Introductions

Learning Objectives

  • Identify successful strategies for writing introductions

Just because the introduction appears first in an essay, doesn’t mean it has to be written that way. Good writing is a recursive process and even when a writer does construct an initial introduction at the beginning of the writing process, they will return to it frequently to see how it fits with the rest of the piece. Regardless of when the introduction is composed, it is important to make it a good one because the introduction sets the stage for the rest of the essay.

Introductions

Even though a nearly infinite number of topics and arrangements are possible in English prose, introductions generally follow one of several patterns. If you’re writing a children’s story, you’d probably start with “once upon a time” or something similar. If you’re writing a research article on biomechanical engineering, you’d probably start with a statement about how previous research has examined the problem of loading soldiers with daypacks on various surfaces, including sand, concrete, and railroad ballast. These examples are poles apart, but their introductions share very similar purposes: they orient their imagined readers to the topic, time, and place.

Many students make the mistake of beginning their essays in overwhelmingly broad or obvious terms. For example, a student writing about the politics of same-sex marriage might begin a paper by saying, “People have been falling in love and getting married for thousands of years.” A sentence like this simply postpones the real work of an essay by giving its audience information that any reasonable person would already know. Students usually write overly vague introductions because they have been taught to “start broad” and then “narrow their focus.” More experienced writers understand that everything in an introduction needs to contribute substantially to their argument.

There is no strict formula for composing an introduction, but effective introductions often do the following:

  • Provide background about a topic
  • Locate readers in a specific time and/or place
  • Start with a compelling quotation or statistic—something concrete
  • Include an ethical appeal, with which you (explicitly or implicitly) show that you’ve researched your topic and are credible
  • Articulate a main claim/thesis (but normally after some buildup)
  • Layout the stakes for the piece of writing—that is, why the reader should bother reading on

Sample Introductions

Let’s look at some examples of introductions:

The introduction below provides background information and a compelling quotation or statistic. In the following example, notice how just a few sentences can offer background and make the thesis of the essay clear: 

  • In the early twentieth century, there were just 8,000 cars in the United States and only 144 miles of paved roads. In 2005, the Department of Transportation recorded 247,421,120 registered passenger vehicles in the United States and more than 5.7 million miles of paved highway. The automobile has changed our way of life dramatically in the last century.

The next introduction makes an argument about the role of a musical instrument in 245 BCE by locating readers in a specific time and/or place.

  • In 246 BCE, Ctesibius of Alexandria invented a musical instrument that would develop into what we know as the organ. Called a hydraulis, it functioned via wind pressure regulated by means of water pressure. The hydraulis became the instrument played at circuses, banquets, and games throughout Mediterranean countries.

Students often want to know how many sentences an introduction should be. There is no magic formula although some writing instructors have particular guidelines or preferences.

The example below is a single sentence introduction that could work as a very short introduction to a brief paper or could be expanded for a longer essay.

  • While IQ tests have been used for decades to measure various aspects of intelligence, these tests are not a predictor of success, as many highly intelligent people have low emotional intelligence, the important human mental ability to reason about emotions and to use emotions to enhance thought.

Notice how this brief introduction packs a great deal of information into one sentence (not always a recommended strategy) but still manages to articulate a main claim/thesis (that IQ tests are not a predictor of success) while also explaining how the tests have been used and why they may be misleading.

The longer introduction below moves from the image of a six-year-old playing with Barbies to a strong thesis about the benefits of pageants.

  • When most people think of normal activities for a six-year-old girl, they picture a sea full of Barbie dolls, coloring books and dress-up clothes. Popular shows such as “Toddlers and Tiaras,” which revolves around exaggerated filming of child pageantry, show America one narrow view of what the pageant world is all about. The media distorts how society views pageants, but, in fact, pageants can be viewed on the same positive level as other popular competitive sports. Pageants can be beneficial because they give children contestants useful life lessons.

Keep in mind that some of the examples above are too short to function as complete introductions and are offered to help you think about how you might get your introduction started. 

Fishing line.

Figure 1. An attention-grabbing opener, sometimes called a hook, is one strategy to use when writing an introduction- similar to how fishermen use hooks to reel in their catch.

Strategies for Good Introductions

Although there is no one “right” way to write your introduction, there are some common introductory strategies that work well. The strategies below are ones you should consider, especially when you are feeling stuck and having a hard time getting started.

Consider opening with an interesting fact, an anecdote, a pithy quotation, an image, or a question to provoke your reader’s interest.

One technique is to provide information or data that draw the audience’s attention to the problem or issue. To present her research on electric car usage and ownership, Yuliya Chernova writes:

  • Electric cars are still such a novelty that little is known about their owners and how they use the vehicles. But recent research is beginning to unlock some of the mysteries. Plug-in vehicles—those that run entirely on battery power or that combine electric and gasoline drives—represent less than 1% of total U.S. vehicle sales, but in the past three years their numbers have grown rapidly. Sales nearly tripled in 2012 and are on track to nearly double this year, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a trade group. (Chernova, 2013)

Consider employing anecdotes that dramatize the problem or issue. Brad Tuttle begins his article, ”The Major Problem with Cheap Electric Cars,” with the following account:

  • Mitsubishi is the latest in a long line of automakers to slash prices on an electric car, the unpronounceable, unfortunately named i-MiEV. The model is now the cheapest electric vehicle (EV) on the market, yet it’s still hard to imagine many drivers excitedly running out to buy one. (Tuttle, 2013)

Another strategy is to respond to a quotation that addresses the problem or issue in some way. Columnist George F. Will quotes President Barack Obama to begin his own argument about the United States’ policy on Iran’s nuclear program:

  • In his disproportionate praise of the six-month agreement with Iran, Barack Obama said: “For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted progress of the Iranian nuclear program.” But if the program, now several decades old, had really been “halted” shortly after U.S. forces invaded neighboring Iraq, we would not be desperately pursuing agreements to stop it now, as about 10,000 centrifuges spin to enrich uranium. (Will, 2013)

Overall, your focus in an introduction should be on orienting your reader. Notice how the example below catches the reader’s attention with references to the game Atari and the television show Dynasty and closes with a strong, clear thesis.

  • Play Atari on a General Electric brand television set? Maybe watch Dynasty? Or read old newspaper articles on microfiche at the library? Twenty-five years ago, the average college student did not have many options when it came to entertainment in the form of technology. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and the digital age has digital technology, consumers are bombarded with endless options for how they do most everything-from buying and reading books to taking and developing photographs. In a society that is obsessed with digital means of entertainment, it is easy for the average person to become baffled. Everyone wants the newest and best digital technology, but the choices are many and the specifications are often confusing.

Remember, an effective introduction will capture your reader’s attention, provide context for your topic, and transition to your thesis.

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