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Monday Morning Essay Tip: Opening Lines Set the Tone

As any good journalist will tell you, the key to writing a good newspaper story or opinion piece is to make sure the very first line grabs the reader’s attention. Many authors also employ this tactic when writing books. Few of us may have read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but many of us know that the novel begins with three famous words: “Call me Ishmael.” A powerful first line can stick with readers long after they have finished reading—and sometimes even when we have not read something firsthand. For example, we all likely recognize the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night,” but few of us may know that it is the opening line of a book by an obscure writer (Paul Clifford by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton).

Although beginning an essay with a very short introduction is the norm, sometimes a punchy opening line can grab the reader’s attention in a useful way. Consider the differences between these pairs of openers. Which line in each example better captures your attention?

Example 1: A “Why MBA?” essay:

A: “After I graduate with my MBA, I want to work in the wine industry.”
B: “Blood runs in the veins of all humans, but wine also runs in mine.”

Example 2: A “What are you most passionate about in life?” essay:

A: “There is nothing I enjoy more than playing ice hockey.”
B: “As soon as the nearby river freezes, I wake at 6 a.m. each day and join my teammates for a prework scrimmage.”

No set formula exists for opening lines. In fact, the possibilities are endless, and each opener depends on the context of the story being told. Nonetheless, our point is that you must carefully consider your opening line, because it will set the tone of your essay and determine whether your reader will want to read more.



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