Students often think that an introduction to an essay is a bit like a billboard, flashing “Read me! Read me!” Like false advertising, such introductions begin with the most grandiose claims, promising something interesting for everyone.
The good news is that the introduction doesn’t have to do everything: it doesn’t have to include the most original “hook” or the most creative lead up. The main thing is to introduce your essay’s argument, and if you’re passionate about the point you’re making, your reader will be too.
What To Avoid
Let’s first review what not to do in your introduction!
A Tacky Hook
Many teachers suggest that an introduction should start with a creative hook. However, the results are often corny and melodramatic. Here are some examples of the most stereotypical hooks:
- A dictionary definition (especially of common words)
- A quotation from some famous person
- A question (“Have you ever wondered …?”)
- A startling fact or statistic
You’re not forbidden from using one of these hooks. In fact, we recommend the judicious use of an example or two. However, it’s best to write organically, so that your opening flows naturally from your topic.
A truism is an observation that is so obviously true that it usually doesn’t need stating. Here are some examples:
Few things are as destructive to a country as a civil war.
Women have long been excluded from positions of authority.
Many people struggle with depression.
Just because something is true doesn’t mean it needs to be mentioned. Try refine your point as quickly as possible.
A generalization may contain an element of truth, but does not take into account exceptions to the rule:
History always repeats itself.
The Vikings were courageous pagan explorers.
People who don’t actually like their job will inevitably reveal their dislike.
Check that you don’t start your essay with a needless generalization.
Unless you’re writing a book review, or you are writing for a popular audience, you do not need to praise (or condemn) your object of study. There is no need to say that Shakespeare was a genius or that Picasso was the greatest modernist artist.
Neither do you need to provide some moral lesson. Madame Bovary may demonstrate that adultery does not always lead to happiness, but that shouldn’t be the focus of your argument. Concentrate on analysis instead.
Avoid including too much material in your introduction. If your essay is relatively short (e.g., 3-5 pages), your introduction shouldn’t be much longer than half a page.
To prevent your introduction from looking like an overgrown garden, keep background information to a minimum, use quotations sparingly, and focus your attention on your own argument.
Remember that later paragraphs can still include some introductory material. For instance, an essay on the Black Lives Matter movement might follow up its introduction with some general body paragraphs on the history of race relations in the United States.
Focus on the big picture first and save many of the details for later.
What To Do
In general, we recommend that you construct your introduction around your thesis statement. Come up with your argument and then use the preceding sentences to lead up to it. In what follows we provide some strategies for writing effective introductions.
The Research Question
A good introduction seeks to answer a particular question. The thesis statement is the most direct answer to this question, and the rest of the introduction gives us enough context to make sense of that answer.
Let’s take as an example the following introduction to a comparative essay:
William Shakespeare’s sonnets 115 and 116 have long been seen as a pair. Both sonnets explore how the passage of time affects love. They also share a common vocabulary. Each poem describes how Time “alters” things, and each claims that whereas other poems “do lie” (115.1) and contain “error” (116.13), they will provide a truthful definition of love. Yet the answers they provide appear vastly different. Sonnet 115 claims that love grows and changes, whereas Sonnet 116 states that true love is constant and unwavering. The only way to reconcile these two perspectives is to realize that a constant and undying love may include an element of change, and that not all of Time’s effects are harmful.
This introduction begins by pointing out some similarities before noting that the sonnets seem to provide a radically different attitude towards love. The research question, then, is as follows:
If Shakespeare’s Sonnet 115 and 116 are meant to be companion poems, yet provide such different perspectives on the relationship between love and time, can we reconcile these perspectives?
As you can see, this is a complex question, and the better our question, the more interesting our answer.
When you write your introduction, try formulate your research question, even though you won’t be likely to include it. The research question can be the instructor’s question or your own. Either way, check that your introduction is focused entirely on answering this question.
If your research question is a good one, your introduction will have an element of tension. Since you’re trying to address a problem or solve a conundrum, there is something at stake.
The following introduction creates tension by asking how a novel can be both comical and terrifying at the same time:
G. K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday has a rather nonsensical plot. Gabriel Syme, a neurotic poet and detective, infiltrates an anarchist cell only to discover that his fellow conspirators are all policemen. This ludicrous plot leads to many comical situations, including the novel’s final sequence, where the character of Sunday escapes on an elephant, rides on a fire engine, and throws a strange party at his house. Yet these comic moments are also frightening, and the novel is appropriately subtitled “A Nightmare.” This odd mixture allows Chesterton to depict the absurdity of the universe, an absurdity that might lead atheists to despair but for Chesterton provides a glimpse of God’s unique sense of humour.
As you can see, the tension is resolved at the end: the odd mixture of comedy and nightmare is said to create an absurdity that for Chesterton points to God.
So ask yourself: does my introduction raise a problem? If it does, have I provided an adequate solution?
When writing your essay, the introduction is often best saved for last. You have to know what you’re arguing before you can tackle the introduction. That also means that in revising your essay you will constantly have to fine tune the beginning: as your essay takes shape, the thesis will likely change with it.
In addition, your introduction will become more specific over time. Notice that our two sample introductions start as close to the topic as possible. They don’t mention all the author’s works or give an elaborate biography. In fact, you may find that after you’ve written your introduction you can chop off the first few sentences. It often takes us a surprising amount of time to zoom in.
So use your introduction to raise an interesting question or problem and provide a solution that’s clever and intriguing.
If you struggle with writer’s block, try fill out our Essay Introduction Questionnaire and use the accompanying diagrams to help structure your introduction.