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Academic Life Essay

The writer of the academic essay aims to persuade readers of an idea based on evidence. The beginning of the essay is a crucial first step in this process. In order to engage readers and establish your authority, the beginning of your essay has to accomplish certain business. Your beginning should introduce the essay, focus it, and orient readers.

Introduce the Essay.The beginning lets your readers know what the essay is about, the topic. The essay's topic does not exist in a vacuum, however; part of letting readers know what your essay is about means establishing the essay's context, the frame within which you will approach your topic. For instance, in an essay about the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, the context may be a particular legal theory about the speech right; it may be historical information concerning the writing of the amendment; it may be a contemporary dispute over flag burning; or it may be a question raised by the text itself. The point here is that, in establishing the essay's context, you are also limiting your topic. That is, you are framing an approach to your topic that necessarily eliminates other approaches. Thus, when you determine your context, you simultaneously narrow your topic and take a big step toward focusing your essay. Here's an example.

When Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening was published in 1899, critics condemned the book as immoral. One typical critic, writing in the Providence Journal, feared that the novel might "fall into the hands of youth, leading them to dwell on things that only matured persons can understand, and promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires" (150). A reviewer in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch wrote that "there is much that is very improper in it, not to say positively unseemly."

The paragraph goes on. But as you can see, Chopin's novel (the topic) is introduced in the context of the critical and moral controversy its publication engendered.

Focus the Essay. Beyond introducing your topic, your beginning must also let readers know what the central issue is. What question or problem will you be thinking about? You can pose a question that will lead to your idea (in which case, your idea will be the answer to your question), or you can make a thesis statement. Or you can do both: you can ask a question and immediately suggest the answer that your essay will argue. Here's an example from an essay about Memorial Hall.

Further analysis of Memorial Hall, and of the archival sources that describe the process of building it, suggests that the past may not be the central subject of the hall but only a medium. What message, then, does the building convey, and why are the fallen soldiers of such importance to the alumni who built it? Part of the answer, it seems, is that Memorial Hall is an educational tool, an attempt by the Harvard community of the 1870s to influence the future by shaping our memory of their times. The commemoration of those students and graduates who died for the Union during the Civil War is one aspect of this alumni message to the future, but it may not be the central idea.

The fullness of your idea will not emerge until your conclusion, but your beginning must clearly indicate the direction your idea will take, must set your essay on that road. And whether you focus your essay by posing a question, stating a thesis, or combining these approaches, by the end of your beginning, readers should know what you're writing about, and why—and why they might want to read on.

Orient Readers. Orienting readers, locating them in your discussion, means providing information and explanations wherever necessary for your readers' understanding. Orienting is important throughout your essay, but it is crucial in the beginning. Readers who don't have the information they need to follow your discussion will get lost and quit reading. (Your teachers, of course, will trudge on.) Supplying the necessary information to orient your readers may be as simple as answering the journalist's questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why. It may mean providing a brief overview of events or a summary of the text you'll be analyzing. If the source text is brief, such as the First Amendment, you might just quote it. If the text is well known, your summary, for most audiences, won't need to be more than an identifying phrase or two:

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's tragedy of `star-crossed lovers' destroyed by the blood feud between their two families, the minor characters . . .

Often, however, you will want to summarize your source more fully so that readers can follow your analysis of it.

Questions of Length and Order. How long should the beginning be? The length should be proportionate to the length and complexity of the whole essay. For instance, if you're writing a five-page essay analyzing a single text, your beginning should be brief, no more than one or two paragraphs. On the other hand, it may take a couple of pages to set up a ten-page essay.

Does the business of the beginning have to be addressed in a particular order? No, but the order should be logical. Usually, for instance, the question or statement that focuses the essay comes at the end of the beginning, where it serves as the jumping-off point for the middle, or main body, of the essay. Topic and context are often intertwined, but the context may be established before the particular topic is introduced. In other words, the order in which you accomplish the business of the beginning is flexible and should be determined by your purpose.

Opening Strategies.There is still the further question of how to start. What makes a good opening? You can start with specific facts and information, a keynote quotation, a question, an anecdote, or an image. But whatever sort of opening you choose, it should be directly related to your focus. A snappy quotation that doesn't help establish the context for your essay or that later plays no part in your thinking will only mislead readers and blur your focus. Be as direct and specific as you can be. This means you should avoid two types of openings:

  • The history-of-the-world (or long-distance) opening, which aims to establish a context for the essay by getting a long running start: "Ever since the dawn of civilized life, societies have struggled to reconcile the need for change with the need for order." What are we talking about here, political revolution or a new brand of soft drink? Get to it.
  • The funnel opening (a variation on the same theme), which starts with something broad and general and "funnels" its way down to a specific topic. If your essay is an argument about state-mandated prayer in public schools, don't start by generalizing about religion; start with the specific topic at hand.

Remember. After working your way through the whole draft, testing your thinking against the evidence, perhaps changing direction or modifying the idea you started with, go back to your beginning and make sure it still provides a clear focus for the essay. Then clarify and sharpen your focus as needed. Clear, direct beginnings rarely present themselves ready-made; they must be written, and rewritten, into the sort of sharp-eyed clarity that engages readers and establishes your authority.

Copyright 1999, Patricia Kain, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

This page includes advice for freshers and also help with time management, procrastination, perfectionism, study skills, writing, research and passing exams.

Performing academically

Useful links

Useful books

Overcoming Perfectionism
Roz Shafran, Sarah Egan and Tracey Wade: Robinson (2010)
Based on principles of cognitive behavioural therapy, aims to help you break the vicious circle of ‘never good enough’.

Writing Under Pressure
Sanford Kaye: Oxford University Press (1990)
Presents a system called the Quick Writing Process that focuses on real-world writing tasks and demonstrates how to produce clear, honest, powerful work possible under the constraints of time and space. A writing instructor with twenty-five years teaching experience.

The Clockwork Muse
Eviatar Zerubavel: Harvard University Press (1999)
Aimed at writers with large-scale, long-term writing projects (like a master’s thesis or PhD). The author explains how to set up a writing schedule and regular work habits that should take most of the anxiety and procrastination out of long-term writing. It argues that "writer's block" just indicates a need for a better grasp of the temporal organization of work. It helps readers work out when to write, for how long, and how often, while keeping a sense of momentum throughout the entire project. It shows how to set priorities, balancing ideals with pragmatism.

Further links 

Ideas for further reading

Overcoming Procrastination
Andrea Perry: Worth Publishing (2002)
A new and useful diagnostic tool to help identify where and how you have become stuck, and offers a wealth of strategies to overcome entrenched patterns of procrastination. The book introduces the Action Spiral model used in the Procrastination workshop offered by the Counselling Service.

How to Pass Exams Without Anxiety
David Acres: How to Books Ltd (1995)
Revised to reflect the latest changes in examination and assessment methods, and the most recent findings as to effective study and relaxation techniques.

How to Get a PhD
Estelle Phillips and Derek Pugh: Open University Press (2005)
Practical and clear, examines everything students need to know about getting a PhD through research in any subject. Includes a diagnostic questionnaire to self-monitor progress.

Achieving a PhD: Ten students’ experiences
Phillida Salmon: Trentham Books (1992)
The students write candidly and lucidly about their feelings, misgivings and the stresses of fitting in this huge commitment to a life already filled with family obligations and the demands of work. They also describe the solutions they found to practical problems such as storing their research, recording sources and gathering information. Their supervisor brings these accounts together into a coherent overview of all that is entailed in achieving a PhD.

The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination
Chrissoula Andreou and Mark White: Oxford University Press (2010)
A very practical aim to shed light on ‘a vexing practical problem that generates a great deal of frustration, regret and harm’. Not a self-help book but a serious and thought-provoking exploration of a what for many is an important problem.

Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done
Oliver Burkeman: Cannongate Books (2011)
Straight to the point and very insightful about virtually every aspect of life: emotional life, social life, personal productivity, and career. Chapter 5 is a very useful chapter from a very useful book.

The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-free Play
Neil Fiore: Jeremy Tarcher (2007)
A different approach to most others, its premise is that scheduling too much work is counter-productive: we get discouraged and rebel. It suggests starting with scheduling high-quality play time and fitting work in between.

Freshers: adjusting to university life

Useful links

Ideas for further reading

The Confidence Gap: From Fear to Freedom
Russ Harris: Robinson (2011)
A highly readable book about building confidence and moving in the direction you feel meets your values. This book is written from an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) perspective.

The Reality Slap: How to Find Fulfilment When Life Hurts
Russ Harris: Robinson (2012)
This book is a supportive read about when life hurts and how to ride with the pain. It builds on one’s own robustness and resilience, and how to make sense of painful events. The theory comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done
Oliver Burkeman: Cannongate Books (2011)
Straight to the point and very insightful about virtually every aspect of life: emotional life, social life, personal productivity, and career. Chapters on ‘How to win friends and influence people’, ‘How to get more done’, ‘How to use your brain’, ‘How to keep functioning’ may be especially relevant.

A Guide to Uni Life: The one stop guide to what university is REALLY like
Lucy Tobin: Trotman (2009)
A useful book for a young person leaving home for the first time and coming to university. Has in-depth sections on money, accommodation, food, health, relationships and happiness. Also includes first aid section, handy!

A Psychodynamic Approach to Education
Alex Coren: Sheldon Press (1997)
Covers developmental issues of adolescence, transitions, gender, etc. as well as academic work and its possible psychological meanings. For students who would like to think psychologically about their own development and the meaning they attach to their education.

Dealing with examinations

Useful links

Useful books

How to Pass Exams Without Anxiety
David Acres: How to Books Ltd (1995)
Revised to reflect the latest changes in examination and assessment methods, and the most recent findings as to effective study and relaxation techniques.

Writing Under Pressure
Sanford Kaye: Oxford University Press (1990)
Presents a system called the Quick Writing Process that focuses on real-world writing tasks and demonstrates how to produce clear, honest, powerful work possible under the constraints of time and space. A writing instructor with twenty-five years teaching experience.

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