In what ways does your opening engage your reader?
Writers who produce engaging openings keep their audience in mind from the very first sentence. They consider the tone, pace, delivery of information, and strategies for getting the reader’s attention. Many teachers generally recommend that students write their introductions last, because oftentimes introductions are the hardest paragraphs to write.
They’re difficult to write first because you have to consider what the reader needs to know about your topic before getting to the thesis. So, I, like other instructors, suggest writing them last—even after the conclusion—though it’s always a good idea to write with a working thesis in mind. Here are some general principles to consider when writing an introduction.
Avoid opening with cosmic statements.
Think about the term “cosmic.” What does it mean? “Far out.” Do you want your introductions to be “far out” (in a bad way)? Then avoid beginning your papers with a cosmic statement—a generalization, an overly broad idea. Publishers say that the first one or two sentences make or break a submission: if the first two sentences are poorly written or are uninteresting, they won’t keep reading. Consider what your target audience would think if the first two lines were so broad that they really meant nothing at all. Here is a list of a few phrases that signify cosmic statements and that are often seen in the emerging level of student writing:
- From the beginning of time . . .
- Ever since the dawn of time . . .
- Since man first walked the earth . . .
- There are two sides to every issue.
- There are many controversial issues over which people disagree.
That’s just a short list; there are many more cosmic phrases. But you can see from these examples that they preface statements that are so broad they will either lead into an incorrect or bland statement or will disconnect the reader from the real point that you want to make. Let’s take the first cosmic phrase from this list and finish it:
From the beginning of time, people have been tattooing each other.
Though the writer might think this is a good broad statement to introduce a paper on tattooing practices, it’s too broad—not to mention historically incorrect. How might we revise this cosmic statement so that it’s more engaging?
Tattooing practices have widely varied over the past few centuries.
Though still pretty broad, this statement is at least accurate. Consider, though, how we might draw the reader in even more:
Imagine you’re in a tattoo parlor, and you’re about to get a tattoo for the first time. You look over and see the tattoo artist coming at you with a piece of glass. How would you feel? Well, tattooing practices have only become standardized in the last two centuries.
By incorporating narrative into the introduction, the writer can engage the reader and entice him or her to continue reading. Note that narrative doesn’t suit all genres of writing, though. See "Employing Narrative in an Essay" for more information. More formal assignments may ask you to construct an introduction without figurative language or narrative. Think about the requirements of your assignment and your rhetorical situation when crafting your introduction.
Avoid opening with a dictionary definition.
Just like it’s important to avoid using cosmic statements in your introductions, it’s also important to avoid starting your papers with a dictionary definition. If your paper topic is abortion, for instance, your reader doesn’t need to know what Merriam Webster considers abortion to be; he or she needs to know what broader idea will lead him or her to your thesis. So don’t look to dictionary.com for a snazzy opener; you won’t find one there.
Before writing the first line of your introduction, it’s a good idea to write out the thesis. You will need to build up to that thesis statement: the purpose of the introduction paragraph is to give the reader the information he or she needs to understand the thesis statement.
Wade your reader in to your paper.
Why is it important to gradually move your reader through your introduction toward your thesis? Let's say that you’re showing your friend this great new lake you’ve discovered. When you reach the edge, do you push your friend in or do you wade into the lake with him? Perhaps you’d push your friend in, but you don’t want to shove your reader into your paper. You want to wade him or her into your paper, gradually taking him or her to the thesis statement.
If you write your introduction paragraph last, you will be familiar with your argument and its direction. You can then use this knowledge to structure your introduction paragraph, asking yourself questions like, "What details do I include in my body paragraphs (so that I avoid bringing them in to the paper too soon)?" and "What background information, either about the greater conversation surrounding this topic or about the topic's historical context, might my reader need to appreciate my thesis?"
Let’s take a look at an example of an introduction paragraph that shoves the reader into the paper:
Tattooing practices have varied widely over the past few centuries. Indeed, tattooing has become much safer. Whereas in the nineteenth century tattooing was performed with sharp instruments like glass in countries such as Africa, in the twenty-first century tattooing is performed with sanitary needles.
This introduction can’t really stand on its own as a paragraph, anyway; it’s far too short. How might we add material to this paragraph (revise it) so that it gradually brings the reader to the thesis?
Imagine you’re in a tattoo parlor, and you’re about to get a tattoo for the first time. You look over and see the tattoo artist coming at you with a piece of glass. How would you feel? Well, tattooing practices have only become standardized in the last two centuries. In fact, in the nineteenth century, some tattoo artists used sharp instruments like shards of glass to mark the skin. Yet with the public focus in the modern world on health and healthful practices, tattooing practices have evolved accordingly. Whereas in the nineteenth century tattooing was performed in unsanitary, dangerous ways, in the twenty-first century tattooing is performed with sanitary needles, demonstrating a shift in ideas regarding health in public opinion.
Whereas the first introduction galloped into the thesis statement, this paragraph wades the reader into the paper. Guiding the reader toward your thesis statement will also help him or her better understand the context for your particular topic, thereby giving him or her a greater stake in your writing.
Ultimately, then, I suggest you practice writing your introduction last. If it doesn’t work for you, then switch back to writing it first. But writing it last may help you avoid writing two introduction paragraphs or foregrounding your argument too much. Overall, consider the progression of ideas in your introduction: you should move from global to local, from the general (but not over-generalized) to the specific (your thesis statement).