Reading & Writing Across Curriculum

Writing Introductions

The first paragraph of an academic essay is called an introductory paragraph, or introduction. A good introduction explains exactly what your essay will be about.  It describes your main point in specific terms, but without detailed examples that will come later in the body of the paper. 

A strong introduction should include the following things:

  • Some background on your topic
  • A summary of what you will discuss or argue in the paper
  • A thesis statement that explains your main point or argument
  • Nothing that doesn't relate to the body of your paper

By the end of your introduction, readers should have a very clear idea of what your paper will discuss and what major argument or main point it will make.

Common problems with introductions

Below are some common problems with introductory paragraphs. Click on the links to find out more about each one:

Surprise thesis statement

One of the most common problems with introductory paragraphs is not preparing readers for the thesis statement. Your introduction should usually end with a thesis statement, one or two sentences that sum up your main point (learn more about thesis statements). But this thesis statement should not be the first time the reader sees your argument; it should not be a surprise or come out of the blue. Instead, your entire introduction should explain your thesis or main point.The thesis statement is just the icing on the cake, leaving the reader with a strong final impression of the argument that you’ve been describing throughout your introduction.

The following are two introductory paragraphs for the same paper.  The first one has a surprise thesis statement.  The second one explains the thesis throughout the paragraph.  In both paragraphs, the thesis statement is underlined. 

paragraph with surprise thesis statement
Throughout history, men and women have been at war with each other.  Men and women have so many differences.  Men tend to like sports and cars; women enjoy clothing and decorating.  Men usually feel warm, while women are always cold.  Anyone who has ever spent time with someone of the opposite sex could tell you that men and women often do not see eye to eye.  The war of the genders rages on.  Many people think that is the reason for the high divorce rates nowadays.  But actually, divorce is not caused by the problems between men and women, but by our society’s casual attitude toward marriage. Television must take a lead in providing positive images in order to save the institution of marriage.
entire introduction explains the thesis
Divorce is becoming more and more common in American society, leading many people to believe that marriages can never last.  Many people point to the breakdown of marriage as a sign that men and women cannot really get along, especially now that women have become more independent and self-sufficient. But actually, divorce is not caused by problems between men and women, but by our society’s casual attitude toward marriage.  Marriage is no longer seen as something permanent, but rather as a convenient union that can be broken as soon as things get rough.  The television is the biggest culprit in spreading this casual attitude about marriage.  A number of recent television shows depict marriage as something temporary and casual, rather than a serious, lifelong commitment.  Television reporting of celebrity marriages, which seem to last about two years on average, only reinforces our society’s impression of marriage as hardly different from casual dating.  If our society values marriage and the serious commitment that it represents, we will take steps to revise our attitudes about marriage and to provide more positive role models of marriage.  Television must take a lead in providing these positive images in order to save the institution of marriage.

Notice how much easier it is to understand the topic and main point of the second introduction.  

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Vague Language

While introduction should not have many specific details or examples, they should be as specific as possible about what your paper will discuss. Some students worry that if they are too specific, they will "give away" their ideas and the reader will not be interested in continuing to read the paper. But in fact, a vague introduction leaves readers uninterested in your paper because they don't know what it will be about.

For example, which of the following papers would you be more excited about reading?

vague sentence from an an introduction:
My experiences as a young person have made me the person I am today.
specific sentence from an introduction:
My experiences of joining a gang at a young age, attempting a murder, and spending three years in prison have made me a passionate anti-gang activist.

Most people would be more interested in the second, more specific introduction. If your main point is interesting, then let us know what it is as soon as possible!

find out more about vague language

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Too much detail

While it is important to be specific in an introduction, you should not include a lot of examples and details to support your points.These details will appear in your body paragraphs. You also generally should not discuss a quotation, unless it is short and simple and can be explained quickly. Save quotations for your body paragraphs, so you can discuss them thoroughly (learn more about discussing quotations).

The following sentences from an introduction demonstrate how to be specific without being too detailed in an introduction:

too vague
My bedroom gives me a particular feeling which I will describe in this essay.
too detailed
My bedroom makes me feel good because all of my favorite toys from childhood are there, including my Barbies, my baseball mitt, my teddy bears, and many other toys, as well as all of my photographs and records.
just right
My bedroom makes me feel safe and protected because all of my most cherished childhood possessions are there.

Notice that the "just right" sentence tells us your main idea (that the room contains your cherished possessions) without telling us all of the evidence you will use to support that idea (a list of every possession that you will discuss in the paper).

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Including unrelated information

Introductions should contain background on your subject matter. This is especially important when it is a subject that many readers may not be familiar with, as in the topic of a research paper. However, a common mistake is writing an introduction full of abitrary, disconnected facts that do not have anything to do with what your paper actually discusses. Make sure that any background information that you include is directly related to what you discuss in your paper.   

The following are two introductions to a paper on the Chinese medical technique of acupuncture. As the thesis statement in each introduction indicates, the paper's main pont is that acupuncture should be available in hospitals.  

This introduction is full of random, disconnected facts:
Acupuncture has been used since the stone age, when stones were used instead of needles.  It is a Chinese healing technique but has also been used in Mongolia, Korea, and Japan.  It was brought to the U.S. by Chinese railroad workers.   Acupuncture works by sticking thin needles into “meridians,” or channels of energy in the body.  There are twelve main meridians, although there are also smaller meridians.  Acupuncture is an effective medical technique that should be available in hospitals along with conventional Western medicine.
This introduction gives background that leads up to the thesis statement and explains the issues necessary to understand the paper's main idea:
Acupuncture is a form of healing that has been used by Chinese doctors for thousands of years.  This practice of inserting needles into key areas of the body in order to redirect energy and heal sickness has been used by Chinese Americans since Chinese people first immigrated to the United States.  In the last  fifty years, non-Chinese Americans have become increasingly interested in acupuncture as a form of healing.  Acupuncture has now become a common form of treatment in America, so much so that it is offered as a complementary treatment in many hospitals and doctor’s offices.  However, some scientists believe that there is no scientific proof of acupuncture’s effectiveness and that it should not be endorsed by the medical establishment.  While they are correct that no studies have conclusively proven acupuncture’s effectiveness, its benefits have been observed by many patients, and it rarely has harmful side effects. Acupuncture is an effective medical technique that should be available in hospitals along with conventional Western medicine.

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