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1. Don't worry about the beginning until you know what you want to say; start anywhere.
Many writers make the mistake of obsessing about the first paragraph of an essay, trying to get it right before they move on to the body. While "mapping out" your essay in the opening can be helpful to you as you write, it's not helpful if you're not yet sure what you have to say. Sometimes it's best to plunge into the body of the paper, write through all your ideas, and then step back and ask: What's my main point here? What's my essay really about?

Once you have answers to these questions, the opening paragraph may be easier to write. So: Start anywhere. Just get something down on paper, knowing that you can go back later and write an appropriate opening. A writer's secret: Most writers don't write an "introduction" until after they've written the body.

2. Sometimes an ending makes a good opening.
If you're like a lot of writers, you figure out what you have to say as you write it. This may mean that in the last paragraph of your first draft, you really say what you mean: your ideas are clearest here, most concise. So, take that last paragraph and make it first, and you have your opening.

3. Think about the purpose of your opening.
An opening needs to serve several purposes:
*It lets the reader know what your topic is, in a general way.
*It can (but doesn't have to) let the reader know what you have to say about that topic.
*It "hooks" the reader into your essay, intriguing the reader, drawing the reader onward.

This last purpose may seem extraneous if you're writing academic essays; after all, your reader is requiring you to write this essay--why should you have to "hook" him or her? But forget for the moment that your primary audience is your instructor. Imagine, instead, a real audience for your writing. How would you snag that reader and make him or her read on, while at the same time establishing topic and perhaps thesis? Why not make your writing as interesting as you can? It certainly can't hurt your grade if your instructor enjoys reading your essay, right?

Some simple ways to "hook" the reader:

*Begin with an example. Specific things intrigue us; general things bore us. An illustration that you might ordinarily use as evidence elsewhere in a paper might make a good, intriguing lead. Follow this up with the more general statements, and you've got as "one-two punch" opening that serves your purposes.

*Begin with a quote. Works the same way.

*Just jump into your discussion. We often spend more time "introducing" our topic than, strictly speaking, is necessary. If it helps you get started, go ahead and write that stuff in your first draft; then lop it off, and make your second paragraph, where you really get down to work, your new opening.

4. Think about the purpose of your ending. An ending can serve these basic purposes:

*It can "tie things up," or complete your argument.
*It can give the reader what he or she will take away from the essay; it can drive the point home. It is the final message.
*It can sum up for the reader what has been discussed and suggest a way to think about the meaning of that discussion in a larger context.

Forget the old saw you may have learned in high school, that what you should do in an essay is "tell the reader what you're going to say, say it, and then tell the reader what you said." Telling the reader the same thing three times doesn't show much respect for the reader, does it? Most readers are more intelligent than that. Yes, the parts of an essay should "hang together"--but they don't have to be redundant.

Try these strategies for "one-two punch" endings:

*Just stop. When you're done with what you have to say, stop. Don't "conclude" at all. Don't summarize. Stop. This works best with very short, very focused essays, like an interpretation of a poem or short story or an analysis of an article.

*Alternatively, save your real thesis for the end. Punch the message home by putting it here, where the reader will remember it. Structure your whole essay so that it leads to this point. That's a professional writer's trick: to lure the reader in with the opening, build an argument throughout the body, and then conclude with the main point--at the end, where it's most memorable.

*Or, having stated your thesis earlier and made your argument throughout the paper, now step back and take a larger look at the topic, suggesting what your argument might mean in the larger scheme of things--in the context of what you're discussing in class, for instance. You're not opening a new topic here; you're simply putting your essay topic, which is probably pretty specific, into the larger context, giving your reader "food for thought" to take away from the essay.

Beginnings and endings are important parts of essays--but the most important part is the body. Once you know what you want to say and have said it, writing an opening and an ending is as simple as pie. Get the bulk of the paper down, however you can; during revision, you can always make it better