How to write an introduction

There are a few well-worn pieces of advice on introductions that get passed around. “Tell ’em what you’re going to say” is probably the most popular of these. Another one is “grab their attention”. I haven’t found either to be very helpful in my own writing. After all, most authors tell people what’s going to be said in the abstract, which covers the whole paper and its conclusions. The introduction is really for leading people into the essay, not reproducing it in compact form. And while you can grab people’s attention through short, shocking statements, surely that isn’t the only way to open things up. Look at the essays you admire. Some may aim to surprise, but probably not all.

Then there are the traps that students fall into over and over. Many undergraduates open by repeating the essay prompt or quoting from the dictionary. These are hackneyed approaches, and they call to mind an unsure student sitting in front of a blank computer screen. Others try to puff things up with grand statements of the cosmic importance of what’s to come in the essay (“Ladies and gentlemen! What you’re about to see will astonish you. Ever since the dawn of humanity, we have wrestled with…”). That’s an exaggeration of what I’ve seen, but only just.

A better approach is to use your introduction to set the right environment for your argument. You can do this by (1) establishing the context, (2) identifying a problem, and then (3) providing a response. The context is where you introduce the topic that will be under discussion, usually in a fairly neutral way. The problem can be either a gap in existing knowledge or a point of academic contention. And the response is your contribution or judgment, the argument that you will be supporting over the rest of your paper. You might have found a different approach to the problem, or something new to consider. Or maybe new evidence has come along from a different field that should be taken into account. Continue reading “How to write an introduction”