Let me introduce you

Good readers work by making guesses, and the better your introduction, the better their guesses will be. The introduction has several tasks:

There's often another step, especially in writing outside the University:

How big should the introduction be?

The real answer is "just big enough." That isn't much help though. Here's a starting point: a short, two-page paper will be about 600 words, and if you're doing a five-paragraph format, you might aim at body paragraphs that are about 100 words each. That leaves 50 words for the introduction and another 50 for the conclusion. A slightly longer three-page paper might be 960 words, which works out to 80 words for the introduction and conclusion. A single sentence isn't enough, even if it's the thesis (those don't scream "Read me!" very often). If half of the essay is introduction, you are probably telling a long story, then tacking on a couple of paragraphs just to make the teacher happy.

What about the thesis?

As a writer, you need to always remember where you are going, and a good thesis will help you. Some writers choose to reveal their thesis late in the paper or not to reveal it at all. When it works, this tactic is sometimes very powerful, but it always runs the risk of confusing the reader.

As you look at the sample essays for this course and articles you read in general, you will probably be surprised to see how many actually put their thesis in the introductory paragraph. That's a normal way to do academic writing. In fact, you will often find it in a very standard location, at the end of the first paragraph.

Special note for English 100:

When you write the final Qualifying Essay for this course, it must have "an explicit thesis statement that consists of an argument or complex idea." It's got to be there on the page, not simply implied.

Introductions gone wrong

Here are a few from my files to show you problems that you should avoid.

There are many issues in our day and age; abortion is one that causes a lot of controversy. Like any issue, there are many people for it and against it. There are so many discussions and problems with the issue of abortion in upcoming elections and what not that can determine people's view on our future president. Not only is it a personal opinion of whether or not abortion is humane or not, but it goes deeper into people's belief systems and religions. Abortion is murder because it is the termination of a human being, intentional and premeditated, and an act of immoral behavior.

That was a great example of thesis plop. The paragraph wandered around, trying to think of something to say, then that extremely technical and very definite thesis sentence dropped PLOP! on our heads. No preparation for it whatsoever—it always looks to me like something the author copied from somewhere. (In addition, it is a great example of begging the question, which is the error of assuming your audience already agrees with everything you are about to argue.)

The next one is very good at predicting content, tone and direction, but unfortunately the tone it's predicting is dull and boring. We're going to read a list. And that's exactly what the essay turned out to be—a boring list. This writer obviously is writing to fulfill a school assignment—and that's it. She assumes that the audience knows exactly what she's talking about, so she doesn't have to do any work to acquaint the reader with her topic.

This essay on the short story of "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid will focus on three main points. First, I will discuss the point of view in the story and also what the italicized comments are doing in the story. Second, I will explain why this short story is all one paragraph and why it is almost a single sentence. Finally, I will explain the unspoken subtext of the story.

Finally, here's one that is a personal favorite. I challenge you to guess the topic of the essay that followed.

In society today there are numerous amounts of aspects to what makes families different from one another. Divorced families make wedded families appear to be different. Single parent families differ drastically from large families, and several other aspects among families make one appear different from the other. However, not so much the outer aspects of families is what makes them seem to different from each other. It seems that more families are different from one another more so on characteristics of what goes on within the family. Things such as religious practices one family does different from another, or language one family speaks compared to another all makes families far more different in the world.

It was an essay about nutrition. It's a great example of a false lead—an introduction that takes the reader in a totally misleading direction. The awkward, fake academic, repetitive language did not do much to scream "Read me!" either. The real message is "Drop me! Run away from this essay!"

Introduction pitfalls

Poor writing

The abortion introduction is made up of short choppy sentences with no flow and no relationship between them. The Kincaid introduction reads like the beginning of a manual for repairing a power tool. The "In society today" introduction is incredibly repetitive and made of a series of wordy, fake academic clichés. Nobody would read any of these unless he was paid to do it.

The meaning of all life on the planet

I get a lot of essays that fire up with "In today's society" or "Since the beginning of time" or some other incredibly pompous opener. I'm sorry to tell you this, but your 1000-word essay cannot solve all the problems of the world. It cannot give the entire history of time. It cannot survey and discuss all the attitudes of "today's society" (whatever that means).

Often, these self-important introductions sound very silly:

In today's society there are a variety of different brands of vacuum cleaners; Rainbow, Hoover, and Electrolux are just a few common name brands that are out on the market today.

The essay that followed was a simple description of the way vacuum cleaners work. Why did it need to somehow pretend that it had done a survey of all modern culture?

SIDE NOTE: Somewhere, someone is telling high school students that all essays must begin with the words, "In today's society." That's a lie. Those three words are so incredibly overused that most teachers get a little ill when they read them. Some even deduct an automatic five points for those words. Essays that begin that way are announcing that they have nothing original to say, intend to be pompous and boring, and have no intention of thinking very deeply at all. That's a pretty poor beginning.

Apology for existing

Introductions will often say (maybe not in so many words), "I'm just a college freshman and I don't have any very deep or important thoughts, but I had to write this, so here it is." As a writer, one of your tasks is to give your reader the confidence that you know what you are talking about. You are about to present the product of mature thought, and you want us to value it. Write an introduction that says that.

Throat-clearing

Most of the "Abortion" introduction and all of the "Nutrition" introduction could be summed up as "Ahem." After the "Nutrition" writer clears his throat for 143 words, he says, "Before college, anytime I would have friends stay the night at my house, or have someone over for dinner I would always have to explain a long drawn out story that seemed to them as being irrelevant to just having a simple meal." THAT is his topic!

The personal diary entry

Your reader doesn't need to know how many cups of coffee you drank, how frustrated you were when you got the assignment, or how much you appreciate being a college student. If you want to write that sort of material, keep a diary. It doesn't really introduce the topic at all—in fact it diverts us from thinking about the topic and encourages us to think about your personal life.

The essay written to mind-readers

Do not assume that every possible reader on the planet has attended our classes, seen the assignment sheet, and sat with you at lunch. You are writing to strangers. Do not begin your essay like this:

The author makes a great point in the third paragraph, but the main problem, as Bob said in class, is that the article is pitched to Tarheels.

As a writer of an expository essay, your main job is to be an explainer, so explain things!

A final disaster

Here's one last example that draws it all together: it's choppy and ungrammatical; it's unappealing; it uses jargon (consumer drawn) that shuts the reader out; it says what the writer will talk about, but never says what point she will make about it; it refers to an article that was part of the assignment, but doesn't even name the article.

There have been times in my life where I have been consumer drawn. I enjoyed looking better than my peers. I used brand names to make me feel superior. However, now I have realized that expensive clothes do not make a person. I believe that determination, trust and love are what make a truly good person. In the following paper, I will talk about the differences between male and female advertising. First, I will talk about the specific examples that I found of gendered advertisements. Next, I will speak about the general ethics behind gender different advertisements. And finally, I will speak about the "Nothing more, nothing less" aspect of Ogilvy's article. In addition, how our society views advertisements.

You can do better than this.

One last bit of advice:

You don't have to write the introduction first. If you can't think of a good opener, write the middle of your essay, then come back to it.


The views and opinions expressed in this page are strictly those of the page author.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or approved by Ashland University.
Revised 8/8/17 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: callen@ashland.edu.