academic writing: THE INTRODUCTION
Your opening is particularly important; if it doesn't grab your audience's attention, you will probably lose them after a couple of paragraphs. The introduction in an academic essay has another function: to announce your thesis statement so that your readers know what to expect from your essay. An effective introduction can keep you oriented too:; you can refer back to your thesis as you write to ensure you're staying focused.
Even if you understand the function and importance of the introduction, you might struggle from time to time with writing one. Fortunately there are many ways to engage and orient your readers--and yourself. They include:
FUNCTION OF THE INTRODUCTION
You might have heard this common piece of writing and speech-making "advice": Tell 'em what you’re going say; say it; and tell 'em what you said. Although this "advice" suggests that you need an introduction, body, and conclusion and emphasizes that it's important that your audience is clear about your thesis, it can make for a rather dull essay or speech, particularly if your text is short. Although academic essays must be clear, they need not be dull.
The approaches below will help you craft an introduction that both piques your readers' interest and orients them to your ideas. None of these strategies is "better" than the others; they all have their merits. Practice them and soon you'll be have a good ideas which will most likely suit your purpose and audience.
TIP: Are you planning to give a speech or presentation? Click here for alternatives to the "tell 'em" approach.
TYPES OF INTRODUCTIONS
- Use the "News Lead"
Introduce your main ideas using a concise but lively and informative “news lead that introduces the who, what, where and when--and sometimes even the why and how--of a topic in a mere sentence or two.
Here’s an example: Students who apply to Springfield College Boston report that they were drawn by the mission, flexible schedule, competitive tuition rates, respect for the adult learner, mature student body, and opportunity to earn credit for what they know. This "news lead" sentence conveys a lot of information in a crisp style that avoids the mind-numbing phrases in this example, which is all too typical of academic writing: In this essay, I will explore the four main reasons that students give for applying to the Springfield College Boston campus. These reasons include the following: the mission . . . . ”
To write an effective "news lead," answer as many of the "W" questions as possible; eliminate "verbal clutter"(words that aren't essential to your meaning); and use active verbs and clear but interesting diction.
- Move from General to Specific
To move from general to specific, begin with an overview of your topic then narrow down to your thesis. This approach allows you to set a useful context for your ideas.
Say that you're writing an essay that exposes stereotypes of the poor in America. You could begin with a broad statement such as: Most Americans agree that it's wrong to stereotype people on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious preference. Next you could narrow your focus to socio-economic status: However, many Americans blindly stereotype the poor as stupid and lazy." Then you could home in on your thesis: Americans want to believe that everyone has unfettered opportunity to succeed, but research demonstrates that being born into poverty can severely limit one's potential.
You could narrow even further by stating your multi-part thesis statement.
- Startle the Reader
Sometimes writers grab readers’ attention by declaring something surprising, or even shocking. Suzan Shown Harjo does just that in her editorial “Last Rites for Indian Dead,” which begins with this question: What if museums, universities and government agencies could put your dead relatives on display or keep them in boxes to be cut up and otherwise studied? (She then proves that this is exactly how hundreds of thousands of deceased Native Americans have been treated.) Harjo's startling question compels you to read on.
"Startling the reader" typically draws in an audience effectively, but can makes it challenging to lay out a detailed thesis. Also, although not the case here for Harjo (who issues a value-laden and compellingly logical call to action),"startling the reader" lends itself well to introducting controversial arguments.
- Start with the Opposing View
A writer might open with an opposing view and go on to dismantle it. (Newspaper editorials are sometimes structured this way.)
For instance, if Harjo had begun her piece with an opposing view, she might have written something like (but far better than) this: For centuries, museums, universities, government agencies, and even private collectors have bought, sold, and displayed Native American bones and funerary objects. Defenders of this abhorrent practice might say they do so to study, preserve, and share indigenous culture. However, I believe their true motive is greed.
Stating your opponents' points up front and refuting them can be very effective. Don't forget, though, to present your own ideas and build a cse in support of them. Simply undoing another's argument is less effective than also providing a sound alternative.
- Pose Questions
Posing questions to your readers about your thesis and main ideas can prompt them to start thinking and even to engage in an internal dialogue with you.
Let’s return to the "news lead" topic of adults returning to college. What if the essay began like this?: You have a busy life. You work; you're raising kids; your aging parents rely on you. You even help out at church. But you need and want to finish that degree you started before your children were born. It seems impossible with your crazy schedule and tight budget. But what if you found a school designed for adults exactly like you--one with flexible class schedules and competitive tuition rates, one that awards academic credit for what you already know? What if you could finish your degree in 2 years by taking relevant classes that teach what employers want you to know? What if you could learn in a supportive environment, from faculty who respect adult learners and with classmates your own age? Could anything stop you from applying?
A question-based introduction can be less succinct than a "news lead" one; however, posing questions allows the writer to bring in the thesis and main ideas easily--and more artfully than in a conventional essay introduction that reads along these lines: in this essay, the writer will prove the following four points: . . . .
- Tell a Story
It's simply a fact that people like stories. One of the most effective ways to draw and hold readers' interest is to open with a story.
For instance, Harjo quickly follows her shocking opening question with an account of unarmed Cheyenne people who were massacred at Sand Creek, "exhumed only hours after being buried," and "decapitated" so that their heads could be "shipped to Washington as freight." Did that get your attention? I expect so!
If you do start with a story, beware: story-telling is so enjoyable that it's easy to get carried away. Don't let the story overtake the essay. Also, be sure to create a smooth transition from your tale to your thesis and body paragraphs.
FINAL NOTE: Although your introduction will lead off your essay, it's usually easier to work out your thesis statement and main ideas before you write your introduction. In fact, many writers craft the introduction last, and--given its importance--compose several types to see which works best for their given purpose and audience.
TIP: To learn more, watch this excellent 20-minute video, [How to Write an Effective Essay: The Introduction, by James at EngVid,on crafting an effective introduction--and developing main ideas and a clear organizational structure for an essay:
This work by Sherri VandenAkker, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.