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essay writing skills: effective opening paragraphs

How you begin your exam answers will immediately begin to suggest to the examiner quite a lot about your skills and knowledge. You can imagine, therefore, that a confident, engaging and interesting opening sentence will be a good start! This is what you should aim for - a positive start. Boring openings should be avoided.

An especially important thing to avoid in an essay is waffle - this means empty words that add nothing to the answer. Aim to open strongly by engaging directly and immediately with the question using what is called an overview:

You can easily suggest you are confident with both the text and question by starting with an overview:
  • open in an interesting and effective way
  • use one of the question's key words early in your first paragraph
  • use a word or phrase from the text as a part of your own sentence - but always use quotation marks.
  • end your first paragraph interestingly

Techniques such as these will suggest to the examiner that you are confident in your writing and overall approach as well as knowledgeable about your texts.

Here is a typical examination question on the poetry of Simon Armitage:

Question
'Armitage says that through his poetry he is 'making a connection with the world'. Select two or three poems from your selection to show how he makes such a connection.'

Answer
Here is an effective opening paragraph in answer to this question - it provides an
overview of the relevant aspects of the texts, the poet and the way the question will be answered:

In the two poems, 'It Ain't What You Do...' and 'Poem' , Armitage uses his poetry to show how closely connected he is to the world of ordinary people. He writes about ordinary folk in ordinary situations using ordinary language such as 'And he blubbed...' and 'bummed across America'. This makes his poetry easy to read and enjoyable and it makes the poems believable, too. Despite their apparent 'ordinariness' , however, Armitage's poems still manage to give the reader a 'sense of something else' : he makes the ordinary, 'extraordinary' .


Can you see how this works in the example above? Does it seem effective to you? Practise using this technique with some of the exam questions your own teacher gives you.


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