Since the dawn of man, writing has been used to communicate ideas. In academic settings, ideas are typically communicated using formal types of writing such as essays. Most academic essays contain an introductory paragraph, which includes a thesis.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines an introduction as, “A preliminary explanation prefixed to or included in a book or other writing; the part of a book which leads up to the subject treated, or explains the author’s design or purpose. Also, the corresponding part of a speech, lecture, etc.”
Michigan State University student Sally used to have a lot of difficulty writing introductions. Once she had suffered through writing dozens of painful introductions, she decided to look up some tips on how to introduce your essay, and after that she got a lot better.
Introductions can be tricky. Because the introduction is the first portion of your essay that the reader encounters, the stakes are fairly high for your introduction to be successful. A good introduction presents a broad overview of your topic and your thesis, and should convince the reader that it is worth their time to actually read the rest of your essay. Below are some tips that will make writing an introduction a little less daunting, and help us all to write essays that don’t make our professors want to bang their heads against the wall.
- Start your introduction broad, but not too broad. When I first started writing formal essays, I didn’t really know how broad to go with my intros. A brief paragraph on Hamlet would suddenly include irrelevant details about Shakespeare’s childhood, then grow out to be a history of Western literature, and then a history of the universe itself. Do not write an introduction like this; this kind of intro is confusing and makes the reader wonder where exactly you’re going with your essay.Your introduction should provide the reader with a sense of what they should expect out of your essay, not to expound upon every piece of knowledge ever developed by man. Go ahead and start relatively broad, then narrow to your thesis, but make sure you’re still on topic.
- Provide relevant background, but don’t begin your true argument. It’s fine to give a bit of context to your essay in the introduction, but the real meat of your argument should be located in your body paragraphs. A good test to see if information should go in a body or introductory paragraph is to ask yourself a few questions. Is this providing context or evidence? Does this introduce my argument, or try to prove it? True evidence or proof deserves a body paragraph. Context and background most likely belong in your introduction.
- Provide a thesis. The majority of the time, your thesis, or main argument, should occur somewhere towards the end of your introduction. It is a typical convention to put your thesis as the last sentence of your first paragraph. My personal opinion is that it can sometimes be awkward to shove your thesis in one specific place if it doesn’t necessarily fit, but if your thesis works in that position, that is the best place for it. That being said, if you absolutely can’t include your thesis in that location, go ahead and stick it somewhere else.
- Provide only helpful, relevant information. Anecdotes can be an interesting opener to your essay, but only if the anecdote in question is truly relevant to your topic. Are you writing an essay about Maya Angelou? An anecdote about her childhood might be relevant, and even charming. Are you writing an essay about safety regulations in roller coasters? Go ahead and add an anecdote about a person who was injured while riding a roller coaster. Are you writing an essay about Moby Dick? Perhaps an anecdote about that time your friend read Moby Dick and hated it is not the best way to go. The same is true for statistics, quotes, and other types of information about your topic.
- Try to avoid clichés. Some types of introductions may have once been successful, but have been used so often that they have become tired and clichéd. Starting your essay with a definition is a good example of one of these conventions. At this point, starting with a definition is a bit boring, and will cause your reader to tune out.
- Don’t feel pressured to write your intro first. Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out exactly what information is relevant to your introduction until you’ve written the piece itself. Personally, I find that my writer’s block is always strongest when writing the introduction. If you are having trouble with your intro, feel free to write some, or all, of your body paragraphs, and then come back to it. You might find it a bit easier to write your introduction once you’re more comfortable with the essay as a whole.
- Convince the reader that your essay is worth reading. Your reader should finish the introduction thinking that the essay is interesting or has some sort of relevance to their lives. A good introduction is engaging; it gets the audience thinking about the topic at hand and wondering how you will be proving your argument. Good ways to convince your reader that your essay is worthwhile is to provide information that the reader might question or disagree with. Once they are thinking about the topic, and wondering why you hold your position, they are more likely to be engaged in the rest of the essay.
Basically, a good introduction provides the reader with a brief overview of your topic and an explanation of your thesis. A good introduction is fresh, engaging, and interesting. Successful introductions don’t rely on clichés or irrelevant information to demonstrate their point. Be brief, be concise, be engaging. Good luck.
“I want to tell you about the time I almost died.”
I really don’t have such a tale to tell, but I bet I piqued your interest, didn’t I? Why? Because it’s a great opening line that makes you want to learn more. You keep reading because you want to know how the story ends.
This line is actually the first line of the movie Fallen(1998), and whether or not you like the movie, you have to admit that the opening line is killer.
A killer opening line and catchy introduction are exactly what you want for your essay. You want to write an essay introduction that says, “READ ME!”
To learn how to write an essay introduction in 3 easy steps, keep reading!
Why You Need a Good Introduction
First impressions are important!
Think about how many times you start reading an article and don’t read more than a line or two because you lose interest just that fast.
Readers are going to approach your paper in the same way. If they aren’t interested in the first few lines, they’ll stop reading. (Of course, your professor will keep reading even if she’s not very interested, but that’s not the reaction you’re hoping for.)
Without a good introduction, your paper will fall flat.
Like anything it takes a bit of time and practice to craft the perfect introduction, but it’s worth it! So let’s talk about how to write an essay introduction in 3 easy steps.
How to Write an Essay Introduction in 3 Easy Steps
Step 1: Write a catchy opening line
What do all good essay introductions have in common? They have memorable opening lines.
These opening lines (sometimes called hook sentences) grab readers’ attention. They provide just enough information to leave your audience wanting more.
What your opening line looks like will depend on what type of paper you’re writing.
You might try using a shocking quote, an interesting statistic, an anecdote, or a question you’ll answer in the essay.
If you’re writing a problem/solution essay, for example, you’ll likely be writing about a serious topic. Your tone and opening lines will reflect this, and a shocking quote or statistic might be your best option.
Here’s a quick example:
Bad opening line for a problem/solution essay: Parking on campus is terrible, and they definitely need to do something about it.
This broad, uninteresting statement doesn’t work well as opening line. The language is too informal, and readers aren’t sure who “they” might be.
Better opening line for a problem/solution essay: A 2014 Student Government survey revealed that 65% of commuters have been late to class in the past semester due to lack of available on-campus parking.
The opening line works much better. Not only is the tone much more serious, but it includes a statistic that reveals that the problem actually exists.
If you’re writing an evaluation essay, you’ll likely be writing in first person. Because this essay is more informal, you have more options for an opening line. You might use a personal story or anecdote, but might also find that a quote works just as well.
Let’s look at a few sample opening lines from an evaluation essay.
Bad opening line #1: I think Michael Keaton was a good Batman.
The most appropriate reaction to this line would be: So what?
This opening line tells readers almost nothing. It isn’t interesting and doesn’t grab readers’ attention at all.
Bad opening line #2: According to dictionary.com, Batman is “a character in an American comic strip and several films who secretly assumes a batlike costume in order to fight crime”.
This is a horrible opening line! Don’t use dictionary definitions to start your paper. Dictionary definitions are dull and boring, and in most cases, readers already know the word you’re defining, so the strategy isn’t effective.
Bad opening line #3: Ever since the days of the cavemen, we’ve told stories about our heroes.
This type of introduction makes a broad, sweeping statement that doesn’t offer any connection to the real content of your paper. Avoid such statements that start with the beginning of time.
Better opening line:Even though Christopher Nolan’s Batman has been critically acclaimed, the fact remains that the most successful Batman ever made was Tim Burton’s version starring Michael Keaton (Aspen).
This opening line cites a credible source and offers readers an arguable statement.
This type of statement will work well if readers are fans of Keaton or if readers are fans of Nolan, as they’ll want to read on to see why you think Keaton is so much better.
Step 2: Introduce your topic
Think about what readers need to know to understand the focus of your paper. Think about how narrow or how broad your introduction should be and what you’ll include in your opening paragraph to help readers understand what you’re writing about.
If you’re writing an evaluation essay about Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman, including details about the entire Batman franchise is too broad. Instead, focus your introduction more closely on only Michael Keaton’s interpretation of Batman.
Here’s an example.
Bad strategy to introduce the topic: Batman debuted in comic books in 1939 and has been popular ever since. Batman was a television show in the 1960’s and was also remade into many feature-length movies. These movies include Batman & Robin, Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and The Dark Knight Trilogy.
This example discusses the history of Batman and lists various movies, but the focus is broad, and it doesn’t even mention Michael Keaton. Remember, you’re writing an evaluation essay about Michael Keaton, so he should probably be mentioned in the introduction!
Better strategy to introduce the topic: Since Batman’s comic book debut in 1939, Batman has been portrayed in the 1960’s hit television show (starring Adam West) and in a number of feature-length movies, with A-list actors such as Michael Keaton, George Clooney, and Christian Bale starring in the lead role. Though all of these actors brought their own unique style to the caped crusader, Michael Keaton’s performance stands out among the others.
This example still includes an overview of the history, but it focuses on the men who starred as Batman. This strategy narrows the focus of your introduction and tells readers that you’ll be focusing on Michael Keaton, rather than the history of Batman or the other actors.
Step 3: Write a clear, focused thesis statement
A thesis statement is essentially a mini-outline of your paper. It tells readers what your paper is about and offers your opinion on the topic.
Without a strong thesis, your essay introduction pretty much falls apart.
It’s like putting together a TV stand but deciding to not use all 500 tiny screws in the plastic bag. Without all of those screws in place, the stand will fall apart once you put your TV on it.
So take the time to write a focused thesis. It will help hold your paper together.
Check out this example.
Bad thesis statement: In this paper, I’ll prove that Michael Keaton is the best Batman.
There are so many things wrong with this thesis that I don’t even know where to start.
First, in most types of writing there’s really no need to announce statements like, “In this paper…” Readers should understand the thesis without such announcements.
Second, your essay won’t “prove” the Michael Keaton is the best, so avoid such absolute wording.
Finally, the thesis is vague. How will you define “best”? What does it mean to be the “best” Batman? A thesis needs to be far more specific.
Better thesis statement: Michael Keaton’s comedic timing, on-screen presence, and ability to deliver flawless lines makes Keaton’s version of Batman one of the most effective on-screen portrayals of the character to date.
This thesis statement is much better because it gives readers a quick overview of the paper. It also tells readers that you’re writing about Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman, and you’re evaluating Keaton on three specific criteria.
It’s strong enough to stand on its own and strong enough to hold your paper together.
Here’s what your completed essay introduction looks like.
Even though Christopher Nolan’s Batman has been critically acclaimed, the fact remains that the most successful Batman ever made was Tim Burton’s version starring Michael Keaton (Aspen). Since Batman’s comic book debut in 1939, Batman has been portrayed in the 1960s hit television show (starring Adam West) and in a number of feature-length movies, with A-list actors such as Michael Keaton, George Clooney, and Christian Bale starring in the lead role. Though all of these actors brought their own unique style to the caped crusader, Michael Keaton’s performance stands out among the others. Michael Keaton’s comedic timing, on-screen presence, and ability to deliver flawless lines makes Keaton’s version of Batman one of the most effective on-screen portrayals of the character to date.
Not bad, is it? It hooks readers with a catchy opening line, provides a brief introduction to your topic, and includes a strong, focused thesis to let readers know what your paper is about.
Write the Introduction Last (and Other Crazy Ideas)
Even though the introduction is the first thing your audience reads, the introduction doesn’t have to be the first thing you write.
You should always start with a solid focus for your paper, but you can start writing the body of your paper first. Sometimes it can be easier to think of a clever line and strong thesis once you’ve written the main arguments of your paper.
You might also try writing the body and conclusion of your paper (minus the introduction). Once you’ve written the conclusion, think about how you might rework your concluding ideas into an amazing introduction.
Yes, this means you’ll need to write a second conclusion, but sometimes revised conclusions make the best introductions!
If you’re one of those procrastinators and need a bit of help actually starting your paper, read How to Write an Essay Fast and Well.
You might also want to read this to help with formatting.
If you’re still not sure if you know how to write an essay introduction that works, why not have one of our Kibin editors take a look at your paper?
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