How to Begin an Article

In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people--the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.

No, those aren't my words. But I bet they caught your attention. Not the way a post on a professional blog usually begins, right?

They're the opening words of George Orwell's classic essay "Shooting an Elephant." And they demonstrate how surprise--the unexpected, the unusual--can make for an effective beginning.

Orwell's opening sentence is also effective because it is concrete--he begins with a geographical detail--and makes an unusual and candid observation. We don't normally profess to being hated.

"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones." So begins the scientist Richard Dawkins's Unweaving the Rainbow. As Steven Pinker explains in his Sense of Style, Dawkins here avoids the cliché ("Since the dawn of time") and the banal ("Recently, scholars have been increasingly concerned with . . .").

Even in academic writing, one can find arresting beginnings. Here is how the economist Paul Samuelson opens a 1965 article in the American Economic Review: "A rope will hang in the shape of a catenary, y(x) = a1eλx + a2e−λx, because even a dumb rope knows that such a shape will minimize its center of gravity." The anthropomorphic rope and unusual vocabulary word give the sentence its interest.

Understatement can be effective, as in this brilliant opening line by the old New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling: "Inconsiderate to the last, Josef Stalin, a man who never had to meet a deadline, had the bad taste to die in installments."

When in doubt, begin with a person--and better yet, a person and a difficulty. "Abraham Wald stuck out as a student at the University of Vienna. He was an Ostjude, an Eastern Jew from Siebenbürgen (Transylvania) and thus was a member of the poor immigrant community that flooded Vienna after World War I," begin Till Dueppe and E. Roy Weintraub in a 2016 article in History of Political Economy.

I'll close by considering how might one improve the beginning of an academic article. Here are the opening sentences to a 2016 article in the American Economic Journal: Microeconomics:

Signaling theory is often used to explain seemingly inefficient investments. The peacock's large and colorful tail is often explained as a costly signal from males with high but unobservable reproductive value.

For an academic economics article, the authors give us much to work with in the second sentence. But, given the audience and their expectations, the authors miss at least one opportunity for a captivating beginning:

Consider the peacock.