Introduction: Where to Begin
To paraphrase the literary scholar Ian Watt, introductions are infinitely expandable and largely expendable. While you certainly should avoid an abrupt beginning, most student writers err in the opposite direction, providing too much material – often irrelevant material – in an effort to ease into the topic. The standard introduction is shaped like an inverted pyramid, beginning with fairly broad information or assertions and narrowing down toward the thesis. This strategy works well as long as you maintain a reasonable proportion between the base and the tip of the pyramid. An essay on a nineteenth-century novel might begin with a few relevant facts about Victorian Britain or the novel’s author; it shouldn’t begin with the hackneyed phrase that opens far too many student essays: “Throughout history . . . ” In general:
Introduction: What to Avoid
- Avoid beginning with Great Truths about the Human Condition. (Example: “Throughout history writers have concerned themselves with the effect of modern science on Western Civilization.”) At best you’ll sound pompous, at worst foolish. (The example just quoted makes no sense: writers throughout history worried about the effect of modern science?)
- Don’t waste time “praising the bard.” Your English professor doesn’t need to be told that Shakespeare was a great writer. Your Sociology professor already knows that Weber was a seminal figure in the field.
- Don’t include irrelevant or extraneous facts or ideas. Historical, biographical, or other facts that have no immediate bearing on your thesis make tedious reading.
- Use quotations judiciously. The words of another writer, such as a recognized expert in the field under discussion, should be a complement to – never a substitute for – your own thinking. You may be less tempted to rely on someone else’s eloquence if you put a relevant quotation in an epigraph. (See the head of this document.) Don’t use quotations that you’ve seen used frequently by other writers; what isn’t news to you is unlikely to hold novelty for your reader. “Someone once said” is an acceptable attribution only when the source of the quotation is truly anonymous; don’t use it in place of finding out who actually said the words in question.
- Don’t try to manufacture an introduction by restating or paraphrasing your professor’s assignment.
Introduction: What to Do
The heart of your introduction, the thesis is the argument for which your essay will provide support. The first requirement for a thesis, then, is that it be a claim in need of support. If you find it hard to imagine a reader who would disagree with your claim, the claim is probably not a thesis but a truism. At the very least, you should be able to picture your reader thinking, “I’d probably agree with that, but I’d like to see some evidence before signing on.” Keep the following in mind:
- Make your thesis prominent. The most common location is the end of the first paragraph. A long build-up might warrant a delay to the second paragraph, but consider whether the build-up is really necessary. Wait until the third paragraph or later and you’ll risk boring or frustrating your reader, who is eager to know where your paper’s going.
- A deliberately controversial thesis – one that’s almost certain to meet with disagreement – can make for a powerful and impressive piece of writing. But to pull it off you’ll have to be especially thorough in supplying evidence and anticipating objections.
- A question is not a thesis. If you end your first paragraph by asking “Does nature or nurture play the greater role in shaping human character?” you haven’t made a claim. It’s great to pose questions like this to yourself as you think through the topic, but you don’t have a thesis until you’re prepared to defend a particular answer to such a question.
- Your professor’s topic is not a thesis (not usually, at least). Unless your professor has deliberately handed you an argument to support or refute, his or her assigned topic simply defines a general subject area within which you are to develop your own thesis.
- It’s particularly easy to confuse topic and thesis in compare/contrast assignments. If your assignment is to compare Jonathan Swift’s and John Locke’s views of law, you may think you have a thesis when you write, “Swift’s and Locke’s views of law have many similarities, but also some important differences.” However, this “claim” merely restates the original topic, which assumed that you’d find both similarities and differences between the authors. A compare/contrast thesis should detail, in brief, the major similarities and differences that the paper will explore.
- Write about the topic, not about your writing. Unless specifically instructed otherwise, avoid formulas such as “The purpose of this paper is . . . ” and “In this paper I will show . . .” They’re tedious and cumbersome. Say what you have to say without announcing that you’re going to say it. And unless it’s part of the assignment, don’t give an autobiographical account of how you got interested in the topic or arrived at your thesis.
The body of your essay presents the evidence in support of your thesis. There are several things you should keep in mind as you compose this part of your essay:
- Effective persuasion generally involves analyzing the objects, events, situations, or issues under discussion. Remember that the word “analyze” means, literally, to “break down” into parts. Ask yourself how you might break your subject into parts and examine how the parts relate to one another. Note that the noun form of analyze is analysis, not analyzation.
- Your organization can tell you whether or not you’re analyzing. If you’ve organized a literary essay around the plot of a story or the sequence of lines in a poem, or if you’ve organized a history essay around a simple chronology of events, chances are you’re not analyzing your subject. Remember that you break a subject into parts in order to examine relationships, such as cause and effect, or to isolate a single part (such as character or theme in literature) for intensive study. To do this well almost invariably requires that you consider the parts out of their temporal sequence.
- Each paragraph in the body of your essay should express one main idea. You should generally be able to point to one sentence in the paragraph as the “topic sentence,” the one with the main idea. Other sentences in the paragraph should provide evidentiary and logical support for this idea.
- Make sure to provide clear transitions between paragraphs and between sentences within a paragraph. The strongest transitions are those that indicate logical relationships and employ words such as therefore, however, because, although. While transitions such as and, in addition, also, and next certainly have their place, they are weaker because they don’t reveal logical relationships.
- Provide detailed, specific, and appropriate evidence for your ideas. The form for proper documentation of this evidence will vary from discipline to discipline (and sometimes from professor to professor), so be sure to find out what’s expected in a given class. When an assignment involves analyzing a text, the words of the text itself will usually form the bulk of your evidence. You will therefore want to quote from the text extensively. Except in rare instances, your audience (the professor) will of course know the text, so you should avoid tedious retelling of plots or rehearsing of arguments. Depending on the discipline, evidence may also include appropriately interpreted statistics, appropriately cited research findings from a worthy source, original data, and (when required or invited by the assignment) personal experience.
- A good persuasive essay heads off likely counterarguments. Many writers mistakenly believe that they should avoid all reference to ideas or facts that might be raised against them. In fact, the strongest writing forthrightly acknowledges possible objections and puts them in perspective. Such honesty not only increases the writer’s credibility but also gives him or her the opportunity for “prebuttal” – rebuttal before the fact. There are two main strategies for anticipating objections:
- You can concede that the counterargument or contrary evidence has merit but insist that it does no damage to the overall validity of your contention. A concession takes the general form, “While it is true that . . . nevertheless . . . “
- You can refute the counterargument or contrary evidence by explaining why it’s illogical or faulty.
If introductions typically start broad and end narrow, conclusions most often move the opposite way: they begin by reminding the reader of the main argument, then push on toward more general concerns. To adopt a different metaphor, conclusions tend to look backward and forward simultaneously – backward toward the body of the essay, forward toward related ideas and issues. You might, for example, point out how your thesis, if true, should reorient the reader’s thinking on some other matter. Conclusions are also good places for speculation; if you adopt appropriately tentative language, your reader will accept that your evidence here doesn’t meet the same high standard you’ve held to in the body of your essay.
Some of the same errors that plague introductions turn up in conclusions, such as
- pompous sermonizing about Great Truths;
- inclusion of irrelevant facts;
- mechanical repetition of the assignment’s original wording (or of the writer’s own thesis);
- writing about writing (e.g., “In this essay I have shown . . . “);
- unwarranted autobiography;
- praising the bard (or the professor; e.g., “I learned a great deal from this assignment . . . “).
Some additional advice about conclusions:
- Don’t omit the conclusion. If you simply end the paper with the final example of your last main point, you’re cheating both your reader and yourself. Moving from the narrow to the broad, as described above, gives you the opportunity to figure out what you’ve discovered in the process of writing; it also makes you accountable for the larger implications of your argument.
- Don’t apologize. Apologies – e.g., “I don’t really understand this topic” or (worse) “I was very upset while I was writing this and I hope you will take that into consideration while you are grading it” – are simply another way of avoiding responsibility for your argument. Besides, if your paper is really as dreadful as your apology suggests, whining only underscores its inadequacies, while if it’s not so bad as you thought, expressing uncertainty may actually undermine whatever favorable impression you’ve made. Finally, apologies tacked on with post-its or index cards are no better than those included in the essay. If you’re unhappy with your performance, apologize to yourself and resolve to do better next time.
- As in your introduction, use quotations judiciously.