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How to write the perfect introduction

Writing an introduction can be one of the most nerve-wracking parts of writing an essay. It’s the first thing that the examiner reads and so it is important that it is not only well written but that it is interesting enough to secure the good graces of an examiner who has already marked a staggering number of scripts! A good introduction will frame your essay, introducing its subject matter and key themes. Your thesis – that is, your interpretation of the question will also be clearly stated. If fitting all this into one-paragraph seems overwhelming, this guide is here to help.

Avoid providing too much contextual information:

Although it might be tempting to pad out your essays with titbits of information you find on sites like Wikipedia, your argument will be much clearer if you avoid the clutter and stick to what’s crucial for your case. A simple rule to follow is that facts and trivia should only be included if they are explicitly relevant to or inform your argument. In most cases, the examiner already knows Jane Austen’s date of birth of the name of the town in which Roosevelt grew up. Instead of wasting space with these titbits, devote it to providing the examiner with the fresh, new viewpoint that they are looking for.

Avoid working chronologically

Avoid starting at the beginning of the subject matter at hand. Let your understanding of the topic shine by cross-referencing through it. For example, if you are discussing a novel, don’t only mention the incidents that occur at the beginning of it. Your introduction is supposed to introduce the topic or text in an overarching way, you should be summarising it briefly, not providing a chapter-by-chapter commentary.

Consequently, many successful essays begin with a broad, sweeping statement about the period or text. For example, if you were writing on Wuthering Heights and the depiction of madness within it, a good opening sentence would be: ‘Bronte’s depiction of Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights explores the madness of human and familial love’. This statement refers to the question, which is centred on madness and also tells the examiner the student’s stance on it – the student here will be addressing madness in relation to the relationships in the novel.

Hooking the Reader: Opening Quotations

As mentioned, introductions have to do the hard work of winning the interest of the reader. A good way to do so is to include an opening quotation (this will also help score marks for context!) from the novel at hand or from a critic. If you are quoting from a critic it should directly inform your argument. For instance, if your question is ‘to what extent was Stalin’s leadership effective during the period of 1941 – 1949’ you could begin with a quote from Pearson who states: ‘as a highly centralised dictatorship, Joseph Stalin almost played a pivotal part in every aspect of the Soviet war effort’. From this, the examiner can surmise the student’s take on the question. This student will most probably argue that whilst Stalin’s leadership was effective when it came to leading his country in war, it was not so effective when it came to protecting his citizen’s basic human rights.

Hannah, a university student studying Psychology at Sheffield University says: ‘I always begin with a quote from a critic, it helps to show that I have done wider reading and that I understand the topic that I am writing about’.

Hooking the Reader: Anecdotes

Another way that you can make your introduction stand out is by telling a witty anecdote. If you are writing on a text by George Orwell, an interesting anecdote to begin with is that during his time at war he once fired at a rat (he hated them much as his protagonist, Winston Smith in 1984 did). This caused the other soldiers in his faction to start firing in a panic at supposed fascists. Whilst being an amusing way to open an essay, this anecdote also introduces one of the great themes of Orwell’s life – that he was a great left-wing figure who actively fought for democracy.

However, be sure to use anecdotes at your discretion, you don’t want your essay to lose its sense of formality.

Don’t give away everything!

Whilst you must present your argument as clearly as you can so that the examiner understands your unique stance on the question, don’t give everything away in the introduction. A good essay should be a meditation; it develops and unfolds with every ensuing paragraph and you lose the fun of that if you reveal all of your cards in the beginning. And remember, you still have a conclusion to write!

Read the next piece in this series: How to craft a compelling conclusion

Written by Nessa – An English tutor, studying at Kings College London

Nessa - English tutor

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