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:
Good readers read well by making accurate guesses. If you can help your reader make good guesses about where you are going with this piece, you have served your reader well; if you are vague or misleading, you can frustrate even the best readers and completely alienate them.
The real answer is “just big enough.” That isn’t much help though. Here’s a starting point: if you’re writing a brief essay (less than six pages), aim at perhaps 50 to 75 words. 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.
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.
Many writing textbooks suggest that you should use some sort of “hook” at the beginning to draw the reader in. (I’m picturing the writer as a fisherman and the reader as the fish.) It’s certainly a good idea to give that first sentence some careful thought (and to come up with something better than the totally worn-out “the dictionary defines” opener), but this advice should come with a couple of warnings:
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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!
We don’t really want or need to know how many cups of coffee you drank, how difficult it was to get information, or how much you loved writing this piece. If you want to write, “I really enjoyed the chance to explore this topic” (and put in a conclusion that says, “Thank you for the chance to write about this”), go buy a spiral notebook and write that stuff there. Or email the instructor with your thanks. Don’t put it in the introduction—it’s distracting and too informal.
If your opening sentence of your introduction is “This is a very difficult subject,” we’re both in trouble. If you fire up a reading response with “He made a great point in the third paragraph,” you have lost us. Remember that one task of the introduction is to predict content, and that means that any reader (even a reader who is not a student in our class) should be able to figure it out. If you are discussing a piece of writing, even something as well known as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a good introduction will mention what the piece was, who wrote it, and what is the basic point you are making. If you were asked to compare two things, describe a process, or defend a position, don’t make the reader guess. And don’t assume the reader is holding a copy of your assignment sheet.
One of my colleagues routinely takes five points off the top of any essay which begins “In today’s society…” One of the introduction’s tasks is to invite the reader to continue, and those safe stock phrases which have been overused by ten million college freshmen don’t tend to do that. They drive people away. So just lose:
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.
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 8/5/22 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.