'Whack at Your Reader at Once': Eight Great Opening Lines

Examples of How to Begin an Essay

Essayist Robert Atwan has served as series editor of The Best American Essays since its inception in 1986
Houghton Mifflin

In "The Writing of Essays" (1901), H.G. Wells offers some lively advice on how to begin an essay:

So long as you do not begin with a definition you may begin anyhow. An abrupt beginning is much admired, after the fashion of the clown's entry through the chemist's window. Then whack at your reader at once, hit him over the head with the sausages, brisk him up with the poker, bundle him into the wheelbarrow, and so carry him away with you before he knows where you are. You can do what you like with a reader then, if you only keep him nicely on the move. So long as you are happy your reader will be so too.

Good Opening Lines for Essays

In contrast to the leads seen in Hookers vs. Chasers: How Not to Begin an Essay, here are some opening lines that, in various ways, "whack" the reader at once and encourage us to read on.

  • I hadn't planned to wash the corpse.
    But sometimes you just get caught up in the moment. . . .
    (Reshma Memon Yaqub, "The Washing." The Washington Post Magazine, March 21, 2010)
  • The peregrine falcon was brought back from the brink of extinction by a ban on DDT, but also by a peregrine falcon mating hat invented by an ornithologist at Cornell University. . . .
    (David James Duncan, "Cherish This Ecstasy." The Sun, July 2008)
  • Unrequited love, as Lorenz Hart instructed us, is a bore, but then so are a great many other things: old friends gone somewhat dotty from whom it is too late to disengage, the important social-science-based book of the month, 95 percent of the items on the evening news, discussions about the Internet, arguments against the existence of God, people who overestimate their charm, all talk about wine, New York Times editorials, lengthy lists (like this one), and, not least, oneself. . . .
    (Joseph Epstein, "Duh, Bor-ing." Commentary, June 2011)
  • Before the 19th century, when dinosaur bones turned up they were taken as evidence of dragons, ogres, or giant victims of Noah's Flood. After two centuries of paleontological harvest, the evidence seems stranger than any fable, and continues to get stranger. . . .
    (John Updike, "Extreme Dinosaurs." National Geographic, December 2007)
  • During menopause, a woman can feel like the only way she can continue to exist for 10 more seconds inside her crawling, burning skin is to walk screaming into the sea--grandly, epically, and terrifyingly, like a 15-foot-tall Greek tragic figure wearing a giant, pop-eyed wooden mask. Or she may remain in the kitchen and begin hurling objects at her family: telephones, coffee cups, plates. . . .
    (Sandra Tsing Loh, "The Bitch Is Back." The Atlantic, October 2011)
  • There is a new cell-phone ring tone that can't be heard by most people over the age of twenty, according to an NPR report. The tone is derived from something called the Mosquito, a device invented by a Welsh security firm for the noble purpose of driving hooligans, yobs, scamps, ne'er-do-wells, scapegraces, ruffians, tosspots, and bravos away from places where grownups are attempting to ply an honest trade. . . .
    (Louis Menand, "Name That Tone." The New Yorker, June 26, 2006)
  • Only a sentence, casually placed as a footnote in the back of Justin Kaplan's thick 2003 biography of Walt Whitman, but it goes off like a little explosion: "Bram Stoker based the character of Dracula on Walt Whitman." . . .
    (Mark Doty, "Insatiable." Granta #117, 2011)
  • I have wonderful friends. In this last year, one took me to Istanbul. One gave me a box of hand-crafted chocolates. Fifteen of them held two rousing, pre-posthumous wakes for me. . . .
    (Dudley Clendinen, "The Good Short Life." The New York Times Sunday Review, July 9, 2011)

What Makes an Opening Line Effective

What these opening lines have in common is that all have been reprinted (with complete essays attached) in recent editions of The Best American Essays, an annual collection of crackling good reads culled from magazines, journals, and websites.

Unfortunately, not all the essays quite live up to the promise of their openings. And a few superb essays have rather pedestrian introductions. (One resorts to the formula, "In this essay, I want to explore . . ..") But all in all, if you're looking for some artful, thought-provoking, and occasionally humorous lessons in essay writing, open any volume of The Best American Essays.

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "'Whack at Your Reader at Once': Eight Great Opening Lines." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/eight-great-opening-lines-1690540. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 17). 'Whack at Your Reader at Once': Eight Great Opening Lines. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/eight-great-opening-lines-1690540 Nordquist, Richard. "'Whack at Your Reader at Once': Eight Great Opening Lines." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/eight-great-opening-lines-1690540 (accessed March 24, 2023).

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