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Writing Introductions

Why do I need an introduction?

The purpose of an introduction is to grab your reader's attention, to set the stage for the rest of your paper, and to get across the paper's main point. After reading the introduction, your reader should not be surprised by the paper's contents, tone, or organization. Many writers find introductions to be the most difficult section of a paper to write.

How can I write one?

1. Skip it. Until you have written the rest of your paper, you do not know exactly what you are introducing. Even if you write the introduction first, you will probably have to go back and change it after you write the body of the paper. So jump to the body first! After you know what the paper contains and how it "sounds,' you will probably find it easier to write the introduction.

2. You cannot go wrong with a general-to-specific structure, sometimes called the "inverted pyramid" or "funnel." (It is not terribly exciting, but it gets the job done.) These introductions begin with a broad, general sentence to give the reader perspective. The next few sentences get more specific, until the paragraph ends with the thesis statement. Here is an example from The St. Martins Handbook: The United States has seen many changes in its economy during the last hundred years. Among these changes is the organization of workers. Unions were formed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to battle against long hours and bad working conditions. The workers organized against their employers and won their battles. Today, it is very uncommon to find such oppressive conditions in the work place. Why, then, do unions still exist today? When we examine many of the labor battles of recent years, we find that unions exist mostly as bargaining units through which workers can gain higher wages-at any cost.

3. The first sentences of an introduction are often the trickiest. The Bedford Handbook for Writers describes eight "hooks,' or types of first sentences: a startling statistic or unusual fact; a vivid example; a description; a paradoxical statement; a quotation or bit of dialogue; a question; an analogy; a joke or anecdote.

St. Martins provides some good examples of "hooks":

Opening with a quotation: "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog," says Mary Grace, an unattractive girl from a Massachusetts college, to Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a hypocritical Southern woman, in Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation."

Opening with an anecdote: "Imagine awakening to a thunderous roar that sounds like a herd of elephants and banshees, accompanied by an upheaval of your bed that dumps you on the floor."

Opening with a question: "Why is the American population terrified of turning to nuclear power as a future source of energy?"

What about the thesis statement? 

The thesis statement is a crucial part of most introductions. The thesis should say exactly what the paper will be about, but it should not be a fact; instead, it should be "a generalization demanding proof or further development" (Medford Handbook). For example, the thesis in the sample paragraph above (#2) is the last sentence; it tells us exactly what the paper will do: it will describe some recent union battles and will argue that these battles (often quite nasty) were ultimately about the workers seeking higher pay. Bedford gives additional examples:

Too factual: The first polygraph was developed by Dr. John A. Larson in 1921. Revised: Because the polygraph has not been proved reliable, even under the most controlled conditions, its use by private employers should be banned.

Too broad: Many drugs are now being used successfully to treat mental illness. Revised: Despite its risks and side effects, lithium is an effective treatment for depression.

Too vague: Many of the songs played on station WXQP are disgusting. Revised: Of the songs played on station WXQP, all too many crudely depict sex, sanction the beating or rape of women, or foster gang violence.


Remember - The OWL has other online handouts about introductions and thesis statements.


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