An introduction can make or break an essay. Because it is the first thing readers see, it will capture their attention or lose their interest. A good introduction sets the scene, establishes the tone and gives a clear idea of what the essay is about. Introductions can be intimidating for student writers because of the skill required to draw readers' attention from the many distractions taking place to the issue on the pages in front of them.
The introduction should include the number of sentences required by the instructor. If there's not a required amount, three to four sentences are typically enough to hook the reader with a strong opening. A few more sentences continue to draw in the reader and work toward the main point. The introduction then concludes with a clear thesis statement, which encapsulates the purpose of the essay. We can think of an introduction as an inverted triangle, starting with broad information at the top, then working toward more focused information and ending with the thesis statement. If you're struggling with the intro, put it on hold, and come back to it when you're done writing the body. Some students find the intro is easier to write after they get a better idea of what the body is going to be about.
Introductions can grab the reader's attention by starting off with a surprising statement, unusual fact or startling statistic. An essay on anti-smoking legislation may begin: “Cigarette smoke has been called ‘a lethal cocktail’ of paint stripper, toilet bowl cleaner, lighter fluid, mothball chemicals, death chamber poison and rocket fuel.” An essay about living with asthma may open with “Asthma is the most prevalent chronic disease among youth. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America website (www.aafa.org), this potentially deadly disease affects close to nine million young people and is responsible for close to 15 million doctor visits, two million emergency room visits and half a million hospitalizations every year.” Be sure to always credit the sources of your statistics to avoid plagiarism and to maintain credibility.
Starting an introduction with an insightful quotation relieves the writer of some of the pressure to be clever. Well-chosen quotations pack a punch, relate clearly to the topic and generally do not exceed two sentences. One successful college essay on gender differences opened with a line from Katherine Hepburn: “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.”
A thought-provoking question can be a good introduction lead-in because it addresses readers directly and entices them to stay tuned for the answer. One high school student wrote, “Most teens have money to spend thanks to an allowance or after-school job, but do they have the money management skills to go along with that income?”
Vivid descriptions and powerful anecdotes can be especially compelling at the start of an introductory paragraph. An essay on courage might begin with a recounting of the events of 9/11. An essay on disaster preparedness could begin with a description of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and end with a thesis statement that reads, “Until a disaster catches a community off-guard, most people never stop to think about what they would need to survive away from the comforts of home.” When writers open up and share some of themselves, the reader wants to go on the ride with them. As an example, one college freshman began a persuasive essay on euthanasia with a poignant description of his uncle’s last days in a cancer ward.
Caution to Writers: What Not to Do
In addition to the "best practices" of writing an essay, there are also a few tips on what not to do when penning your topic. One of the worst ways to open an essay is with a statement like: “This essay is about…” or “In this essay, I will discuss…” There is no need to state the obvious, just launch directly into the topic. Another way to turn off a reader is to write a brilliant introduction on the wrong topic. A bang-up introduction does no good if the essay is off-topic, so make sure you have a clear understanding of what you are supposed to be writing about before putting pen to paper. You also want to mix it up a bit, so try not to use the same opening strategy all the time. Beginning every essay with a quotation or definition gets old. Mix it up. And finally, try not to get hung up on employing the introduction openers recommended here. They are meant to help, not hinder. Getting in a panic over trying to force one of these techniques may result in writer’s block. The best writing happens when the writer finds a personal connection with the topic and lets the words flow.
Bonnie Denmark has devoted her professional life to intercultural, educational and accessibility issues. With an MA in linguistics and teacher certification in English, ESL and Spanish, she has worked as a computational linguist, educator and writer. Denmark has worked internationally as a language instructor, educational technology consultant and teacher trainer.