemplate whether or not this type of introduction is really the best for your topic. If you are too casual or you force the parallels too much, you can also instantly turn your audience off.


One great way to make a very formal essay sound more approachable for a more general audience is through a very short story known as an anecdote. This gives a traditionally stark essay more of a creative twist, often enabling your readers to connect to the characters or message of your tale.

However, don’t go overboard with this. It is meant to be a short story, not a novel. Don’t let your tale go on so long that your audience begins to wonder what the point of your story and your essay is. Try keeping it within about 5-10 lines, and always be sure to include a smooth transition into your thesis so that you don’t abruptly jump into the contrasting academic tone without any warning.

Define Key Terms or Concepts

You could potentially begin your essay by defining significant and possibly ambiguous terms. This can be used to assist your audience in understanding how you are approaching a topic that has many angles or to identify an unfamiliar, but especially critical term that is central to your argument.

However, approach this strategy with caution. Do not give simple dictionary definitions. Likely your audience already knows the textbook meaning of “justice”, for example. Instead, add to your reader’s understanding by redefining it in your own words or citing a source that presents it in a new light.

Jump Right In

Some scholars (and audiences) prefer the direct approach – jump right into your topic by stating your argument or thesis first thing. This removes all pretenses and fluff from the very beginning.

While this strategy can be effective, especially for heavily academic essays, it’s not for everyone. Remember, the goal of an introduction is to draw your audience in, so if your readers aren’t familiar with your topic or even if they are and they have to decide if they want to read your essay over the other hundred on the same topic, using a more captivating first line might be more appropriate.

Practice, Practice, Practice

As you continue to refine your craft, one of the best strategies you can use is practice. Take some risks during the revision process. Try out different beginnings and ask peers or your instructor for feedback on which one they like they best as it relates to the thesis. The more you write, the better you will get.

Finally, you might follow the advice I give my own writing students: Don’t get hung up on the introduction. If you’re just not “feeling it”, begin with your thesis and body paragraphs. You can always come back to the introduction. And when you do you’ll have a much better understanding of how to connect it to the contents of your essay.

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