Advice on how to write an introduction to an essay
I once had a professor tell a class that he sifted through our pile of essays, glancing at the titles and introductions, looking for something that grabbed his attention. Everything else went to the bottom of the pile to be read last, when he was tired and probably grumpy from all the marking.
"Don't get put at the bottom of the pile," he said.
We don't want you, intrepid essay writer, to be put at the bottom of the pile because of poor essay writing. An introduction does exactly what its name implies: it introduces the subject of the paper to readers. But most importantly, it provides readers with a map to the overall paper. A good introduction captures readers' attention, tells them what the paper is about, and provides an outline of what is to come. The introduction is quite possibly the most important part of an essay, but it can also be the hardest for some writers. Don't fret though; we're here to provide you with some tips and guidelines for writing introductions and staying on the top of the pile.
Tips for writing an introduction
Start with a bang!
If you really want to draw readers in, you have to start your introduction with something attention grabbing. This can be a startling fact, an interesting anecdote, or a relevant quote from an expert. Refer to our article about front matter for more ideas for what to include at the beginning of your work. You can even present the point you are going to argue against.
Be general before you're specific.
You must provide your readers with a little background or basic information about the topic you are covering. Start with the broader subject and lead your readers to your specific topic. This is especially important when writing a book report. Show them how your topic relates to the bigger picture.
Lay it on 'em.
After providing your readers with some background, use your essay introduction to outline what you are going to discuss. Lay out your main points and arguments, preferably in the order in which you are going to discuss them.
What's your point?
The most important thing to include when writing an introduction is your thesis! A thesis statement is the main point of your paper; it is narrow, focused, and specific. A thesis can be something you are arguing for or it can be something you are arguing against. Whatever the case, be sure to include it. The thesis can come before your outline or at the very end of your essay introduction.
There is no rule for exactly how long an introduction should be. You must consider the length of your overall paper when writing your introduction. An appropriate length for a five-page essay is about half a page, but if you are writing a 40-page paper, your introduction will span several pages and multiple paragraphs.
Check out our example introduction to an essay to get a better understanding of how to best lay out your first paragraph. One final tip: write the introduction when it's easiest for you. Some writers find introductions extremely hard to write. It may be easier for them to write the introduction last (and maybe even write the conclusion and back matter first). Other writers find introductions help them find the direction of their paper and write them very early in the writing process. If you are struggling with your essay introduction, put it aside for a while and continue with the body of the paper.
Want to learn more? Check out How to Write an Essay in 5 Easy Steps, available now on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.
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The introduction to an essay has three primary objectives:
- Explain the context of the essay
- Give the answer: the response to the question or the overall focus of the essay (the thesis statement)
- Describe the structure and organisation of the essay
These aims can be given more or less emphasis depending on the length and type of essay. In a very short essay (less than 1000 words), for example, there is not much room to give a full and detailed context or structure. A longer essay has room for greater detail.
Essays are usually written for an intelligent but uninformed audience, so begin with some context: the background of the topic, the topic scope, and any essential definitions.
- Introductions often begin with a broad opening statement that establishes the subject matter and background. Don't make it too broad (“Since time began…”), but identify the relevant topic and sub-topic (e.g. human resource management, early childhood development, animal behaviour…).
- To establish the scope, answer basic questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? Is the essay limited to a particular time period, a particular group of people, a particular country?
- Definitions are often established after the introduction, so only include them here if they are absolutely essential.
Answer / focus
The most important part of the introduction is the response to the question: the thesis statement. Thesis statements are discussed in detail here: thesis statements.
An introduction often ends on the thesis statement. It begins with a broad statement and gradually narrows down until it directly addresses the question:
This order of introduction elements is not set in stone, however. Sometimes the thesis statement is followed by a breakdown of the essay's structure and organisation. Ultimately, you must adapt the order to suit the needs of each particular essay.
Strong introductions tell the reader how the upcoming body paragraphs will be organised.
This can be as easy as outlining the major points that your essay will make on the way to the conclusion. You don't need to go into much detail in the introduction: just signal the major ‘landmarks.’
It can help to identify how all of the paragraphs are organised:
- Do the paragraphs deal with the issue from earliest to most recent (chronological)?
- Are the paragraphs grouped by broader themes (thematic)?
- Does the essay answer several related questions one after the other (sequential)?
- Do the paragraphs describe two elements and them compare them (contrasting)?
The essay will be much more readable once the reader knows what to expect from the body paragraphs.
See sample essay 1 and sample essay 2 for model introductions.
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Last updated on 25 October, 2012