Writing Strong Introductions
The job before you in the first paragraph of your essay is to capture your reader's interest and attention. Consider these openings lines from three different essays about Hawaii. Which lines do the best job of capturing your interest?
(1) The tropical islands of Hawaii are known for beautiful sandy beaches, tropical fruits, palm trees, perfect weather, a vast array of wildlife, and a mixture of cultures. Hawaii truly is a paradise.
(2) Imagine yourself lying on a white sand beach before a vast, sparkling sea, the sun warming your weightless body, no sound but the waves gently crashing against the shore and the soft rustling of the palm trees, the scent of the sea and of coconut oil tanning lotion floating on the breeze. This is the picture of a typical day in Hawaii. In the case of Hawaii, the travel brochures do not lie: Hawaii is paradise.
(3) More than 6 million people visit Hawaii each year. With so many tourists on such a small land mass, it would seem that any pleasures to be had at Hawaii's beautiful beaches and luxurious resorts would be spoiled by overcrowding. But this is not the case; it is still possible to experience paradise in Hawaii.
The first introduction is the least interesting because it offers so many broad generalizations. Without a concrete image or idea, readers will rarely make a strong connection with the topic. The second introduction is far more effective at creating interest because of the numerous sensory and concrete details. Readers are asked to picture themselves in the scene, and so are called upon to engage deeply with the topic at hand. The third introduction is also effective because of the element of surprise: the author provides a concrete and interesting statistic about the level of tourism that suggests one conclusion, that Hawaii would be too crowded for a satisfying vacation, but then surprises the reader by suggesting that in spite of this problem, Hawaii can still be paradise. The reader is engaged by the promise of unexpected and surprising information in the essay to follow.
How do you go about writing an introduction that is going to get your reader's attention? To start, put yourself in the place of your reader. Ask yourself, under what conditions will my reader pick up this essay? Imagine your reader having a general interest in your topic, but also distractions, such as laundry needing to be done, or loud music next door, or kids arguing. You need to break through these distractions by providing a compelling reason to read. And since you know your own idea intimately, try to capture for your reader what drew you in and made you passionate about this topic. That said, there are a few specific strategies that you may adopt, shaping them to your own purposes:
A short anecdote:
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Traveling is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places." He was wrong. Hawaii is anything but indifferent.
Relevant background material:
Be careful here. Don't include background material that does not have a direct bearing on your topic. Broad generalities merely distract the reader and postpone what is really important in the essay (for example, "Since the beginning of time," or "Throughout American history")
Hawaii has been a popular tourist destination since the 1920's. In the early days, tourists travelled to Hawaii aboard steamships to experience first hand the romantic beauty that had been popularized in Hawaiian songs of the teens. And by the 1940's, Hollywood films like "Waikiki Wedding" featuring scenes shot on location, drew thousands more tourists to the growing number of hotels along Waikiki Beach. Today, Hawaii is the number one American tourist destination.
An interesting quote, fact, or statistic:
More than 6 million tourists visit Hawaii every year.
Start with a commonly held belief or opinion, and then assert a new approach or direction for your essay.
Although 6 million tourists visit Hawaii every year, it is possible to go to Hawaii and feel like you are way off the beaten path.
A short narrative:
Imagine yourself lying on a white sand beach before a vast, sparkling sea, the sun warming your weightless body, no sound but the waves gently crashing against the shore and the soft rustling of the palm trees, the scent of the sea and of coconut oil tanning lotion floating on the breeze.
Description, Setting the scene:
Help readers connect to the argument by describing an important setting or character in the essay.
Seen from above, the Pine Island Ice Shelf is a slow-motion train wreck. Its buckled surface is scarred by thousands of large crevasses. Its edges are shredded by rifts a quarter mile across. In 2015 and 2016 a 225-square-mile chunk of it broke off the end and drifted away not the Amundsen Sea. The water there has warmed by more than a degree Fahrenheit over the past few decades, and the rate at which ice is melting and calving has quadrupled. Fox, Douglas. "The Crisis on the Ice." National Geographic (July 2017) 32. Print.
A question or several questions to be answered in the essay:
Why would anyone want to spend their hard-earned money on a Hawaiian vacation?
Definition of a key term in your essay:
Avoid dictionary definitions! This method is over-used in the college essay. Try for a more extended definition that is keyed into your essay topic.
Paradise for many of us in the 21st century is having freedom from care and worry, like the freedom Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall, and nothing to do but to enjoy the beauty and bounty of life and each other. Paradise can be found, if only temporarily, in a short trip to Hawaii.
Some people desire a vacation to be like a non-stop rollercoaster ride, full of excitement with a new thrill around every turn, and little time to catch one's breath. Others prefer their vacations to be more like the ride on a ferris wheel, where the joy of the ride comes more from the scenery and new vistas, than from heart-pounding new experiences.
Moving into your thesis
In addition to capturing the reader's interest and establishing the topic of your essay, the introduction should focus the reader's attention on what you will be arguing in the essay itself about your topic. The argument is typically captured in a single sentence we call the "thesis sentence." The diagram (right) helps illustrate the way an introduction should focus the reader's thought.
The thesis as a promise
Once you have your thesis, examine it carefully for the language in your thesis statement because the language will determine what you can do in your essay from here on out. A thesis is a promise, or contract, between you and the reader. The reader takes in your words in the thesis and says, ok, show me. If you say, for example, "It is still possible to experience paradise in Hawaii," the reader will expect to be shown how one can experience paradise in Hawaii. If, on the other hand, your thesis is "Hawaii is a wonderful place for a family vacation," the reader will expect to be shown why Hawaii is a great place for families to take a vacation. Of course, you still have options for development with any thesis; for example, with this second thesis, you could compare Hawaii to other destinations as family vacation spots, showing why Hawaii is the better choice, and/or you could describe the many different activities for families on the Hawaiian Islands, but you could not include a discussion of why Hawaii is a paradise in this essay because such a discussion is outside the scope of the thesis.
What not to do
- Don't begin with a huge generalization like "Throughout history civilizations have grown and died." You will have to take too many steps to get from such a broad generalization to your specific argument. Instead, stay within your topic area, or within a theme tightly connected to your thesis.
- Don't over use rhetorical questions. Instructors don't much like them because they are a often a kind of cop out; instead of going the extra distance to figure out what the argument actually is, the writer settles on a focusing question; for example, "Why is their such an obesity epidemic in America?" The answer to this question makes a much stronger thesis: "The obesity epidemic in this country has several causes, but the worst is our fast-food culture." On the other hand a rhetorical question is actually a good focusing device for a draft. Some writers find a clear question keeps them focused as they are developing their ideas. If you like working with rhetorical questions to help you stay focused, be sure to turn that question into a statement in your final draft.
- Don't describe your writing or thinking process. Statements like "As I was exploring ideas for this topic," "I am no expert on ... but I will do the best I can," or "Words are not enough to really explain," detract from your topic by redirecting the emphasis to you and your methods.
- Don't feel you must describe the structure of your essay in your thesis (unless your instructor requires such description). Some essays naturally fall into clear and equal divisions (e.g., "There are three good methods for strengthening the body after muscle injury"), but others do not (e.g., "Life without my husband was going to be difficult.")