Strategies For Writing An Effective Introduction For An Essay

Every essay or assignment you write must begin with an introduction. It might be helpful to think of the introduction as an inverted pyramid. In such a pyramid, you begin by presenting a broad introduction to the topic and end by making a more focused point about that topic in your thesis statement. The introduction has three essential parts, each of which serves a particular purpose.

  1. The first part is the “attention-grabber.” You need to interest your reader in your topic so that they will want to continue reading. You also want to do that in a way that is fresh and original. For example, although it may be tempting to begin your essay with a dictionary definition, this technique is stale  because it has been widely overused. Instead, you might try one of the following techniques:
    • Offer a surprising statistic that conveys something about the problem to be addressed in the paper.
    • Perhaps you can find an interesting quote that nicely sums up your argument.
    • Use rhetorical questions that place your readers in a different situation in order to get them thinking about your topic in a new way.
    • If you have a personal connection to the topic, you might use an anecdote or story to get your readers emotionally involved.
    • For example, if you were writing a paper about drunk drivers, you might begin with a compelling story about someone whose life was forever altered by a drunk driver: “At eighteen, Michelle had a lifetime of promise in front of her. Attending college on a track scholarship, she was earning good grades and making lots of friends. Then one night her life was forever altered…”
  2. From this attention grabbing opener, you would need to move to the next part of the introduction, in which you offer some relevant background on the specific purpose of the essay. This section helps the reader see why you are focusing on this topic and makes the transition to the main point of your paper. For this reason, this is sometimes called the “transitional” part of the introduction.
    • In the example above, the anecdote about Michelle might capture the reader’s attention, but the essay is not really about Michelle. The attention grabber might get the reader thinking about how drunk driving can destroy people’s lives, but it doesn’t introduce the topic of the need for stricter drunk driving penalties (or whatever the real focus of the paper might be).
    • Therefore, you need to bridge the gap between your attention-grabber and your thesis with some transitional discussion. In this part of your introduction, you narrow your focus of the topic and explain why the attention-grabber is relevant to the specific area you will be discussing. You should introduce your specific topic and provide any necessary background information that the reader would need in order to understand the problem that you are presenting in the paper. You can also define any key terms the reader might not know.
    • Continuing with the example above, we might move from the narrative about Michelle to a short discussion of the scope of the problem of drunk drivers. We might say, for example: “Michelle’s story is not isolated. Each year XX (number) of lives are lost due to drunk-driving accidents.” You could follow this with a short discussion of how serious the problem is and why the reader should care about this problem. This effectively moves the reader from the story about Michelle to your real topic, which might be the need for stricter penalties for drinking and driving.
  3. Finally, the introduction must conclude with a clear statement of the overall point you want to make in the paper. This is called your “thesis statement.” It is the narrowest part of your inverted pyramid, and it states exactly what your essay will be arguing.
    • In this scenario, your thesis would be the point you are trying to make about drunk driving. You might be arguing for better enforcement of existing laws, enactment of stricter penalties, or funding for education about drinking and driving. Whatever the case, your thesis would clearly state the main point your paper is trying to make. Here’s an example: “Drunk driving laws need to include stricter penalties for those convicted of drinking under the influence of alcohol.” Your essay would then go on to support this thesis with the reasons why stricter penalties are needed.
  4. In addition to your thesis, your introduction can often include a “road map” that explains how you will defend your thesis. This gives the reader a general sense of how you will organize the different points that follow throughout the essay. Sometimes the “map” is incorporated right into the thesis statement, and sometimes it is a separate sentence. Below is an example of a thesis with a “map.”
    • “Because drunk driving can result in unnecessary and premature deaths, permanent injury for survivors, and billions of dollars spent on medical expenses, drunk drivers should face stricter penalties for driving under the influence.” The underlined words here are the “map” that show your reader the main points of support you will present in the essay. They also serve to set up the paper’s arrangement because they tell the order in which you will present these topics.
  • A final note: In constructing an introduction, make sure the introduction clearly reflects the goal or purpose of the assignment and that the thesis presents not only the topic to be discussed but also states a clear position about that topic that you will support and develop throughout the paper. In shorter papers, the introduction is usually only one or two paragraphs, but it can be several paragraphs in a longer paper.

For Longer Papers

Although for short essays the introduction is usually just one paragraph, longer argument or research papers may require a more substantial introduction. The first paragraph might consist of just the attention grabber and some narrative about the problem. Then you might have one or more paragraphs that provide background on the main topics of the paper and present the overall argument, concluding with your thesis statement.

Below is a sample of an introduction that is less effective because it doesn’t apply the principles discussed above.

An Ineffective Introduction

Everyone uses math during their entire lives. Some people use math on the job as adults, and others used math when they were kids. The topic I have chosen to write about for this paper is how I use math in my life both as a child and as an adult. I use math to balance my checkbook and to budget my monthly expenses as an adult. When I was a child, I used math to run a lemonade stand. I will be talking more about these things in my paper.

In the introduction above, the opening line does not serve to grab the reader’s attention. Instead, it is a statement of an obvious and mundane fact. The second sentence is also not very specific. A more effective attention grabber may point out a specific, and perhaps surprising, instance when adults use math in their daily lives, in order to show the reader why this is such as important topic to consider.

Next the writer “announces” her topic by stating, “The topic I have chosen to write about…” Although it is necessary to introduce your specific topic, you want to avoid making generic announcements that reference your assignment. This technique is not as sophisticated and may distract the reader from your larger purpose for writing the essay. Instead, you might try to make the reader see why this is such an important topic to discuss.

Finally, this sample introduction is lacking a clear thesis statement. The writer concludes with a vague statement: “I will be talking more about these things in my paper.”  This kind of statement may be referred to as a “purpose statement,” in which the writer states the topics that will be discussed. However, it is not yet working as a thesis statement because it fails to make an argument or claim about those topics. A thesis statement for this essay would clearly tell the reader what “things” you will be discussing and what point you will make about them.

Now let’s look at how the above principles can be incorporated more effectively into an introduction.

A More Effective Introduction

“A penny saved is a penny earned,” the well-known quote by Ben Franklin, is an expression I have never quite understood, because to me it seems that any penny—whether saved or spent—is still earned no matter what is done with it. My earliest memories of earning and spending money are when I was ten years old when I would sell Dixie cups of too-sweet lemonade and bags of salty popcorn to the neighborhood kids. From that early age, I learned the importance of money management and the math skills involved. I learned that there were four quarters in a dollar, and if I bought a non-food item—like a handful of balloons—that I was going to need to come up with six cents for every dollar I spent. I also knew that Kool-Aid packets were 25 cents each or that I could save money and get five of them for a dollar. Today, however, money management involves knowing more than which combinations of 10-cent, five-cent, and one-penny candies I can get for a dollar. Proper money management today involves knowing interest rates, balancing checkbooks, paying taxes, estimating my paycheck, and budgeting to make ends meet from month-to-month.

  • In the first line the writer uses a well-known quotation to introduce her topic.
  • The writer follows this “attention-grabber” with specific examples of earning and spending money. Compare how the specific details of the second example paint a better picture for the reader about what the writer learned about money as a child, rather than this general statement: “As a child, I used math to run a lemonade stand.” In the first introduction, this statement leaves the reader to guess how the writer used math, but in the second introduction we can actually see what the child did and what she learned.
  • Notice, too, how the reader makes the transition from the lessons of childhood to the real focus of her paper in this sentence: “Today, however, money management involves knowing….”
  • This transition sentence effectively connects the opening narrative to the main point of the essay, her thesis: “Proper money management today involves knowing interest rates, balancing checkbooks, paying taxes, estimating my paycheck, and budgeting to make ends meet from month-to-month." This thesis also maps out for the reader the main points (underlined here) that will be discussed in the essay.

Resources

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

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