The quality of an essay introduction often determines whether the essay gets read in the first place. Even if it has to be read, as in the case of essay writing assignments in a university setting, a fine introduction gives the reader a good initial impression, entices the reader to read on, and encourages the reader to give an excellent evaluation at the end.
Hence, an essay introduction serves to attract the reader’s interest, introduce the topic, and explain what the essay will be about. Correspondingly, an essay introduction contains three features that usually appear in the following order: an attention-getter, some background information and the central idea.
Getting the reader’s attention
Some common strategies used to attract the reader’s interest to an essay are:
- Relate a dramatic anecdote.
- Expose a commonly held belief.
- Present surprising facts and statistics.
- Use a fitting quotation.
- Ask a provocative question.
- Tell a vivid personal story.
- Define a key term.
- Present an interesting observation.
- Create a unique scenario.
Providing background information
Providing background information in an essay introduction serves as a bridge to link the reader to the topic of an essay. But exactly how long this bridge should be is largely dependent on how much information the writer thinks the reader will need in order to understand the issue being discussed in the essay and appreciate the importance of the issue. For much university writing (for which the readership may not be restricted to lecturers alone), one good rule of thumb for students to determine whether enough background information has been provided is to read the draft introduction to fellow students from other faculties and see whether they understand what is being talked about.
Stating the central idea
The central idea or thesis statement in an essay introduction is the most important part of the essay and is thus indispensable. The thesis statement is usually one or two sentences long and tells the reader what the whole essay is going to be about.
A thesis statement can be direct or indirect. A direct thesis statement gives a specific outline of the essay. For example, one of my students (in his essay entitled ‘The Qualities of a Successful Technopreneur’) wrote the following thesis statement: “The three core qualities that a technopreneur must possess to be successful are vision, a never-say-quit attitude and an innovative mind.” This sentence tells the reader what the essay is going to be about (i.e. the qualities a technopreneur must possess in order to succeed) and provides a structural outline (i.e. that the essay will comprise three main parts, each portion respectively covering one of the three qualities mentioned).
In an indirect thesis statement, no such outline is provided; however, the reader will still know what aspect of the topic the essay is going to discuss. For example, on the same topic, another of my students wrote this thesis statement: “In today’s rapidly changing technology market, only technopreneurs who possess certain qualities will succeed while those who do not will falter and fall in the battlefield.” From this sentence, the reader can still expect the essay to talk about some qualities of a successful technopreneur; but he/she will neither know exactly which and how many qualities the essay will cover, nor predict how many parts the writer will discuss in the main body paragraphs. The suspense given by an indirect thesis statement sometimes gives the reader a good reason to read on.
Once aware of the three features of an essay introduction and some of the options for the presentation of each feature, students can experiment with different options to see which one(s) creates the best effect for each essay.
Students often make the mistake of sailing straight into the answering the essay question in the first paragraph without following the convention of beginning with an introduction. Basic introduction paragraphs have a special function. Fortunately, introductions have a recognisable pattern (recipe) you can follow so that you do this correctly.
About introduction paragraphs
The introduction to an essay is very important. It is the FIRST paragraph that the marker reads and should ‘grab’ the reader. Introduction paragraphs are usually about 5% of your essay word count. In clearly-written sentences, the writer gives some background on the main topic; explains the academic problem and tells the reader what to expect in the rest of the essay. You can follow a basic pattern (recipe) for writing introduction paragraphs to help you get started. As essay topics and lecturer requirements vary, you will find that ‘the recipe’ will need to be adjusted to suit the style of essay you will be asked to write.
Try to write your introduction straight from your question analysis, then review it many times while you are writing the body of the essay—this will help you to keep your essay on target (i.e. answering the set question). Note that most introductions generally only include references if definitions are taken from an information source.
Writing pattern for introduction paragraphs
The introduction to an essay is rather like a formal social introduction: How do you do! For example, if an ASO consultant comes to a lecture to do a guest presentation, it would be good practice to be introduced in a meaningful way:
This is Mary Bloggs who is a consultant from the Academic Skills office (relevant info about the person for the job about to be done). Good question analysis is critical to the success of your assignment essay, so it is important that you learn a process for analysing a question (statement of purpose). Mary will work with you on analysis of the question you will be answering in your assignment and will show you how to develop an essay plan from your question (a statement about what will be happening in the next hour).
An introductory paragraph is very much tied to the question that has been set (see Question analysis workshop), and we use special terms to describe each stage of the introduction.
Click or hover over the introductory paragraph below to see an analysis of its structure, and how the introduction matches the set question.
The introduction is usually ‘funnel shaped’. It begins with the broadest topic (sentence 1). Then, it narrows to the thesis statement or the part of the topic that will be specifically addressed in the essay (sentence 2). The last sentence of the paragraph usually outlines the main points that will be covered in the essay (sentence 3).
Figure 1: A pattern for introduction paragraphs
Read the following question and the sample introduction paragraph. The sentences are in the wrong order for an introduction paragraph. Match the statements to the correct sentence type.
Some students who enrol in university studies have difficulties with their writing skills. Discuss the reasons for this problem and critically assess the effectiveness of university intervention writing programs.
Because poor writing skills can affect students’ success in tertiary education, it is important that writing problems are understood so that university assistance programs are adequate.
This essay will identify and examine the main causes underpinning student difficulties with academic writing and consider evidence to evaluate whether programs delivered in universities address this problem.
Assignment essays are frequently used as assessment tasks to involve students in research, academic reading and formal essay writing.
These introduction sentences are in the incorrect order. Now that you have identified the sentence types, put them in the correct order (background statement -> thesis statement -> outline statement) for an introduction paragraph.
Drag the sentences to rearrange them.