“A good first impression can work wonders.” – J. K. Rowling
It is imperative to know what you are getting into when it comes to writing successful essays, research papers, theses, and dissertations. One foundation stone for successful academic writing is the introductory paragraph or section.
Introductions for scholarly pieces of writing – essays for school, journal articles for publication, graduate theses – have a number of key components that set up the material that follows.
As Michael Simon of The MLA Style Centre writes:
“Introductions function in different ways. Some provide a hook, a statement that makes readers want to find out more; others present a claim, or thesis, that will be advanced in the rest of the piece. Introductions may inform, but they can also entertain.”
In short, an introduction should set the stage for what is to come next in an informative and engaging manner.
Successful Academic Introductions
Often, I like to say that the introduction to a piece of scholarly writing is like the opening statement that a lawyer gives at the start of a court case.
A lawyer needs to say whether the client pleads guilty or not guilty, and they need to suggest what evidence will be explored throughout the rest of the trial. However, as courtroom dramas on TV make very clear, there are more engaging and successful ways of getting the attention of the judge and jury than others. The same can be said for writing.
There are four key components to successful introductions for academic writing. The length and depth of your introductory section depends on how long your piece of writing is (there’s a big difference between a 5 page essay and a 250 page dissertation!) But, regardless of length, most introductions will include:
- Your Opening
- A Bit of Background
- Your Thesis Statement
- How Things will Unfold
Ideally each of these sections weaves together seamlessly in a style that is compelling with a writing style appropriate to your field. If you are a clunky writer (as I tend to be), it’s better to be boring but still supply the requisite information than it is to be showy and tell your reader nothing.
1. Your Opening
Often in composition or writing courses, there are two bits of advice for this opening section that get shared and re-shared: (1) try to hook your reader and (2) start broad and then narrow your focus.
In theory, this advice is good; in practice, it can often backfire. Hooking the reader can be as straightforward as providing a clear, articulate statement of the topic of the paper. It does not have to be some sort of gimmicky click-bait. Similarly, if you start too broad, you’ll end up opening your essay with every professor’s worst nightmare, a sentence that begins with “Since the dawn of time…” Instead, hook your reader with a clear statement of your topic.
If you want to avoid trite openings, make sure that your writing style is fit for purpose, and check your introduction is clear and readable, I’d recommend ProWritingAid. The editor catches grammar mistakes, but it also tells you when you’re overusing words or using sentences that are too long. I like to run the Readability Report on my writing to make sure I’m getting my points across as clearly as possible. Give it a go with your next essay.
2. A Bit of Background
It is important to set the proverbial stage for what is to come in an introduction. Provide some context for your reader to situate your topic within the field you work within.
- Is there technical information that you need to explain in order to make sense of your particular topic?
- Do you need to introduce some characters or an author, or provide geographical or historical information to set the scope of your project?
This type of important background not only introduces your reader to the terrain over which you want to travel, but it also helps to set the authoritative tone of your academic piece by demonstrating that you know the material that you will go on to discuss.
3. Your Thesis Statement
In most Anglo-American academic contexts, a thesis statement is the key point that the rest of the paper will argue or advance. However, to be a bit more nuanced and sophisticated about it, a thesis statement allows you to indicate clearly what intervention into the scholarship you are making.
If you’re struggling to come up with a thesis statement, consider these questions:
- Are you identifying a gap in the literature?
- Are you qualifying or justifying an oft-overlooked assumption in your field?
- Are you disagreeing with a common view of your subject matter?
- Have you found an anomaly worth describing or exploring?
- Is there a refinement to a position that you want to clarify?
- Have you discovered something new that needs to be explained?
- Are you contributing something significant to an ongoing scholarly debate?
Sometimes the thesis statement is articulated as a “problem statement,” but a rose by any other name is still a rose (thanks, Shakespeare). Ultimately, this portion of your introduction clearly states what your paper is all about.
4. How Things will Unfold
This portion of your introduction may differ based on discipline or stylistic preferences. Generally, it includes a roadmap of the key points that the rest of the academic essay will raise, and it might include a methodological statement explaining how knowledge is produced in your field.
A roadmap is like that lawyer’s opening statement in a courtroom. Their thesis may be that their client pleads “not guilty,” and then the lawyer may list the reasons that will be brought forward to help support that plea. The rest of the essay will look into the evidence in more detail, but that opening statement introduces that evidence at surface level. The same kind of roadmapping of your key points is helpful in your introductory section.
Similarly, a statement of your approach or methodology helps to situate your reader squarely within your field, explaining how people like you conduct research. Think about whether your research is:
- Data driven
However scholars in your field conduct research, you want to make the method clear to your reader at the outset.
An Introduction to Introductions
In a nutshell, if you provide a clear introductory section that sets up your topic and the specific problem or point that you will explore, then your readers will know what to expect. By including a good introduction, you are showing your reader as well as telling them that you are an authority they can trust. After all, first impressions matter.