Introductions in essays

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1. The introductions to essays should address directly the question or topic(s) you have been asked to discuss. Introductions which are clear and direct usually signal the start of essays which will be addressing the relevant issues.

2. You should aim for a bright and crisp opening statement which will be interesting and seize the reader’s attention. The statement should also be directly relevant to the question topic.

3. Do not merely restate the question, and try to avoid repeating the same terms in which it is posed. You may however wish to translate the question into your own words, paraphrasing it as a demonstration that you understand what it calls for.

4. Unless the question specifically calls for it, avoid long-winded ‘definitions’ in which the key terms of the question are explored for all their possible meanings. Your understanding of what the question means should usually be clear from your introductory remarks.

5. The introduction should not normally occupy more than five to ten percent of the total length of the essay. Two hundred words on the first page should normally be enough. More than this might be taking too long to get to the point.

6. If in doubt, go straight to your answer. Some tutors argue that having no introduction at all is better than producing one which is rambling, cloudy, or vague. If all your arguments are directly relevant to the question, your approach to the question will quickly become apparent.

7. Even if you think the question is especially difficult or that it embraces complex issues, you should avoid saying so as part of the introduction. This can create the impression that you are making excuses in advance of your answer.

8. Questions are set to pose problems: your task is to answer them. You might however wish to name or outline any difficulties – so long as you go on to tackle them.

9. Some people use an appropriate quotation as a means of starting the introduction. (This strategy can also be used to round off conclusions).

10. If you use this approach, you should follow the quotation with some interesting observations of your own. Do not give the impression that you are using somebody else’s work as a substitute for your own.

11. The following offers an introductory paragraph in response to a first year undergraduate philosophy question: ‘Are there universals?’

Plato was the first philosopher to deal comprehensively with the concept of universals, and he did so in such a compelling manner that his ideas still have an influential force today. His general method is to set himself questions (through the mouthpiece of Socrates). He begins The Republic by asking ‘What is Justice?’ and goes on in pursuing this question to ask ‘What is the Good?’. This method, it will be seen, somewhat predetermines the nature of his answers.

12. Many people find introductions difficult to write, particularly if this is the first part of the essay assignment they attempt. Don’t feel surprised by this. The reason is likely to be that –

  • You are not sure what you are going to say
  • You may not be sure what it is you are introducing
  • You can’t summarise an argument which doesn’t yet exist

13. The solution to this problem may be to leave the introduction until the essay has been finished – in its first draft. It will be much easier to compose introductory remarks after the first attempt has been produced. You will then have a grasp of your overall argument and maybe some idea of its structure.

14. In some subjects [principally the sciences] you might be required to declare in an introduction the approach your essay will take. You might even give some account of the structure or the sequence of information. If this is the case, the composition of an introduction should create no problems.

© Roy Johnson 2003


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