Did you know? The introduction to your academic essay might just be the most important paragraph. Not only does it house the road-map of your essay (the thesis statement) along with its motivator (the motive); but it also constitutes the starting point for your reader, who is, in the end, your most valued customer! You definitely do not want to bore your reader from the first sentence, even if you feel like you may be talking about the most boring subject on the face of the planet (trust me, I’ve been there!). Whatever your subject, you should be able to introduce it with pizzazz, in such a way that your reader has to keep reading.
Here are some tricks.
- Do notsimply reword the essay prompt in your opening sentence. For example, if your essay prompt is the following:
“What are the most prominent themes in To the Lighthouse and how are these expressed in the text as a whole?”
Do not begin your essay in the following textbook fashion:
“To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf, has many themes. These include…”
2. Do consider beginning with a quote from the primary text you are analyzing, especially if you are analyzing a work of literature. For example:
“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question,” Mrs. Ramsay ponders in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsay’s inquiry gestures to the novel’s larger themes of existentialism and the passage of time.
3. Do try starting with another scholar’s argument, but only if you intend to argue against that or build off of it. Consider the following example:
John Smith considers To the Lighthouse to be a “pivotal text in the realignment of the author’s thoughts about her childhood, as figured in the character of Mrs. Ramsay” (Smith 100). Yet the novel’s investment in the character of Mr. Ramsay suggests that Smith’s argument is unsupported.
4. Do make sure your thesis statement is concise and evident. Remember: for a five-paragraph essay, it should be able to fit into one smooth sentence! Ideally, this should come at the end of your introduction, so that the next paragraph can jump right into your main points. For a refresher on the thesis statement, check out my recent postings on Thesis Statements and Motives.
5. Do notopen with a question, contrary to what your teacher might advise. This is a no-no in the arena of professional academic writing. You can, however, phrase your motive—the inspiration behind your thesis statement—as a question, which is often most helpful for students in formulating their motive/thesis pair.
6. Do not begin with a personal anecdote. Personal experience also belongs to the category of subjects that are not academic essay material.
7. Do not be afraid of ‘jumping right in!’ Sometimes you will find that the first paragraph you write is a mere ‘clearing of your throat,’ when in reality, it sounds much better to just get to the heart of the matter. Fearlessly starting with your problem, outlining your method of attack, and doing so in a concise and crisp manner will be much more effective in the long run.
8. Do not begin with grandiose, generalizing statements, such as “In contemporary society,” or “Since the dawn of time,” or “In humanity.” These are overused and will not help you get to your main point efficiently.
9. Do think about writing your introduction last. Did you hear me right? Yes! Sometimes you’ll only have a better idea about your main point after you have had a crash course through the first rough draft of your essay!
10. Do make sure your introduction comes across as active and assertive. Pay attention to your word choice and verb constructions. Shorter, clearer sentences are always better than longer, rambling ones.
Still stuck? Try breaking down your introduction to the following “bare bones” and working up from there:
- “Hook:” a gripping first sentence, idea, quote, assertion.
- Brief background information, if necessary. This could include other critics’ arguments, or quite simply the long-and-short of the material with which you are working.
- Motive: problem, puzzle, issue, area of interest, conflict, etc., that either you have discovered in your research, another author has overlooked, or someone else has been unable to solve up until this point.
- Thesis Statement: your roadmap! This should include your synthesized argument and why it is important.
- (Optional): “Larger” thesis statement; a hint at another point you will be making in your conclusion.
Remember: your introduction is the same as your first impression. Make it the best it can be!
Check out the last post in this 8 part series on writing academically:
Check out the previous posts:
About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and epistolary culture. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.
An article today about a man who did not officially have a first name until he was 19 asks the question, “What’s in a name?” Do you like your name? How did you get it? How has it shaped you? If, like this man, you had to officially name yourself now, would you keep the name you’ve had all your life, or take another? Why?
Erik Eckholm writes about cartoonist Max Pauson and how life without a name shaped him:
…this promising art student’s strong sense of self was hard-earned. It was forged in an unstable, emotionally wrenching childhood and, in an odd detail that might serve as a metaphor for his struggles, it comes after 19 years of life without a legal name.
His birth certificate read only “(baby boy) Pauson.” Name to come.
His father had disappeared. His mother — in his words, “a pack rat who takes a really long time to decide on anything” — did not pick a first name at the hospital in San Francisco in 1990. And she never followed up, leaving him in a rare and strange limbo.
While Mr. Pauson was long aware of the blank spot in his identity, he never quite had the time or means to correct it. He lived with his mother in a house that sometimes lacked electricity. He spent time in foster care and returned to live with his mother in homeless shelters and in public housing. Finally, at 15, he ran away to live with friends’ families.
In an era when identities and backgrounds are scrutinized more than ever, he still managed to get into schools, though he never tried to obtain a driver’s license.
Students: Tell us how you got your name, how it defines you, and whether or not you would keep it if you could rename yourself now.
Teachers: Here are ten ways to teach with this feature.
Questions about issues in the news for students 13 and older.