In the Beginning…
Writing Effective Introductions
Why Introductions Matter
- The opening paragraph is your first chance to make a good impression—to grab your readers’ interest and make them want to keep reading your paper. A thoughtful, imaginative introduction will persuade your readers that you—and your ideas—are worthy of their time and attention. A poorly written or boring introduction, on the other hand, will create a bad impression and will make readers wonder why they should bother spending time in your company.
- The introduction identifies the topic you are addressing, indicates why the topic matters, and often signals the approach and the tone (or attitude) you will take in your handling of that topic.
- The opening paragraph provides a kind of road map for your readers, alerting them to what they can expect as they travel through your paper. In a thesis-driven paper, the thesis statement is usually located in the introduction, often at the end of the first paragraph.
Tips for Writing Effective Introductions
Try writing your introduction last. Often, writers don’t know exactly what they want to say or what their thesis actually is until they have finished the first draft.
For narratives or personal response essays, offer a hook—an intriguing anecdote, a telling description, a scintillating quotation, a startling fact, or a provocative statement or question—to capture readers’ interest.
For other types of academic writing, including research papers, literature reviews, and summaries, begin with a statement of the problem the paper addresses, followed by background information on the problem and why it is significant. Then, provide an explanation of the focus and purpose of the paper, and conclude with the thesis statement and/or a brief summary of the paper’s contents. (See our handout on “Formal Academic Introductions” for examples.)
Examples of Effective Introductions
An introduction using description (and an anecdote as well):
“A weasel is wild. Who knows what he thinks? He sleeps in his underground den, his tail draped over his nose. Sometimes he lives in his den for two days without leaving. Outside, he stalks rabbits, mice, muskrats, and birds, killing more bodies than he can eat warm, and often dragging the carcasses home. Obedient to instinct, he bites his prey at the neck, either splitting the jugular vein at the throat or crunching the brain at the base of the skull, and he does not let go. One naturalist refused to kill a weasel who was socketed into his hand deeply as a rattlesnake. The man could in no way pry the tiny weasel off, and he had to walk half a mile to water, the weasel dangling from his palm, and soak him off like a stubborn label.”
-Annie Dillard, Living Like Weasels
An introduction using a provocative statement:
“I am an academic call girl. I write college kids’ papers for a living. Term papers, book reports, senior theses, take-home exams….”
-Abigail Witherspoon, This Pen for Hire
An introduction using a quotation:
“‘Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant,’ Georgia O’Keefe told us in the book of paintings and words published in her ninetieth year on earth. She seemed to be advising us to forget the beautiful face in the Stieglitz photographs. She appeared to be dismissing the rather condescending romance that had attached to her by then, the romance of extreme good looks and advanced age and deliberate isolation….”
-Joan Didion, Georgia O’Keefe
Types of Introductions to Handle with Care
The "Restating the Question" Introduction
Professors often find themselves reading a stack of papers that all begin with a restatement of the question they themselves wrote. If you choose to begin your paper with the question, try to do so in an interesting way that goes beyond mere restatement.
Example of a weak opening that restates the question:
“Does Beowulf make the correct decision when he elects to fight the dragon? Yes, he does. The reason why is that he does indeed know, like all mortals, that he must die, and so he meets his fate heroically.”
Example of a more effective strategy:
“Beowulf’s arrogance, bravery, self-sacrifice and the loyalty he inspires in his men all make him one of literature’s most heroic figures. Although some critics, including Beowulf’s own retainer, have complained that fighting the dragon was a prideful and foolish act, he clearly had no other choice.”
The "According to Webster's Dictionary" Introduction
This introductory strategy is used so often that it has become a cliché. It is important to define the terms of a discussion; indeed, in many essays, stipulating how you are using terms is crucial. However, the introduction probably isn’t the best place to do so. If you do choose to define your terms in the opener, try to do it in a way that is creative and original.
Example of a weak opening using a definition:
“The American Heritage Dictionary defines weak as ‘Lacking physical strength, energy, or vigor; feeble….Likely to fail under pressure, stress, or strain; lacking resistance: a weak link in a chain.’”
Example of a more creative approach:
“ ‘Asymptotic freedom.’ It was the first and only piece of text that had intruded into the long rows of equations and symbols that covered that morning’s blackboard. Perhaps that accounts for the words being so seared into my memory. Or perhaps it was just the first thing on the board that morning that made any sense to my numerically challenged mind. ‘Asymptotic freedom.’ What beautiful words. The dictionary defines the term as referring to “a property of the forces between quarks, according to quantum chromodynamics, such as that they behave almost like free particles when they are close together within a hadron.’ You would probably need a graduate course in quantum physics to truly understand the concept, but it is basically a fairly simple notion. An ‘asymptote’ is a line on a graph that extends into infinity.”
-Christopher Livaccari, qtd in Frames of Mind, 398
The "Since the Beginning of Time" Introduction
Here, the writer makes sweeping generalizations or vague assertions about the topic. Such introductions often lack a thesis, suggesting that the writer does not have much to say. Ask: Can I cross out my opening paragraph with no loss of impact or meaning? If the answer is yes, then it’s time to revise!
Example of a weak “since the beginning of time” introduction:
“Since the beginning of history, poverty and inequality have been a problem for mankind.”
Example of a more effective approach:
“It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabin-doors crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for alms….
-Jonathan Swift, A Modest Proposal
Webster University Writing Center, 2005