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Essay Introduction Strategies

Strategies for Writing Introductions

Introductions act as a funnel; in other words, they move from relevant, general information regarding your subject to the specific, often culminating in a thesis statement, which usually occurs in the last sentence of the introduction.  Introductions will usually…

Define the topic—the issue, question, or problem—you are writing about 

Offer the thesis, or argument, the essay will develop

Engage and interest your readers

Articulate why the topic matters

Establish your authority and credibility as a writer

Specific Strategies for Writing Effective Introductions:

Here are several ideas you should try and incorporate into your paper’s introduction.

Challenge a commonly held view: A good way to open your essay is to challenge a commonly held view.  Why these challenges to common sense work so well is that they are unexpected and immediately interest and engage your reader.  Also, challenging a commonly held notion indicates the presence of contention and controversy, in other words, a gray area ripe for argumentation or analysis.

If you were writing an essay on a Democratic candidate, for example, you could state the ways that he or she resembles a Republican in their economic ideals.  Say you were writing an argumentative paper concerning the decrepit condition of the Carbondale Strip.  One way to write an effective introduction would be to cite the “Governor’s Best Small Town Award” Carbondale recently received and contrast this idea to the actual conditions in the town.   

Begin with a definition: Using “the Strip” essay as an example, a writer could probably include another effective introductory strategy, defining the criteria for “The Governor’s Best Small Town Award” and contrast those criteria to the actual conditions of the Strip.  Beginning with a definition is a reliable way to introduce a topic, so long as that definition has some significance for the discussion to follow.  If the definition doesn’t do any conceptual work in the introduction, the definition strategy becomes a pointless cliché.  For example, “Bowling is a game where people roll a ball and knock over bowling pins.” 

Lead-in with Your Second Best Example: Another versatile opening strategy is to use your second best example to set up the issue or question that you later develop in depth with your best example.  As you are assembling examples and evidence to illustrate your thesis, in many cases you will accumulate a number of examples that illustrate the same basic point.  For example, several battles might illustrate a particular general’s military strategy; several primaries might exemplify how a particular candidate tailors his or her speeches to appeal to the single mothers; several scenes might show how a particular playwright romanticizes the working class, and so on.

Save the best example to receive the most argumentative attention in your paper.  If you were to present this same example in your introduction, you run the risk of seeming repetitive.  A quick close-up of another example in your introduction will strengthen your argument or interpretation.  By using a different example to raise the issues, you suggest that the phenomenon exemplified is not an isolated case and that the major example you will eventually concentrate upon is indeed representative.

Exemplify the Topic with a Narrative: One more opening strategy common to the humanities and social sciences is the narrative opening.  The narrative introduces a short, pertinent, and vivid story or anecdote that exemplifies a key aspect of your topic.  Although generally not permissible in formal, scientific reports, narrative openings are common across the curriculum in virtually all other kinds of writing.  As this type of introduction funnels down to a thesis, the readers have a graphic sense of the issue the writer will now develop non-narratively.  Such non-narrative treatments in the body of your essay are necessary; for, by itself, anecdotal evidence can be seen by a reader as weak evidence.  Storytelling is suggestive but can never constitute proof; narrative introductions need to be supported with evidence in the body of your essay.

Other Strategies:  The following examples are shortened versions of fully developed introductions.  They should, however, give you an idea on how they work.

Begin with a Controversial Statement:  Some individuals swear that student athletes are lazy, rude and dumb, while others insist that they are enthusiastic, polite and intelligent.  Regardless of these perceptions, higher education standards should be implemented throughout American universities to ensure student athletes learn while they are away at college.

An Element of Surprise:  That cute, hairy monkey nibbling on a banana is what some scientists believe to be the culprit of the AIDS epidemic that has taken, and will continue to take, countless lives throughout the world.

Contradiction & Use of Statistics:  According to the Phillip Morris Corporation, “nicotine is an addictive substance to zero percent of the population” (Avery 35).  Independent scientists and the Surgeon General report that at least “one out of four Americans are addicted to various tobacco products” (Gator 169).

Authoritative Statement:  Having smoked for fifteen years, Walter Jennings is qualified to discuss the addictive qualities of nicotine.

Use of a Quotation:  Shakespeare’s MacBeth once lamented, “Life is a tale told by an idiot.”  Recent developments in the power outages in New York seem to make our country’s decision to deregulate public utilities no exception to Shakespeare’s pessimism.  .      

Reference to a Current Event:  Since the assault of a woman by two men at the Mall, public safety has once again resurfaced in Carbondale, Illinois.

Figure of Speech:  Becoming a new CCHS student resembles a pilot taking on a new airplane; both are capable, but both are unfamiliar with the territory.

Introduction Strategies    
Excluding scientific and technical writing (which often has pre-established formats), most other topics lend themselves to a variety of introductory gambits. Suppose the assignment is to write a literary analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. Below are several different ways to start that essay. Please note that not all introductions would be appropriate for one particular thesis or approach. But having a repertoire of openings at our disposal often helps lead us to insights we didn’t know we had.

Begin with a quotation
Although this approach can be overused, it can be very effective when you have an appropriate quotation. That quotation may relate directly to the subject or it may be only indirectly related (and thus require further explanation). Do not force a quotation into this spot; if an appropriate quotation is not available, select another method.

  • "The novel Lolita," the critic Charles Blight said in 1959, "is proof that American civilization is on the verge of total moral collapse" (45). The judgment of critics and readers in subsequent years, however, has proclaimed Lolita to be one of the great love stories of all time and one of the best proofs that American civilization is still vibrant and alive.
  • "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul" (11). These opening lines of Lolita reveal the essence of Humbert’s complexity and compulsion, his saving grace and his damning passion.

Begin with a concession
Start with a statement recognizing an opinion or approach different from the one you plan to take in your essay.

  • Many critics have pointed to the unrelenting word games and puns throughout Lolita as proof that Vladimir Nabokov’s major concern has always been language and art. Although these subjects certainly loom in all his works, a close examination of Lolita reveals that morality — the way people treat each other — is just as major a concern for him as language and art.

Begin with a paradox
A paradox is a seeming self contradiction.

  • By 1959 Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita had been banned in several cities as pornographic. Today it is required reading not only in literature courses but also in philosophy courses that explore the nature of love. Since its publication, the novel’s subject has been recognized to be love, not lust; art, not perversion.

Begin with a short anecdote or narrative

  • When the original movie version of Lolita was released in the early 1960s, Sue Lyon, the young actress who starred as the provocative "nymphet" of the title, was judged too young to be allowed to see the movie in the theater.

Begin with an interesting fact or statistic

  • Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov — two acknowledged masters of English prose — were not even native speakers of English. Conrad’s native tongue was Polish; Nabokov’s, Russian.

Begin with a question or several questions that will be answered in the paper

  • How could a book now acknowledged as a masterpiece not only of fiction but also of English prose have been banned when it was published? How could a novel that dealt with love and art be thought of as pornographic? Why would a society so mindful of free speech as America ban any book in the first place?

Begin with relevant background material
Background material should be presented concisely and should be clearly related to your thesis. A rambling discussion of material only remotely related to your main point will confuse and bore your readers.

  • Although he was born in Russia and lived for many years in England, Germany, and France before coming to America in 1941, Vladimir Nabokov is now considered one of the great American novelists of the 20th century. This opinion, however, is not based solely on his mastery of English prose. His novel Lolita has been said to have captured the essence of American life in the 1950s better than any novel written by a writer born in this country.

Begin by stating a long-term effect or effects without immediately stating the cause

  • It caused howls of protest from the guardians of public morality in the 1950s. Indirectly it helped bring about both artistic and personal freedom in the 1960s. Today it is a recognized classic of art and thought — Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Begin with an analogy

  • Like a hurricane that brings fear and panic along with its powerful winds, uprooting trees and disrupting belief in an all-merciful God, so the novel Lolita swept across America in the 1950s, bringing fear and panic that pedophilia would be loosed on the land. Instead, the novel, like a hurricane, blew over trees of thought that were not deeply rooted in American experience, exposing their gnarled premises while helping to clear the way for the artistic freedom of the 1960s.

Begin with a definition of a term that is important to your essay
Avoid simple dictionary definitions. Create an expanded definition that explains how the term applies to your topic and essay.

  • Every few years the ugly charge of "pornography" is aimed at some novel or movie. Never was the term more inappropriately used than in the case of Lolita, yet the taint of that word still lingers in the minds of many when they hear the book’s title. What exactly is "pornography" that it should stir such feelings and be so hated? The problem, of course, is that no one can agree on what pornography actually is. That it has something to do with sex seems clear; beyond that, there is a chaos of opinion. When the small-minded or special-interest definitions are pushed aside, however, we are left with D.H. Lawrence’s provocative definition: pornography is anything that "does dirt on sex." By that definition, Lolita is the opposite of pornography — it is a celebration of sex and love.