The writer of the academic essay aims to persuade readers of an idea based on evidence. The beginning of the essay is a crucial first step in this process. In order to engage readers and establish your authority, the beginning of your essay has to accomplish certain business. Your beginning should introduce the essay, focus it, and orient readers.
Introduce the Essay.The beginning lets your readers know what the essay is about, the topic. The essay's topic does not exist in a vacuum, however; part of letting readers know what your essay is about means establishing the essay's context, the frame within which you will approach your topic. For instance, in an essay about the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, the context may be a particular legal theory about the speech right; it may be historical information concerning the writing of the amendment; it may be a contemporary dispute over flag burning; or it may be a question raised by the text itself. The point here is that, in establishing the essay's context, you are also limiting your topic. That is, you are framing an approach to your topic that necessarily eliminates other approaches. Thus, when you determine your context, you simultaneously narrow your topic and take a big step toward focusing your essay. Here's an example.
|When Kate Chopin's novel The Awakening was published in 1899, critics condemned the book as immoral. One typical critic, writing in the Providence Journal, feared that the novel might "fall into the hands of youth, leading them to dwell on things that only matured persons can understand, and promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires" (150). A reviewer in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch wrote that "there is much that is very improper in it, not to say positively unseemly."|
The paragraph goes on. But as you can see, Chopin's novel (the topic) is introduced in the context of the critical and moral controversy its publication engendered.
Focus the Essay. Beyond introducing your topic, your beginning must also let readers know what the central issue is. What question or problem will you be thinking about? You can pose a question that will lead to your idea (in which case, your idea will be the answer to your question), or you can make a thesis statement. Or you can do both: you can ask a question and immediately suggest the answer that your essay will argue. Here's an example from an essay about Memorial Hall.
|Further analysis of Memorial Hall, and of the archival sources that describe the process of building it, suggests that the past may not be the central subject of the hall but only a medium. What message, then, does the building convey, and why are the fallen soldiers of such importance to the alumni who built it? Part of the answer, it seems, is that Memorial Hall is an educational tool, an attempt by the Harvard community of the 1870s to influence the future by shaping our memory of their times. The commemoration of those students and graduates who died for the Union during the Civil War is one aspect of this alumni message to the future, but it may not be the central idea.|
The fullness of your idea will not emerge until your conclusion, but your beginning must clearly indicate the direction your idea will take, must set your essay on that road. And whether you focus your essay by posing a question, stating a thesis, or combining these approaches, by the end of your beginning, readers should know what you're writing about, and why—and why they might want to read on.
Orient Readers. Orienting readers, locating them in your discussion, means providing information and explanations wherever necessary for your readers' understanding. Orienting is important throughout your essay, but it is crucial in the beginning. Readers who don't have the information they need to follow your discussion will get lost and quit reading. (Your teachers, of course, will trudge on.) Supplying the necessary information to orient your readers may be as simple as answering the journalist's questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why. It may mean providing a brief overview of events or a summary of the text you'll be analyzing. If the source text is brief, such as the First Amendment, you might just quote it. If the text is well known, your summary, for most audiences, won't need to be more than an identifying phrase or two:
|In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's tragedy of `star-crossed lovers' destroyed by the blood feud between their two families, the minor characters . . .|
Often, however, you will want to summarize your source more fully so that readers can follow your analysis of it.
Questions of Length and Order. How long should the beginning be? The length should be proportionate to the length and complexity of the whole essay. For instance, if you're writing a five-page essay analyzing a single text, your beginning should be brief, no more than one or two paragraphs. On the other hand, it may take a couple of pages to set up a ten-page essay.
Does the business of the beginning have to be addressed in a particular order? No, but the order should be logical. Usually, for instance, the question or statement that focuses the essay comes at the end of the beginning, where it serves as the jumping-off point for the middle, or main body, of the essay. Topic and context are often intertwined, but the context may be established before the particular topic is introduced. In other words, the order in which you accomplish the business of the beginning is flexible and should be determined by your purpose.
Opening Strategies.There is still the further question of how to start. What makes a good opening? You can start with specific facts and information, a keynote quotation, a question, an anecdote, or an image. But whatever sort of opening you choose, it should be directly related to your focus. A snappy quotation that doesn't help establish the context for your essay or that later plays no part in your thinking will only mislead readers and blur your focus. Be as direct and specific as you can be. This means you should avoid two types of openings:
- The history-of-the-world (or long-distance) opening, which aims to establish a context for the essay by getting a long running start: "Ever since the dawn of civilized life, societies have struggled to reconcile the need for change with the need for order." What are we talking about here, political revolution or a new brand of soft drink? Get to it.
- The funnel opening (a variation on the same theme), which starts with something broad and general and "funnels" its way down to a specific topic. If your essay is an argument about state-mandated prayer in public schools, don't start by generalizing about religion; start with the specific topic at hand.
Remember. After working your way through the whole draft, testing your thinking against the evidence, perhaps changing direction or modifying the idea you started with, go back to your beginning and make sure it still provides a clear focus for the essay. Then clarify and sharpen your focus as needed. Clear, direct beginnings rarely present themselves ready-made; they must be written, and rewritten, into the sort of sharp-eyed clarity that engages readers and establishes your authority.
Copyright 1999, Patricia Kain, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
“I want to tell you about the time I almost died.”
I really don’t have such a tale to tell, but I bet I piqued your interest, didn’t I? Why? Because it’s a great opening line that makes you want to learn more. You keep reading because you want to know how the story ends.
This line is actually the first line of the movie Fallen(1998), and whether or not you like the movie, you have to admit that the opening line is killer.
A killer opening line and catchy introduction are exactly what you want for your essay. You want to write an essay introduction that says, “READ ME!”
To learn how to write an essay introduction in 3 easy steps, keep reading!
Why You Need a Good Introduction
First impressions are important!
Think about how many times you start reading an article and don’t read more than a line or two because you lose interest just that fast.
Readers are going to approach your paper in the same way. If they aren’t interested in the first few lines, they’ll stop reading. (Of course, your professor will keep reading even if she’s not very interested, but that’s not the reaction you’re hoping for.)
Without a good introduction, your paper will fall flat.
Like anything it takes a bit of time and practice to craft the perfect introduction, but it’s worth it! So let’s talk about how to write an essay introduction in 3 easy steps.
How to Write an Essay Introduction in 3 Easy Steps
Step 1: Write a catchy opening line
What do all good essay introductions have in common? They have memorable opening lines.
These opening lines (sometimes called hook sentences) grab readers’ attention. They provide just enough information to leave your audience wanting more.
What your opening line looks like will depend on what type of paper you’re writing.
You might try using a shocking quote, an interesting statistic, an anecdote, or a question you’ll answer in the essay.
If you’re writing a problem/solution essay, for example, you’ll likely be writing about a serious topic. Your tone and opening lines will reflect this, and a shocking quote or statistic might be your best option.
Here’s a quick example:
Bad opening line for a problem/solution essay: Parking on campus is terrible, and they definitely need to do something about it.
This broad, uninteresting statement doesn’t work well as opening line. The language is too informal, and readers aren’t sure who “they” might be.
Better opening line for a problem/solution essay: A 2014 Student Government survey revealed that 65% of commuters have been late to class in the past semester due to lack of available on-campus parking.
The opening line works much better. Not only is the tone much more serious, but it includes a statistic that reveals that the problem actually exists.
If you’re writing an evaluation essay, you’ll likely be writing in first person. Because this essay is more informal, you have more options for an opening line. You might use a personal story or anecdote, but might also find that a quote works just as well.
Let’s look at a few sample opening lines from an evaluation essay.
Bad opening line #1: I think Michael Keaton was a good Batman.
The most appropriate reaction to this line would be: So what?
This opening line tells readers almost nothing. It isn’t interesting and doesn’t grab readers’ attention at all.
Bad opening line #2: According to dictionary.com, Batman is “a character in an American comic strip and several films who secretly assumes a batlike costume in order to fight crime”.
This is a horrible opening line! Don’t use dictionary definitions to start your paper. Dictionary definitions are dull and boring, and in most cases, readers already know the word you’re defining, so the strategy isn’t effective.
Bad opening line #3: Ever since the days of the cavemen, we’ve told stories about our heroes.
This type of introduction makes a broad, sweeping statement that doesn’t offer any connection to the real content of your paper. Avoid such statements that start with the beginning of time.
Better opening line:Even though Christopher Nolan’s Batman has been critically acclaimed, the fact remains that the most successful Batman ever made was Tim Burton’s version starring Michael Keaton (Aspen).
This opening line cites a credible source and offers readers an arguable statement.
This type of statement will work well if readers are fans of Keaton or if readers are fans of Nolan, as they’ll want to read on to see why you think Keaton is so much better.
Step 2: Introduce your topic
Think about what readers need to know to understand the focus of your paper. Think about how narrow or how broad your introduction should be and what you’ll include in your opening paragraph to help readers understand what you’re writing about.
If you’re writing an evaluation essay about Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman, including details about the entire Batman franchise is too broad. Instead, focus your introduction more closely on only Michael Keaton’s interpretation of Batman.
Here’s an example.
Bad strategy to introduce the topic: Batman debuted in comic books in 1939 and has been popular ever since. Batman was a television show in the 1960’s and was also remade into many feature-length movies. These movies include Batman & Robin, Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and The Dark Knight Trilogy.
This example discusses the history of Batman and lists various movies, but the focus is broad, and it doesn’t even mention Michael Keaton. Remember, you’re writing an evaluation essay about Michael Keaton, so he should probably be mentioned in the introduction!
Better strategy to introduce the topic: Since Batman’s comic book debut in 1939, Batman has been portrayed in the 1960’s hit television show (starring Adam West) and in a number of feature-length movies, with A-list actors such as Michael Keaton, George Clooney, and Christian Bale starring in the lead role. Though all of these actors brought their own unique style to the caped crusader, Michael Keaton’s performance stands out among the others.
This example still includes an overview of the history, but it focuses on the men who starred as Batman. This strategy narrows the focus of your introduction and tells readers that you’ll be focusing on Michael Keaton, rather than the history of Batman or the other actors.
Step 3: Write a clear, focused thesis statement
A thesis statement is essentially a mini-outline of your paper. It tells readers what your paper is about and offers your opinion on the topic.
Without a strong thesis, your essay introduction pretty much falls apart.
It’s like putting together a TV stand but deciding to not use all 500 tiny screws in the plastic bag. Without all of those screws in place, the stand will fall apart once you put your TV on it.
So take the time to write a focused thesis. It will help hold your paper together.
Check out this example.
Bad thesis statement: In this paper, I’ll prove that Michael Keaton is the best Batman.
There are so many things wrong with this thesis that I don’t even know where to start.
First, in most types of writing there’s really no need to announce statements like, “In this paper…” Readers should understand the thesis without such announcements.
Second, your essay won’t “prove” the Michael Keaton is the best, so avoid such absolute wording.
Finally, the thesis is vague. How will you define “best”? What does it mean to be the “best” Batman? A thesis needs to be far more specific.
Better thesis statement: Michael Keaton’s comedic timing, on-screen presence, and ability to deliver flawless lines makes Keaton’s version of Batman one of the most effective on-screen portrayals of the character to date.
This thesis statement is much better because it gives readers a quick overview of the paper. It also tells readers that you’re writing about Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman, and you’re evaluating Keaton on three specific criteria.
It’s strong enough to stand on its own and strong enough to hold your paper together.
Here’s what your completed essay introduction looks like.
Even though Christopher Nolan’s Batman has been critically acclaimed, the fact remains that the most successful Batman ever made was Tim Burton’s version starring Michael Keaton (Aspen). Since Batman’s comic book debut in 1939, Batman has been portrayed in the 1960s hit television show (starring Adam West) and in a number of feature-length movies, with A-list actors such as Michael Keaton, George Clooney, and Christian Bale starring in the lead role. Though all of these actors brought their own unique style to the caped crusader, Michael Keaton’s performance stands out among the others. Michael Keaton’s comedic timing, on-screen presence, and ability to deliver flawless lines makes Keaton’s version of Batman one of the most effective on-screen portrayals of the character to date.
Not bad, is it? It hooks readers with a catchy opening line, provides a brief introduction to your topic, and includes a strong, focused thesis to let readers know what your paper is about.
Write the Introduction Last (and Other Crazy Ideas)
Even though the introduction is the first thing your audience reads, the introduction doesn’t have to be the first thing you write.
You should always start with a solid focus for your paper, but you can start writing the body of your paper first. Sometimes it can be easier to think of a clever line and strong thesis once you’ve written the main arguments of your paper.
You might also try writing the body and conclusion of your paper (minus the introduction). Once you’ve written the conclusion, think about how you might rework your concluding ideas into an amazing introduction.
Yes, this means you’ll need to write a second conclusion, but sometimes revised conclusions make the best introductions!
If you’re one of those procrastinators and need a bit of help actually starting your paper, read How to Write an Essay Fast and Well.
You might also want to read this to help with formatting.
If you’re still not sure if you know how to write an essay introduction that works, why not have one of our Kibin editors take a look at your paper?
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