This assignment will help you construct an engaging and effective introduction, which will appeal to readers and make them want to read your essay.
Step 1: Review
Before you start this assignment, please make sure you have reviewed our lecture Introductions: Making a Good First Impression.
To help you brainstorm different introduction strategies for your essay, let’s practice some ways that you can begin your Essay 2 Prompt: Free vs. Hate Speech.
Using the different types of “leads” explained here, select one type of “lead” and write out a possible introduction paragraph the paper you are working on. Choose a way that you might begin and then add your background information and your thesis (it can (should) be the thesis you wrote for the previous exercise for both leads).
Introductions: Making a Good First Impression
To-Do Date: Oct 8 at 11:59pm
“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. The opening paragraph of your paper will provide your readers with their initial impressions of your argument, your writing style, and the overall quality of your work. A vague, disorganized, error-filled, off-the-wall, or boring introduction will probably create a negative impression. On the other hand, a concise, engaging, and well-written introduction will start your readers off thinking highly of you, your analytical skills, your writing, and your paper.
Your introduction is an important road map for the rest of your paper. Your introduction conveys a lot of information to your readers. You can let them know what your topic is, why it is important, and how you plan to proceed with your discussion. In many academic disciplines, your introduction should contain a thesis that will assert your main argument. Your introduction should also give the reader a sense of the kinds of information you will use to make that argument and the general organization of the paragraphs and pages that will follow. After reading your introduction, your readers should not have any major surprises in store when they read the main body of your paper.
Ideally, your introduction will make your readers want to read your paper. The introduction should capture your readers’ interest, making them want to read the rest of your paper. Opening with a compelling story, an interesting question, or a vivid example can get your readers to see why your topic matters and serve as an invitation for them to join you for an engaging intellectual conversation (remember, though, that these strategies may not be suitable for all papers and disciplines).
Introductory paragraphs should accomplish two tasks:
- They should get the reader’s interest so that he or she will want to read more.
- They should let the reader know what the essay is going to be about.
In order to accomplish those tasks, introductions—regardless of their length—need to have three elements:
- “Lead” ( or spelled the old-fashioned way, “lede”)
- Background Informaion
- Thesis Statement
The beginning is everything when it comes to writing. If a reader is not engaged by your first sentence, they will not continue to read, and the rest of your essay does not matter. However, I always advise students to write the first sentence last, as it is arguably the most difficult sentence in the entire essay to write (no pressure!). My point is, don’t get stuck on trying to write a perfect first sentence when you are just beginning an essay. You can come back to it later once you have spent a lot of time thinking about your essay and the topic itself.
There are many different ways into an essay. The most common, yet effective, “leads” are explained below:
- Funnel Lead
- Contrast Lead
- Context Lead
- Anecdote Lead
- Reference Lead
- Question Lead
Begin with a general statement about the subject. Add statements that narrow down, moving in a more specific fashion toward the thesis.
EXAMPLE: Education >> adult education >> adults returning to school >> difficulties for an adult returning to school >> [thesis] skills I needed to brush up on.
Example: It seems that these days we never leave school, that education is an ongoing concern to. We need constant education to keep up with job skills, or acquire new skills for a new job. But for a variety of reasons, adults who pursue these goals often have a difficult time making the transition from worker to student. [THESIS] In my case, I realized that my classroom skills were not as sharp as they used to be. [PREVIEW] I had totally forgotten how to locate information in a library, how to write a report, and how to speak up in class discussions.
Begin with the opposite idea that your thesis will develop. Then shift to your point. For a thesis pointing out the advantages of something, begin with the disadvantages; for an essay emphasizing the present, begin with the past; for an argument about what the truth is about a subject, begin with what seems to be true. This can be an intriguing way to begin an essay because it essentially begins with a rebuttal and then moves to the argument, thus quelling reader’s potential concerns before they build.
Example: When I decided to return to school at age thirty-five, I wasn’t at all worried about my ability to do the work. After all, I was a grown woman who had raised a family, not a confused teenager fresh out of high school. But, when I started classes, I realized that those confused teenagers sitting around me were in much better shape for college than I was. They still had all their classroom skills in bright, shiny condition. [THESIS] I had lost all of my classroom skills over time, mine growing rusty from disuse. [PREVIEW] I had totally forgotten how to locate information in a library, how to write a report, and how to speak up in class discussions.
All writing is a response to something—another idea, an essay assignment. If your writing is not answering a specific, assigned question, beginning with the context for why you are writing can give your reader necessary information. With this “hook,” begin with what you are responding to, or the reason for your writing.
Example: “It was because of my letters that I happened to stumble upon starting to acquire some kind of a homemade education. I became increasingly frustrated at not being able to express what I wanted to convey in the letters that I wrote, especially those to Mr. Elijah Muhammad. In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there—I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional.”
From “Learning to Read” by Malcolm X.
People like to hear stories, and many writers begin essays with a brief story to engage their readers. Keep in mind that this story should have the same message that you have in the rest of the essay. This can be an effective introductory “hook” because it is essentially an appeal to pathos and can humanize a topic. For example, in an essay about global warming, a writer could begin with a story about a woman from the Pacific Islands who has been displaced because of sea-level rise. That story would put a human face on an otherwise abstract topic.
Example: “When I was nine or ten, I was steeped in Barbie madness. So much so that I joined the Barbie fan club. My mother still has the membership document displaying my careful cursive writing alongside the scrawled block letters of a younger sister.”
From Cynthia Tucker’s “Barbie Madness”
Begin with a reference to a significant idea and/or event that you want to establish a connection of which your audience is aware. This will help your audience understand what your topic/ideas are similar to. In this type of “hook,” writers begin with an idea to which they are comparing their ideas.
Example: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who have been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak end to the long night of captivity.” From I have a Dream by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is when writers begin an essay with a question designed to prompt the audience to think about a topic in a specific way. These questions tend to be what we call “rhetorical questions,” or questions to which the writer does not offer an answer nor expects an answer from the audience. They are used to emphasize a point or for effect. One note of caution: Rhetorical question leads are much more common in persuasive speeches than in written essays. While some writing teachers caution against question leads, I have found that students like them. If you are going to write a question lead, use them sparingly and keep them relevant.
Example: Have you ever wondered what it would be like to travel among the stars, or ride in a space shuttle and be a part of NASA’s famous astronaut team? Perhaps you could make your dream come true just like a girl from California did in 1977; this famous astronaut’s name is Sally Ride.
After pitching an effective hook, you should provide a broad overview of your main topic and state some background information for the subject matter of your paper. If you are wondering how to start an essay (Links to an external site.) introduction, the best way to do so is by providing a broad explanation of your theme and then leading your readers into specific points. Simply put, you should first give some general information and then gradually narrow it down into your specific argument.
For a reminder about writing a good thesis, please go back to our English 020 Connection: Introduction to Thesis Statements.
Some general advice about introductions:
- Some students cannot begin writing the body of the essay until they feel they have the perfect introduction. Be aware of the dangers of sinking too much time into the introduction. Some of that time can be more usefully channeled into planning and writing.
- You may be the kind of writer who writes an introduction first in order to explore your own thinking on the topic. If so, remember that you may at a later stage need to compress your introduction.
- It can be fine to leave the writing of the introduction for a later stage in the essay-writing process. Some people write their introduction only after they have completed the rest of the essay. Others write the introduction first but rewrite it significantly in light of what they end up saying in the body of their paper.
- The introductions for most papers can be effectively written in one paragraph occupying half to three-quarters of the first page. Your introduction may be longer than that, and it may take more than one paragraph, but be sure you know why. The size of your introduction should bear some relationship to the length and complexity of your paper. A twenty page paper may call for a two-page introduction, but a five-page paper will not.
- Get to the point as soon as possible. Generally, you want to raise your topic in your very first sentences. A common error is to begin too broadly or too far off topic. Avoid sweeping generalizations.
- If your essay has a thesis, your thesis statement will typically appear at the end of your introduction, even though that is not a hard-and-fast rule. You may, for example, follow your thesis with a brief road map to your essay that sketches the basic structure of your argument. The longer the paper, the more useful a road map becomes.