Getting started can often be difficult. Even professional writers say that the hardest part of writing is the beginning. Writing an introduction to an essay can therefore seem a daunting task, though it need not be so difficult, as long as you understand the purpose and the structure of the introduction. An example essay has been given to help you understand both of these, and there is a checklist at the end which you can use for editing your introduction.
Purpose of the introduction
When writing an introduction to an academic essay, it is useful to remember the main purpose of the introduction. In general, the introduction will introduce the topic to the reader by stating what the topic is and giving some general background information. This will help the reader to understand what you are writing about, and show why the topic is important. The introduction should also give the overall plan of the essay.
In short, the main purpose of the introduction is to:
This last purpose is perhaps the most important, and is the reason why many writers choose to write the introduction last, after they have written the main body, because they need to know what the essay will contain before they can give a clear plan.
Structure of the introduction
Although essays vary in length and content, most essays will have the same overall structure, including the introduction. The structure is related to the purpose mentioned above. The introduction to an essay should have the following two parts:
The general statements will introduce the topic of the essay and give background information. The background information for a short essay will generally just be one or two sentences. The general statements should become more and more specific as the introduction progresses, leading the reader into the essay (some writers talk about "attracting the readers' attention", though for an academic essay, this is less important). For longer essays, the general statements could include one or more definitions, or could classify the topic, and may cover more than one paragraph.
The following is an example of background statements for a short essay (given below):
Although they were invented almost a hundred years ago, for decades cars were only owned by the rich. Since the 60s and 70s they have become increasingly affordable, and now most families in developed nations, and a growing number in developing countries, own a car.
These sentences introduce the topic of the essay (cars) and give some background to this topic (situation in the past, the situation now). These sentences lead nicely into the thesis statement (see below).
The thesis statement is the most important part of the introduction. It gives the reader clear information about the content of the essay, which will help them to understand the essay more easily. The thesis states the specific topic, and often lists the main (controlling) ideas that will be discussed in the main body. It may also indicate how the essay will be organised, e.g. in chronological order, order of importance, advantages/disadvantages, cause/effect. It is usually at the end of the introduction, and is usually (but not always) one sentence long.
In short, the thesis statement:
Here is an example of a thesis statement with no subtopics mentioned:
While cars have undoubted advantages, they also have significant drawbacks.
This thesis statement tells us the specific topic of the essay (advantages and disadvantages of cars) and the method of organisation (advantages should come first, disadvantages second). It is, however, quite general, and may have been written before the writer had completed the essay.
In the following thesis statement, the subtopics are named:
While cars have undoubted advantages, of which their convenience is the most apparent, they have significant drawbacks, most notably pollution and traffic problems.
This thesis gives us more detail, telling us not just the topic (advantages and disadvantages of cars) and the method of organisation (advantages first, disadvantages second), but also tells us the main ideas in the essay (convenience, pollution, traffic problems). This essay will probably have three paragraphs in the main body.
Below is a discussion essay which looks at the advantages and disadvantages of car ownership. This essay is used throughout the essay writing section to help you understand different aspects of essay writing. Here it focuses on the thesis statement and general statements of the introduction (mentioned on this page), topic sentences, controlling ideas, and the summary and final comment of the conclusion. Click on the different areas (in the shaded boxes to the right) to highlight the different structural aspects in this essay.
Although they were invented almost a hundred years ago, for decades cars were only owned by the rich. Since the 60s and 70s they have become increasingly affordable, and now most families in developed nations, and a growing number in developing countries, own a car. While cars have undoubted advantages, of which their convenience is the most apparent, they have significant drawbacks, most notably pollution and traffic problems.
The most striking advantage of the car is its convenience. When travelling long distance, there may be only one choice of bus or train per day, which may be at an unsuitable time. The car, however, allows people to travel at any time they wish, and to almost any destination they choose.
Despite this advantage, cars have many significant disadvantages, the most important of which is the pollution they cause. Almost all cars run either on petrol or diesel fuel, both of which are fossil fuels. Burning these fuels causes the car to emit serious pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxide. Not only are these gases harmful for health, causing respiratory disease and other illnesses, they also contribute to global warming, an increasing problem in the modern world. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (2013), transportation in the US accounts for 30% of all carbon dioxide production in that country, with 60% of these emissions coming from cars and small trucks. In short, pollution is a major drawback of cars.
A further disadvantage is the traffic problems that they cause in many cities and towns of the world. While car ownership is increasing in almost all countries of the world, especially in developing countries, the amount of available roadway in cities is not increasing at an equal pace. This can lead to traffic congestion, in particular during the morning and evening rush hour. In some cities, this congestion can be severe, and delays of several hours can be a common occurrence. Such congestion can also affect those people who travel out of cities at the weekend. Spending hours sitting in an idle car means that this form of transport can in fact be less convenient than trains or aeroplanes or other forms of public transport.
In conclusion, while the car is advantageous for its convenience, it has some important disadvantages, in particular the pollution it causes and the rise of traffic jams. If countries can invest in the development of technology for green fuels, and if car owners can think of alternatives such as car sharing, then some of these problems can be lessened.
Union of Concerned Scientists (2013). Car Emissions and Global Warming.www.ucsusa.org/clean vehicles/why-clean-cars/global-warming/ (Access date: 8 August, 2013)
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Below is a checklist for an essay introduction. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.
|The essay begins with general statements, which introduce the topic|
|The introduction ends with a thesis statement|
|The thesis shows the main ideas of the essay|
|The thesis shows how the essay will be organised (e.g. chronological, compare/contrast, advantages/disadvantages)|
Find out how to structure the main body of an essay in the next section.
Go back to the previous section about essay structure.
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.