11: The essay introduction

As the first chapter in our series of chapters devoted to the nuts and bolts of the actual essay, the introduction is the beginning of the essay and sets the tone and roadmap for what's to come. First impressions are everything, right? So, the reader - and the marker - is going to get their first impression here in the introduction so kind of really important to get them engaged and on the right path.

This chapter covers everything you need to know about the essay introduction, including the purpose, what to include, how to craft a thesis statement and common mistakes to avoid when it comes to writing your essay introduction.

Chapter 11 contents:

11.1: The purpose of the essay introduction

The purpose of your essay introduction is to put the concepts and thematic framework in front of the reader so they know what your essay is about and how you will explain it to them. Think of setting the mood and the roadmap for the journey. This is where you want to grab the reader and keep them on your side, not dead-set against you or put off by what you are trying to say - or, even worse, completely confused!

With this purpose in mind, you will need to provide the aim, what will be included in the essay, your rationale for this argument and some highlights of what is to come in terms of the arguments that you plan to make. Doing so correctly at the start is a good way to build - and keep - credibility with the reader. To do so requires touching on:

  • Title, question, or theme of your essay;
  • Main ideas in the essay; and
  • Why the topic is important or relevant.

The purpose to doing so in a direct and succinct way will lead the reader to understand your interpretation of the title or theme as well as why you are taking a particular side or opinion and what types of theories and theorists you are using to substantiate your argument.

Believe it or not, there may even be those essays where the tutor prefers that you do not use an introduction but actually launch straight into the argument and the body of the essay While these are rare, they have been assigned. This is something your tutor would inform you of prior to starting, so just assume that an introduction is generally a must.

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11.2: What to include in the essay introduction

To further expand on the idea of what you need to include in your essay introduction, we are devoting a whole section to that in this chapter, and this is it!

  • Confirm the topic without necessarily repeating it. Often, the title is listed on the title page and at the top of your essay, so you don't need to then repeat it again in the introduction. You can interpret it, rephrase it, or reinforce it by using different phrases or the main ideas. Just be sure that you don't go too far in repurposing it and you lose the focus on the context and theme of the essay.
  • Note the essay's purpose. This explains why the essay is being written and how it can contribute to the body of knowledge out there. Sometimes, there are options provided within the essay question or prompt where you will need to choose a particular side or specific area, so this purpose needs to be clarified upfront in the introduction.
  • Signpost the main issues or concepts that the essay will include. Everyone wants to know what will be included, so be sure to highlight the two to three main ideas you will be covering in the essay. Some topics can be general and include such a wide range of related concepts, so it is important to acknowledge that but specify your focus on only certain areas of the topic.
  • State why the issue or topic is relevant. Briefly connect the issue or topic to a real-world situation or example to bring it to life and add colour to the relevance of the essay.
  • Map out the structure and what will be covered in your essay. Here you will summarise what will be covered and how you plan to do it, potentially even revealing briefly what conclusions were reached.
  • Be careful with keywords and terms. While these are important and beneficial, it doesn't do any good to open the essay with lots of definitions and terms thrown in. This is boring to the reader and takes away from a clear focus. It is best to avoid definitions altogether unless they are specifically asked for and even then you can weave them into the various body paragraphs in your essay. When you may need to include keywords or terms to build the context, just be sure to keep them as brief as possible.

Don't forget to write you title just before the introduction. Even if you have a title page, you may still need to write the title on the first page as a way to remind the tutor what they are marking.

An introduction also has more flexibility in terms of providing alternative openings to your essay, again depending on the type of essay you are writing. This can engage your reader as well as set your essay apart from your peers. Here are some ideas to help you create an alternative introduction section to your essay:

  • A quote can be dramatic and set the tone for your paper as well as illustrating that you understand the topic on a deeper level. Just make sure you reference the quote properly by following our referencing guidelines.
  • A table, chart, or picture can provide a visual sense of what the essay is about without using up precious word count. Be sure to provide the context for it as well as reference it if it comes from another source.
  • A real world example, such as a recent news headline or known story, can provide the relevance and context as well as show that you understand the theoretical evidence you will be using on a deeper level.
  • A paradox or irony can show how perspectives have changed over time, which is beneficial in an essay where you are covering history or a social issue.
  • A concession is a way to start with the opposite side that you intend to argue, which illustrates you are aware of all sides and issues and are prepared to prove that side wrong and your side as the only logical choice.

Before you try an alternative opening to the introduction section of your essay, run the idea past your tutor and get their permission. They may prefer that you adhere to a traditional opening section and you do not want to get marked down for trying to be different. Then again, if they agree, they may reward you for thinking creatively about how to approach your essay introduction.

While this may sound like a lot to include as part of the introduction, it doesn't have to be if you make every word count. The general measurement for an essay introduction in terms of percentage of the essay is typically ten per cent of the word count. In many ways, it is better to go for shorter versus long, rambling, and irrelevant introductions.

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11.3: The thesis statement

One of the most important elements to the introduction in an essay is the thesis statement because it sets out your perspective and direction on the topic. Essentially, it is your argument or idea that you will be proving within the essay. This means that it will reveal how you plan to interpret the question or statement as well as includes what you will cover and establishes that you are directly addressing the question or specific subject matter.

Not every thesis statement will have the exact same format because, as we previously noted, there are different types of essays. Here is how you can create a thesis statement that matches the type of essay you are writing:

  • Analysing essay: Define the main ideas and make a judgement about them while including a brief outline of the evidence or illustrations you will use to substantiate that judgement.
  • Arguing for or against essay: Outline why you are for or against something and include the main points as to why your position can be supported and is logical.
  • Explaining essay: Use the thesis statement to show that you have a thorough understanding of the subject matter and include a brief list of the examples and illustrations you will use within your essay to prove that level of understanding.

To get started on your thesis statement, you first need to list your ideas and focus those ideas in relation to the essay question or essay statement. These ideas are then the basis of the thesis statement, which can be one to two sentences in length. If you are struggling with how to express your ideas, consider these tips on formulating your thesis statement:

  • What is the essay question or essay statement about? How would you explain it to someone else that would make sense?
  • How would you persuade someone else to take your side?
  • How do you really feel about the subject and why do you feel that way?
  • Is the topic important to you and why?
  • How would you prove to your tutor that you thoroughly understand the topic?
  • What available information can help you focus your ideas from your reading list or lecture notes?
  • What type of evidence do you have in the reading or in real life that could support a certain view?

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11.4: Revisiting the essay introduction

While it may sound strange to end your essay writing by returning to the introduction and writing it or revising it, seasoned academic writers will tell you that they often use this strategy. There are some that also feel you should not start writing until you are really clear about what you could write about. However, this could leave you staring at a blank page or empty computer screen for much too long. In actual fact, you need to just start writing and let the ideas flow. There is always time to go back and make it sound better at a later date.

The reason this is used is that the direction of the writing may be uncertain until all the research has been considered and sifted through. The result can be a rambling and bland introduction where you are just writing until you hope to reach a certain point. It may lack the punch needed to engage the reader as well.

As such, you can opt to have something rough or wait altogether until the rest of the essay has been written, so you can come back to the essay introduction with a new understanding of the topic as well as the context and argument. You may also realise that your tone was not quite right so you can tweak it to match the evidence as well as what well could be a more confident tone throughout the rest of the essay.

We are not advocating one particular method but are simply offering it up as an alternative. It's about doing what makes you feel the most comfortable and just gets you writing and on your way with your essay assignment.

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11.5: Common essay introduction mistakes

We see many of the same mistakes when it comes to writing an essay introduction and thought we would share these with you in hopes of helping you avoid them! To help you out, we have also included ways to fix them if you do stumble with your essay introduction:

  • Fluffy and bland introductions: This includes sentences that do not mean anything or just have not captured any ideas or focused on what they are writing about. This happens if you lack confidence or knowledge about the essay topic. To avoid this essay introduction mistake, the best thing you can do is to spend more time reading and understanding the material as well as focusing your ideas. Also, follow our tips for what to include in the introduction and how to develop your thesis statement.
  • Definitions: Some of you may fill your essay introduction with keywords and terms as well as their definitions. It becomes a list rather than a focused introduction that moves from general to specific. It is boring and does not provide the necessary signpost to help the reader understand your purpose and direction. To avoid this, spend time building in the elements that will be discussed throughout the essay.
  • Repetition: Many of you may think it is okay to simply repeat or rewrite the essay question or essay statement and forget to put in the evidence or illustrations as well as two to three main points that you will be discussing. This does not give the reader any sense of what side you are taking or what argument you are making. To avoid this, spend more time putting your ideas and evidence together to add the necessary detail and critical thinking that will earn you high marks.
  • Internet 'facts': While the intent might be there to add evidence and something relevant and interesting, it is a big mistake to turn to Wikipedia for this information or other online sources that may not be academic let alone have credible evidence. This may also lead to including irrelevant information in the essay and kill any credibility with the reader. To avoid this, you can opt to use online newspapers or journals that may include a recent event that adds real world context and interest.

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Chapter 11: In summary

To summarise the chapter, think about the answers to these questions to see if you have got the main points and tips about writing the essay introduction:

  • What is the purpose of the essay introduction?
  • What should be included in the essay introduction?
  • Should you include definitions and keywords?
  • How should you write your thesis statement?
  • What are some alternative openers that you can use in your essay introduction?
  • Why does it help to come back to the essay introduction after you have drafted your essay?
  • What are some common mistakes with essay introductions and how can they be avoided?

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