Just what should go into a good essay introduction? Here are some helpful guidelines to make a reader want to hang on to your every word:
An essay introduction should include:
- A little basic background about the key subject area (just enough to put your essay into context, no more or you’ll bore the reader to death).
- Explanation of how you are defining any key terms. Confusion on this could be your undoing.
- A road-map of how your essay will answer the question. What is your overall argument and how will you develop it?
- A clear confirmation of your position
So, in a bit more juicy detail…
It is good to start with a statement that fixes your essay topic and focus in a wider context or the reader could be floundering around wondering what you are harping on about. Beware though… this only has to be a little bit wider, not completely universal. Do not start with something like “In the whole field of nursing….” or “Since man could write he has always…”. Instead, simply situate the area that you are writing about within a slightly bigger area, for example, you could start with a general statement about a topic, outlining some key issues but explain that your essay will focus on only one.
Defining key terms
This does not mean quoting dictionary definitions – we all have access to dictionary.com with a click or two. You have to write about how you are defining any potentially ambiguous terms in relation to your essay topic. This is really important for your reader, as it will inform them how you are using this word in the context of your essay.
The main thing an introduction will do is tell the reader how you are going to answer the question – including what your main conclusions are. There is no need to worry about *SPOILER ALERTS* – this is NOT a detective novel you CAN give away the ending! Sorry, but building up suspense is just going to irritate the reader rather than eventually satisfy. Simply outline how your main arguments (give them in order) lead to your conclusion. In American essay guides you will see something described as the thesis statement – although we don’t use this terminology in the UK, it is still necessary to state in your introduction what the over-arching argument of your essay will be (I call this the mega-argument, to distinguish it from the mini-arguments you make in each paragraph). It is good to make sure this is crystal clear at the end of your introduction.
Confirming your position
To be honest, this is mostly covered in your roadmap (above), but it is so important, it deserves some additional attention here. Setting out your position is an essential component of all essays. Brick et al (2016:143) even suggest
“The purpose of an essay is to present a clear position and defend it”
It is, however, very difficult to defend a position if you have not made it clear in the first place. This is where your introduction comes in. In stating your position, you are ultimately outlining the answer to the question. You can then make the rest of your essay about providing the evidence that supports your answer. As such, if you make your position clear, you will find all subsequent paragraphs in your essay easier to write and join together. As you have already told your reader where the essay is going, you can be explicit in how each paragraph contributes to your mega-argument.
In establishing your position and defending it, you are ultimately engaging in scholarly debate. This is because positions are supported by academic evidence and analysis. It is in your analysis of academic evidence that you lead your reader to the same position. Once again – this is only possible if your introduction has explained your position in the first place.
That’s basically it – there are lots of other things you can include in introductions to ‘hook’ the reader but the four given above are the essential elements that every introduction needs. Some people like to write their introduction first, some like to leave it until they have written the main body of their essay – that can be your personal choice.
Brick, J., Herke, M., and Wong, D., (2016) Academic Culture, A students guide to studying at university, 3rd edition. Victoria, Australia: Palgrave Macmillan.