04. Beginning and Ending

Dated Jan 7, 2017; last modified on Tue, 03 May 2022


Your shot at intriguing or acclimating the reader. Establish the tone, stylistic manner and attitude in the first few sentences.

The Direct Beginning

State the subject in the first sentence, and the thesis in the first paragraph.

Use the first paragraph to define subject or a quick synopsis of the material to come.

The Delayed Beginning

An attention-getting device, e.g. anecdote, generalization, vivid description, dramatic incident, paradoxical observation, can serve as the background to your thesis.

Opening Sentences

What is special about the incipit, that other sentences lack? Maybe it’s an aura of irrefutability, or a trap door that tips us into the world of fiction, or a foreknowledge of a story/conflict to come, or a subtle mixture of arrogance (unbearable aplomb to break the silence) and humility (setting the tone for subsequent sentences). An incipit assumes its lack of self-sufficiency with dignity. To get your first sentence right, go straight to the second.

Short and Simple: Murder was Capone’s business.

Loose, multi-claused: Murder was a business that Capone had developed into the dimensions of a big American corporation.

Beginning with a modifying phrase: Cold and calculating, Capone made murder his business.

Multi-claused and dramatic: Having made murder his business, Capone developed a strong affluent empire in the underworld.

Quotation from another author: Fine writing, according to Mr. Addison, consists of sentiments which are natural, without being obvious. There cannot be a juster and more concise definition of fine writing.

A question: Why should any words be called obscene? Don’t they all describe natural human functions?

A proverb/aphorism: “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” runs the ancient taunt by which boys justify their acquisitive instincts.

A one-word or virtual sentence: Thursday, 28 November. Nantucket light.

A piece of dialogue: “I wish poets could be clearer,” shouted my wife angrily from the next room. Here is a universal longing.

Other Remarks

Do only what needs to be done in the beginning.

Reserve the “In this paper I plan to discuss …” for the scientific/technical report.

Avoid the overworked dictionary-definition beginning. Sidestep the time consuming opening that publicizes the subject’s popularity.


Good endings can’t save poor compositions, but bad endings ruin good writing.

Summarize the composition, albeit in a different phrasing. Or reach an illuminated conclusion as a result of the central part of the composition.

The ending should be proportional to the length of the beginning

Don’t hammer a platitude. Reserve “In conclusion, …” for scientific/technical reports.


Start a collection of especially effective beginnings and endings that you encounter in your readings.


  1. How to be an Incipit? Paul Vacca. www.berfrois.com . Apr 26, 2022. Accessed May 3, 2022.