home :: paragraphs: introductions & conclusions lesson: introductions
Part 1: Introductions
To learn strategies for writing introductions that engage the reader, and create interest in the topic to be discussed and the argument to be made in the essay.
The very first job before you in an essay is to capture your reader's interest and attention. Consider these openings lines from three different essays about Hawaii. Which lines do the best job of capturing your interest?
The first introduction is the least interesting because it offers so many broad generalizations. Without a concrete image or idea, readers will rarely make a strong connection with the topic. The second introduction is far more effective at creating interest because of the numerous sensory and concrete details. Readers are asked to picture themselves in the scene, and so are called upon to engage deeply with the topic at hand. The third introduction is also effective because of the element of surprise: the author provides a concrete and interesting statistic about the level of tourism that suggests one conclusion, that Hawaii would be too crowded for a satisfying vacation, but then surprises the reader by suggesting that in spite of this problem, Hawaii can still be paradise. The reader is engaged by the promise of unexpected and surprising information in the essay to follow.
How do you go about writing an introduction that is going to get your reader's attention? To start, put yourself in the place of your reader. Ask yourself, under what conditions will my reader pick up this essay? Imagine your reader having a general interest in your topic, but also distractions, such as laundry needing to be done, or loud music next door, or kids arguing. You need to break through these distractions by providing a compelling reason to read. And since you know your own idea intimately, try to capture for your reader what drew you in and made you passionate about this topic. That said, there are a few specific strategies that you may adopt, shaping them to your own purposes:
A short anecdote:
Relevant background material:
Be careful here. Don't include background material that does not have a direct bearing on your topic. Broad generalities merely distract the reader and postpone what is really important in the essay (for example, "Since the beginning of time," or "Throughout American history")
An interesting fact or statistic:
This technique is used above.
Start with a commonly held belief or opinion, and then assert a new approach or direction for your essay.
A short narrative:
This technique is also used above.
A question or several questions to be answered in the essay:
Definition of a key term in your essay:
Avoid dictionary dictionary definitions! This method is over-used in the college essay. Try for a more extended definition that is keyed into your essay topic.
Moving into your thesis...
In addition to capturing the reader's interest and establishing the topic of your essay, the introduction should focus the reader's attention on what you will be arguing in the essay itself about your topic. The argument is typically captured in a single sentence we call the "thesis sentence." The diagram (right) helps illustrate the way an introduction should focus the reader's thought:
The thesis as a promise...
Once you have your thesis, examine it carefully for the language in your thesis statement because the language will determine what you can do in your essay from here on out. A thesis is a promise, or contract, between you and the reader. The reader takes in your words in the thesis and says, ok, show me. If you say, for example, "It is still possible to experience paradise in Hawaii," the reader will expect to be shown how one can experience paradise in Hawaii. If, on the other hand, your thesis is "Hawaii is a wonderful place for a family vacation," the reader will expect to be shown why Hawaii is a great place for families to take a vacation. Of course, you still have options for development with any thesis; for example, with this second thesis, you could compare Hawaii to other destinations as family vacation spots, showing why Hawaii is the better choice, and/or you could describe the many different activities for families on the Hawaiian Islands, but you could not include a discussion of why Hawaii is a paradise in this essay because such a discussion is outside the scope of the thesis.
What not to do...
...Don't begin with a huge generalization like "Throughout history civilizations have grown and died." You will have to take too many steps to get from such a broad generalization to your specific argument. Instead, stay within your topic area, or within a theme tightly connected to your thesis.
...Don't over use rhetorical questions. Instructors don't much like them because they are a often a kind of cop out; instead of going the extra distance to figure out what the argument actually is, the writer settles on a focusing question; for example, "Why is their such an obesity epidemic in America?" The answer to this question makes a much stronger thesis: "The obesity epidemic in this country has several causes, but the worst is our fast-food culture." On the other hand a rhetorical question is actually a good focusing device for a draft. Some writers find a clear question keeps them focused as they are developing their ideas. If you like working with rhetorical questions to help you stay focused, be sure to turn that question into a statement in your final draft.
...Don't describe your writing or thinking process. Statements like "As I was exploring ideas for this topic," "I am no expert on ... but I will do the best I can," or "Words are not enough to really explain," detrract from your topic by redirecting the emphasis to you and your methods.
...Don't feel you must describe the structure of your essay in your thesis (unless your instructor requires such description). Some essays naturally fall into clear and equal divisions (e.g., "There are three good methods for strengthening the body after muscle injury"), but others do not (e.g., "Life without my husband was going to be difficult.")
1. Opening Lines
2. Moving Into Your Thesis
3. The Thesis as a "Promise"
4. What Not to Do