The above passage captures an English professor�s perspective on the importance of English essays� introductions for students. In order to write successful essays we must write effective introductions. Unfortunately, many of us have problems writing good introductions; we often receive our essays back with complaints from professors about our introductions, and with poor marks as well. As two English majors who have written good, and not so good English essays, we decided to further investigate the composition of introductions.
Many of us have been programmed to write a specific form of introduction, one which does not always produce the best results or high grades. We have been told specifically by some English professors that our introductory paragraphs should be between seven to nine sentences, and must contain the thesis statement, preferably at the last sentence of the introduction. This formula approach is often taught in high school and first and second year university level, but when students arrive at third year level courses there are different expectations. We found through our scholastic experiences and personal research that there is no inflexible method to writing an English essay introduction, and that students do not have to limit themselves to formulas.
For the purpose of this project we studied forty submitted English essays, ranging in "A+" to "C" grades (see graph A), reviewed their structure and the professors� feedback of the papers, and consulted numerous books about writing English essay introductions. In addition, we talked to two university English professors, and received their comments on writing introductions.
Professor Number One who we spoke with teaches upper-level English courses. Professor One detailed what he looks for in an exceptional introduction. The idea of devoting an entire project to the topic of introductions intrigued him; he said the introduction was crucial to writing a good paper because of its sheer placement it has "automatic double emphasis." Professor One was quick to assert that although a traditional introduction is "good" his preferences lay elsewhere.
When probed about what he meant by "traditional" he explained that he does not like it when the introduction states "in this essay I will explain . . . " Professor One prefers short papers, where the reader does not need to be told anything, because the content becomes apparent as he reads the paper. He does not want to be manipulated: he feels that this demeans the reader, and it is not about manipulating an audience, but about "expressing the writer�s own fascination with the subject." If the writer is enthusiastic about her own essay then the reader will naturally become interested. Professor One felt that it is extremely important to define the topic in the introduction; he was quick to say that this does not mean a "thesis statement," but a defining of the topic meant introducing the "area" the writer will be discussing. The introduction needs to be as "clear as possible": there should be no confusion or loss of direction. Professor One said it is like "tak[ing] the reader by the hand," and that persuasion comes out of showing and explaining, not manipulation.
Professor Number Two, also an upper-level English professor, focuses on the thesis of the essay, often an important part of the introduction:
Professor Two gives us insight into the flexibility of the introduction. Professors don�t always expect that our first paragraph will include a thesis, but instead the professor suggests other attention getting methods. As long as the reader is oriented in your paper you can use creative means to enhance your introduction.
The professors both emphasized the importance of clarity for the reader. The length of the introduction and the placement of the thesis was not as important as clarity. Professor One stated that he does not want an explicit thesis in the introduction, but does want to have the topic defined. Professor Two differentiated between traditional and contemporary styles of introductions, and stated that students have flexibility in creating their thesis.
Our research concluded that the "A" papers which received the highest percentages were the ones that did not have a thesis statement taking the form of a sentence, at the end of the introduction (see graph B). While this method is not the only way to achieve an exceptional introduction, it is implied that if you genuinely aspire to become a more proficient writer and want to receive grades in the 90 percentiles, this may well be worth your attention.
Then how, exactly, does an "A+" essay introduction succeed? And where does a "C" introduction fall short? By taking two essays from a 400 level class we will examine this issue. Starting with the "A+" paper (98%):
"A+" Paper Introduction:
The relationship between modernity and the voice of the minority writer is very strong, and unrivaled in its poignancy. By breaking with the white poetic tradition and looking to his own culture for inspiration, Langston Hughes embodies the very soul of modernism. He depicts the savagery and alienation of modernity by creating new poetic forms to match this wretched content. After all, who could better give expression to the oppression, the alienation, and the violence of the early twentieth-century than a black man. A black man (or woman) has an intimate relationship with brutality and injustice - he lives with it every day of his life. In his poetry, Hughes was faithful to this reality. His commitment to an accurate portrayal of black life and culture revolutionized what it meant to be a black poet, and redefined the black identity according to black ideals. Langston Hughes gave us one of the best possible examples of his poetic modernism because his highly innovative poetry broke with the traditional forms of anglo poetry by using a completely different cultural source.
The cultural forces which served as a source for Hughes� poetry were fueled by the Harlem Renaissance.
Points to consider when evaluating an introduction are:
Referring to this checklist, let�s take an in-depth look at this essay. The second sentence of the introduction identifies the author, but since this student draws from many of Hughes� works it was not necessary to list them all. The second item on the checklist, background information, is evident in sentences three through five. With the phrase "poetic modernism" a framework for the thesis is achieved. Support for the writer�s thesis is achieved in the same sentence with the phrase: "broke with the traditional forms . . . by using a completely different cultural source." The transition seems to be accomplished effortlessly. The writer ends the introduction and begins her next paragraph by taking the phrase "cultural source" and using it as a lead in for the next paragraph. The last sentence of the introduction and the first sentence of the second paragraph are closely related.
Noteworthy as well is the obvious personal investment that is apparent after reading only the introduction. The tone of the introduction is charged with emotion: carefully selected words such as "soul," "brutality" and "ultimate" give the reader a sense that a genuinely close reading of this poetry has preceded this introduction.
Professor One, who we interviewed, believes that the writer�s enthusiasm and interest on the subject will translate into a positive experience for the reader. This is evident after reading this introduction. But, unfortunately, this is not always the case, as we move onto the discussion of an introduction from a "C" paper.
"C" Paper Analysis:
You will notice by the abundance of red ink that the task of reading this introduction was probably much more daunting for this reader. We chose to leave the introduction unedited, to demonstrate just how much this author�s credibility may have come into question. For instance, the inability to correctly spell the author�s name will surely indicate the lack of attention to detail. Grammar and structure are important parts of the writing process. If this is a trouble spot for you, there are many style guides available.
Granted, the author does identify the authors and their poems, but instead of framing the issue the writer attempts to "summarize" (sentence two) an issue that has not been addressed yet. The writer attempts to give background information from the text, but the quotes, seemingly chosen for their significance, lose much of their intended meaning because the issue has not been framed. As she states "The images from both these excerpts are quite vivid . . . ," this may be true, but the result is that they seem to be placed haphazardly, because where these excerpts deserve attention none is given. They are inserted to prove a point, but succeed in making implications that are not dealt within the introduction, which, of course, is not the reason for an introduction.
This introduction does not "take the reader by the hand," but rather pushes the reader into a busy intersection: which direction to turn becomes reliant on anticipating traffic, traffic that is approaching in all different directions. Direction is more attainable when the writer frames the topic; in this introduction four separate issues are raised, with the support for one issue coming by raising another issue.
This introduction lacks precision and is ambiguous, with statements like "in some cases" and "and/or." Because the topic is not focused, the reader is unable to discern what the writer is attempting to assert.
The transition of the last sentence of the introduction to the first sentence of the second paragraph does not succeed in utilizing the last sentence to expand an idea, but rather to raise another idea. The writer ends the introduction with the idea that poetry "evokes emotion and/or reaction from the reader," but starts the next paragraph with "paint[ing] a picture" and "imagination." This leaves the reader with the task of having to adjust to a new idea, rather than enjoying the natural unfolding of an essay, which comes, in part, by the ability to achieve seemingly effortless transitions.
Introduction Lengths:As two English majors, speaking from experience, we have been taught since high school, and up to and including the first and second years of university, that a good introduction should be seven to nine sentences. We were interested to discover that our research did not support this claim. Essays that fell into the "A" category had an average of 5.1 sentences in their introductions, well below our expectations of what we considered being part of the defining characteristics of an exceptional introduction. Interestingly, the essays which did fall into the aforementioned category (seven to nine sentences) were the essays that received a "C" or "C+" grade; their average length was eight sentences per introduction (see graph C). The papers that received a grade somewhere in the "B" range had an average of 6.4 sentences per introduction (see graph C).
This information propelled us to conclude that depth is better than breadth. "A" papers were very focused: their ability to frame the issue was achieved with precision and clarity. Whereas, the "C" papers received comments such as "You are getting carried away already. You are into the development of your topic without having laid out the plan for the paper in your introduction" and "Use your introduction to identify your essay structure." The "A" papers had comments pertaining to "very detailed, well expressed" and this was a "good complex reading of the text (evident from the introduction)."
This is not to suggest that you should now aim for a five-sentence introduction; but, the next time you feel the urge to add arbitrary information for the sake of obtaining the assumed desired length (a practice not unheard of), you need to first refer to the checklist. If you cover these seven areas in less than seven to nine sentences, then the notion of tacking on more information is unneeded.
Writing With a Purpose:
In McCrimmon�s Writing With a Purpose, the two kinds of introductions are outlined clearly. The first kind of introduction "is often a relatively short paragraph that states the thesis of an essay, usually with a brief introduction" (217). This introduction "can suggest an author�s intentions in several ways. It can build a thesis and then clarify it . . . It can build toward a thesis... It can link a series of related, evocative sentences together . . . Or it can identify an issue or issues and state outright what the essay will deal with one of them"(218).
The second type of introductory paragraph is "intended to lure the reader into the essay" (218). This second type of introduction is often referred to as a hook, because it tries to lure your reader into your essay. Hooks for essays include:
There is much flexibility in writing English essay introductions. We advise students to write creatively, and to avoid falling into the trap of formula writing: there is no set correct introduction length, and students do not have to place their thesis at the end of the introduction, or even in the introduction. We hope this information has given you some help in making the transition from second year to third year English paper introductions smoother.
We found that the most effective introductory paragraphs do not have to be a specified length, do not have to have the thesis statement at the end of the introduction, and, in fact, do not have to contain the thesis statement. Effective English introductions demonstrate an advanced writing ability, clarity, and command of the material being discussed.
The introduction sets the tone for the rest of your essay, so if your introduction is unclear or misleading, confusion will result. It is like making a long distance phone call to discover the connection is poor; you try to communicate, but because of the static understanding each other becomes difficult, and maybe even impossible. To avoid this do not be afraid to use resources already available to you:
We hope that this information will come in handy to you when you write your next English essay!
Since the dawn of man, writing has been used to communicate ideas. In academic settings, ideas are typically communicated using formal types of writing such as essays. Most academic essays contain an introductory paragraph, which includes a thesis.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines an introduction as, “A preliminary explanation prefixed to or included in a book or other writing; the part of a book which leads up to the subject treated, or explains the author’s design or purpose. Also, the corresponding part of a speech, lecture, etc.”
Michigan State University student Sally used to have a lot of difficulty writing introductions. Once she had suffered through writing dozens of painful introductions, she decided to look up some tips on how to introduce your essay, and after that she got a lot better.
Introductions can be tricky. Because the introduction is the first portion of your essay that the reader encounters, the stakes are fairly high for your introduction to be successful. A good introduction presents a broad overview of your topic and your thesis, and should convince the reader that it is worth their time to actually read the rest of your essay. Below are some tips that will make writing an introduction a little less daunting, and help us all to write essays that don’t make our professors want to bang their heads against the wall.
- Start your introduction broad, but not too broad. When I first started writing formal essays, I didn’t really know how broad to go with my intros. A brief paragraph on Hamlet would suddenly include irrelevant details about Shakespeare’s childhood, then grow out to be a history of Western literature, and then a history of the universe itself. Do not write an introduction like this; this kind of intro is confusing and makes the reader wonder where exactly you’re going with your essay.Your introduction should provide the reader with a sense of what they should expect out of your essay, not to expound upon every piece of knowledge ever developed by man. Go ahead and start relatively broad, then narrow to your thesis, but make sure you’re still on topic.
- Provide relevant background, but don’t begin your true argument. It’s fine to give a bit of context to your essay in the introduction, but the real meat of your argument should be located in your body paragraphs. A good test to see if information should go in a body or introductory paragraph is to ask yourself a few questions. Is this providing context or evidence? Does this introduce my argument, or try to prove it? True evidence or proof deserves a body paragraph. Context and background most likely belong in your introduction.
- Provide a thesis. The majority of the time, your thesis, or main argument, should occur somewhere towards the end of your introduction. It is a typical convention to put your thesis as the last sentence of your first paragraph. My personal opinion is that it can sometimes be awkward to shove your thesis in one specific place if it doesn’t necessarily fit, but if your thesis works in that position, that is the best place for it. That being said, if you absolutely can’t include your thesis in that location, go ahead and stick it somewhere else.
- Provide only helpful, relevant information. Anecdotes can be an interesting opener to your essay, but only if the anecdote in question is truly relevant to your topic. Are you writing an essay about Maya Angelou? An anecdote about her childhood might be relevant, and even charming. Are you writing an essay about safety regulations in roller coasters? Go ahead and add an anecdote about a person who was injured while riding a roller coaster. Are you writing an essay about Moby Dick? Perhaps an anecdote about that time your friend read Moby Dick and hated it is not the best way to go. The same is true for statistics, quotes, and other types of information about your topic.
- Try to avoid clichés. Some types of introductions may have once been successful, but have been used so often that they have become tired and clichéd. Starting your essay with a definition is a good example of one of these conventions. At this point, starting with a definition is a bit boring, and will cause your reader to tune out.
- Don’t feel pressured to write your intro first. Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out exactly what information is relevant to your introduction until you’ve written the piece itself. Personally, I find that my writer’s block is always strongest when writing the introduction. If you are having trouble with your intro, feel free to write some, or all, of your body paragraphs, and then come back to it. You might find it a bit easier to write your introduction once you’re more comfortable with the essay as a whole.
- Convince the reader that your essay is worth reading. Your reader should finish the introduction thinking that the essay is interesting or has some sort of relevance to their lives. A good introduction is engaging; it gets the audience thinking about the topic at hand and wondering how you will be proving your argument. Good ways to convince your reader that your essay is worthwhile is to provide information that the reader might question or disagree with. Once they are thinking about the topic, and wondering why you hold your position, they are more likely to be engaged in the rest of the essay.
Basically, a good introduction provides the reader with a brief overview of your topic and an explanation of your thesis. A good introduction is fresh, engaging, and interesting. Successful introductions don’t rely on clichés or irrelevant information to demonstrate their point. Be brief, be concise, be engaging. Good luck.