Wholesome, Hearty, and Oh, So Necessary: The Power of a Strong Introduction
February 1, 2017
By Jessica Frank, Writing Tutor
After an hour-long stare off between yourself and a blank Word document, you're left with no choice but to drudgingly pound down on the keyboard, forcing the cursor along the page. At this point, you're just trying to get something-anything-on your screen. You stumble upon a source text that sparks your main argument, and soon, three lines of text turn into one paragraph, then another. The ideas begin to flow from your brain onto the page as fast as the coffee you gulp into your mouth. Five pages later, you punch out a final period and bam-you're finished. Time to slam down your computer screen, and reap some well-earned sleep. But if you listen carefully in the silence of your room, you might hear the cries of a forgotten introduction paragraph calling out for a little more TLC.
Why, though, does the introduction matter? And what is its function? An intro does the important job of situating the reader in a particular contextual framework from which the essay will unfold. This context should be narrowly aimed at your specific topic and should avoid beginning with some broad reference or flowery abstraction.
Think about your introduction as being the breakfast of your paper. Yes, breakfast: the most important meal that jumpstarts the day. Just as breakfast is necessary to begin your day, the introduction is an essential part of every paper. The difference between a strong introduction and a weak one is the difference between a breakfast buffet and a stale Pop-Tart. Presenting your reader with a carefully prepared and hearty introduction will give them the energy needed to stay engaged with the rest of your essay.
Whether you usually write the intro first or you tackle the body and return to the intro later, ask yourself the following questions to stay on task:
1. What is the purpose of my paper? Answering this question involves having a clear understanding of your assignment. Most likely, the answer to this question will be "to analyze" or "to synthesize" or "to argue"; that is, most of the papers you are asked to write in college will be formal and academic. Understanding the assignment will help you choose the proper tone of your introduction.
Example: If your task is to identify the relationship between science and religion during the Enlightenment, it would be inappropriate to begin your paper with a descriptive anecdote about a moment when your own personal faith was challenged. While narration may be an appropriate way to begin an essay that is specifically personal or creative, academic papers value careful research and critical analysis. Creativity is often rewarded, but a too playful introduction can undermine your credibility as an author presenting a serious, evidence-based argument.
2. Is my first sentence specific? Avoid rambling and crowding your paper with unnecessary "fluff" in the introduction-jump head first into the topic at hand. Academic writing values concision, and the first few sentences should provide information that readers absolutely need in order to situate themselves within your paper. If you are a writer who gets the wheels turning by just typing out any thoughts to begin, know that the first few sentences of a paper can often be cut because they tend to be too general.
Example: Imagine you are writing a paper about Pride and Prejudice, and your thesis statement is "Mrs. Bennet's rush to marry off her daughters is necessitated by patriarchal standards and is a sign of female oppression." Beginning your entire paper "British literature is filled with exceptional authors. Among them is Jane Austen, one of the most beloved authors..." is not specific enough-your paper is not really about British literature or Jane Austen. A more appropriate beginning would situate this paper within the context of Pride and Prejudice particularly. It might address the ways in which most readers perceive Mrs. Bennet, and then it might address how your argument offers an alternative perspective.
3. Does my thesis fall near the end of the paragraph? Though not all writing requires an explicit one, thesis statements are an important component of a traditional analytical essay. The thesis statement is typically the last sentence of the introduction, and it is comprised of one or two sentences that succinctly articulate the argument or aim of your paper (although more complex projects might call for a delayed thesis or more extensive ones). The claim being made should be narrow enough and able to be proven within the assignment's limits. While argumentative, the thesis need not be a blatant binary argument that addresses some controversy (i.e., abolish the death penalty, evolution is a fallacy, etc.). Rather, an arguable thesis can be thought of as highlighting some insight that extends beyond the surface of a given text or idea-one that wouldn't be obvious or easily accepted by the reader.
For more pointers, watch What Not to Do in an Introduction by Shmoop, or visit The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill's tip sheet on Introductions.