Okay, you’re stuck. The essay is due and you are helplessly stuck. You don’t even know how to start. There’s nothing but you and the blank page – if only there was some way to write a good introduction. Or, you’ve followed someone’s advice and started with a humorous anecdote and now…all you have is a humorous anecdote and nothing else that you could call an introduction. Never fear, I’m here to help. Here’s how I write an introduction.
What? Yes. Skip it!
Okay, hold on, I don’t mean leave it out – that’s not what I’m saying at all.
Trust me. For now, all you need to know is that the introduction is the last thing you write. Obviously, I don’t mean that the introduction should be at the end of your essay – that would be dumb. I mean, write it last.
The wonderful thing about writing on a digital format (i.e. as opposed to writing by hand or movable type) is that a reader cannot tell what was created first/last or what was added/removed or shifted around. Use this fact to your advantage.
Write the introduction last. Read on to see why.
Know the Reason
While the introduction may be the first thing you read when you are confronted by an essay (or similar), but it doesn’t have to be the first thing you write. In fact, take my advice: write it last. Start with the body text and even your conclusion – save the intro for last.
What is the purpose of an introduction? It seems like an obvious question, but pause a second…think about it.
Alright, so, you probably said something like: “to introduce the topic“, “give an overview of the essay”, or even “to get the ball rolling“. (Someone told me that an introduction was there to create tension). These are perfectly good and valid, but they certainly aren’t inspiring.
You’ll see other advice out there that urges you to start with a joke, a story, or something odd to draw the reader’s attention. This can give you various amounts of success, but how many times have you written a clever joke, stared at it for a while, and then got no further? It’s happened to me and it will happen to you.
Furthermore, if your writing as part of an assessment, or project, etc., “drawing the reader’s attention” isn’t all that important. The reader is a marker, or a lecturer, or judge that must read your essay whether she likes it or not. Not that I’m saying you should make it boring – of course not, boring is a sin – just that you shouldn’t get hung up on trying to start with a bang.
There is also a temptation to restate the assignment question. I’ve seen this countless times: “In this essay, the author will attempt to explain why X means Y and he will give examples…“. This is a weak start, to be honest. Besides, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably written something like this and…stopped.
Here’s what I tell all my students: Instead of introducing the question, introduce your answer.
Drafts are your friend
You need to know what your answer is before you can write your introduction. [Write this down.]
This is why I said that you should leave the introduction ’til last. Beginner writers often feel that what they’ve written is set in stone – that what they’ve written can’t be changed, or that it simply won’t improve with re-writing.
Let go of this idea right now. Writing is rewriting. Use your first (or even second) draft to experiment, to find your answer, and to understand exactly how and what you want to say. No author sits down and writes a final draft on the first go – trust me on this.
Make mistakes in your early drafts. Go off on tangents. Find your voice. Do all these things, but continually remind yourself of the assignment question or topic – it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole and never come back.
You can move on from drafts once you have the answer you want. Now, you can write your introduction.
The Actual Introduction
Now you know what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. Now you can write your introduction. Remember, introduce your answer – don’t restate the question, and certainly don’t start off with something unrelated.
How do you introduce your answer?
Firstly, don’t start off with something like: “In this essay I will…” – that’s a little unoriginal. Instead give the main points. For example, if the question is about Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is a thing with feathers”, you can say something about the concept of “hope”, expound on “free as a bird” metaphors, or talk about facing adversity. Just briefly – don’t get carried away.
Furthermore, don’t start with the history of poetry, the poet’s entire biography, or the detailed ornithological background of the ostrich – especially if the question doesn’t ask for this.
Keep if brief: three or four sentences are good.
Hopefully, this helps. Please let me know in the comments below. Also, tips and tricks of your own are most welcome!
Here are some books that I’ve found helpful in improving my writing.
Top Image: The Passion of Creation, by Leonid Pasternak, [Public Domain] WIkiCommons