How can I write an effective Introduction? – a formula that almost always works

Good introductions and conclusions are common, but great ones are rare. Intros and conclusions are also among the most misunderstood elements of essay writing. They are often underestimated in their importance for the overall essay. And they are best discussed together, as to some extent, they are mirror images of each other. In short: There’s so much to talk about! These blogposts make some simple-to-follow suggestions for great introductions and conclusions for every time you write an essay, and shows how they are key to essay writing success. They come in two parts: Part 1 focuses on the introduction, part 2 on conclusion.

Intro (& Conclusion) length

First, let’s talk parameters: One of the most common mistakes for both intro and conclusion is that they are either too long (common) or too short (less common). As a rule of thumb, both should be around 10% each of the overall essay length. This can vary, and in particular, you might sometimes be able to pull off a shorter introduction, especially if the essay is on the longer side – if we are talking a short 2,000 word essay, for example, you will probably struggle to fit all the necessary elements into significantly less than 200 words, but for a 4,000 word essay it might come easier to do this in less than 400 words.

Purpose of introduction

Put bluntly, the purpose of an introduction is to let your reader know what they’re getting into. Imagine them doing what you hopefully have been doing when you were researching for your essay, sifting through numerous essays / academic articles, trying to figure out which ones are relevant for them. And in order to get an idea of whether a journal article or essay is relevant for you, you will need to read the abstract (if available) and/or the introduction. We don’t usually do abstracts in standard university essay writing, so forget about those. The introduction then needs to fulfil this function. What do you want to know from an abstract/intro when you are sifting through numerous essays/articles? Keep this question in mind, and supply your reader with the relevant information. By academic convention, this usually means (a) giving them an idea of what the topic is about in a more general sense, and (b) an idea of what the essay more specifically is about. What this looks like in practice is detailed below.

Introduction: Foundations

Introductions come in many shapes and forms, but the two non-negotiable, unmovable, essential elements that any introduction needs are (I’m colour-coding here for enhanced clarity) (a) a statement of what question or topic you are addressing and (b) an essay plan or outline.

Example:

“This essay addresses the question of which theory of the emergence of capitalism is more convincing, Marx’s or Weber’s. It first looks at Weber’s claim that the Protestant ethic preceded the spirit of capitalism. Secondly, it examines Marx’s idea of how capitalism was a historic stage in the development towards communism.”

This is a minimalist introduction. It is not quite complete, but at least it gives your reader something to work with. It might be sufficient for a (very short) C essay. This might also be the kind of introduction you have in an exam (and which is usually fine in an exam, where the emphasis is more on the content of the exam essay, and not quite as much on the form and finesse of the introduction).

While it might in most cases be a little unsatisfactory on its own, these two elements provide the basis on which to build the rest of the introduction.

These two elements can easily be written before you start writing the main part of the essay. At this point, you should know what question you are addressing, and you should have a plan for how to do this, so this information should be available to you when you set out, with the caveat, of course, that the plan might still change as you write.

Introducing the Topic

The above introduces the essay question and structure, but a well-crafted introduction also gives the reader a flavour of what the topic is about more generally. Searching the internet, you will find various pieces of advice for this, for example, yuo are told to include:

    • Background information
    • A quote
    • Historical, geographical context
    • Be broad but not too broad
    • Don’t do definitions / do use definitions

It can be confusing. And sometimes the pieces of information you find contradict each other. My suggestion here is not to overthink this. An easy and straightforward introduction of the topic that almost always works is to shortly outline the two main sides of the argument on which your essay question comes in on. You might be able to write this before you write the main discussion of your essay. However, this is not always the case, and for certain, once you have written the actual essay you will definitely have a better sense of what the issue or problem is. My advice would therefore be to write this part of the introduction after you’ve written the essay. It will also make it easier to quickly drop in some references which you have already used in the main part of the essay. And yes, do use references in the introduction, ideally to the main readings you are using. They give your reader a sense of what kind of literature the essay will be drawing on.

To expand the above example – you now have introduction of topic, essay question/problem and essay plan:

“Marx’ and Weber’s interpretations of the emergence of capitalism put their emphases on seemingly opposing influences: While Marx (1848, 1878) put material factors at the centre of his analysis, Weber (1898, 1918) examined the role of ideas in the process. This essay addresses the question of which of the two theories of the emergence of capitalism is more convincing, Marx’s or Weber’s. It first looks at Weber’s claim that the Protestant ethic preceded the spirit of capitalism. Secondly, it examines Marx’s idea of how capitalism was a historic stage in the development towards communism.”

Getting there! This is already a pretty decent introduction. Depending on the essay question, these three elements might be the only ones you need. There are two more elements, however, that you should consider.

Introducing the Argument

It is almost always a good idea to have an argument, introduced through a thesis statement in the introduction (‘I am going to argue that…’). This should be an arguable statement, that is, it should be possible for someone else to argue against it. What it essentially does is lay out your position on the topic, how you interpret it, and what your take on it is. It thus adds an important layer of your own original argument, an important building block of critical engagement. I have written more about what makes an original argument in this blogpost on How to be Original.

In our example, an argument/thesis statement could look something like this:

 “Marx’ and Weber’s interpretations of the emergence of capitalism put their emphases on seemingly opposing influences: While Marx (1848, 1878) put material factors at the centre of his analysis, Weber (1898, 1918) examined the role of ideas in the process. This essay addresses the question of which of the two theories of the emergence of capitalism is more convincing, Marx’s or Weber’s. It first looks at Weber’s claim that the Protestant ethic preceded the spirit of capitalism. Secondly, it examines Marx’s idea of how capitalism was a historic stage in the development towards communism. Ultimately, I am going to argue that while both of them offer intriguing insights into the historical trajectories of capitalism, neither of them on their own can explain all of the relevant aspects.”

The only cases in which a thesis statement is not appropriate that I can think of (do let me know if you can think of other cases, and I’ll include them here), or at least tricky to pull off, is when the essay question is descriptive, asking you for example, so summarise a debate, or a body of knowledge, or describe a concept. This could be ‘What does Geertz mean by thick description, and what are the critiques of it?’ or ‘What is social class?’ It’s not impossible to have an argument here, but it’s difficult to position it vis-à-vis the essay question. It can hardly be argued for or against Geertz meaning specific things, as he was fairly clear on it. You could, however, argue for or against the critiques. And you could look at the different definitions and conceptualisations of social class and argue that one understanding is particularly poignant and useful. My point here is to emphasise that while a argument/thesis statement is almost always a good addition to your essay, some questions and topics are more suited to it than others, and accordingly, there will be more or less of an expectation for you to have a specific, explicit argument of your own. The question you should be asking yourself if whether or not an argument adds to your analysis, and your critical engagement with the question. But as discussed above, it does in most cases.

Definitions

You will often hear or read that you need to define key terms in the introduction. This is mostly true, but it does depend. The above example introduction, for instance, does not need definitions. It works perfectly well without. Why this is the case becomes clearer when we look at the purpose of definitions.

The purpose of any definition is to establish clarity, and avoid ambiguity. There are certain terms in the social sciences that are conceptualised and defined in different ways by different authors. And so you need to lay down a marker clarifying in what way you use the term. This could be for example, ‘social class, defined in the Bourdieuan sense of incorporating economic, social and cultural capital (Bourdieu 1979, 1987)’ or ‘culture (in the sense of norms, values, ideas)’. It could also be terms that are not immediately clear to your imagined average reader, and thus need explanation, say John W. Meyer’s concept of ‘isomorphism’ or indeed Bourdieu’s ‘cultural capital’.

Not all of these clarifications need to feature in the introduction, though. They only need to feature here if they are indeed needed for your reader to fully understand what you are telling them. Those definitions and clarifications that are not relevant at this point are best added whenever they become necessary and relevant, during your discussion in the main part of the essay. So in the introduction, for example, it might be relevant to define ‘social class’ as incorporating the different kinds of capital – this gives your reader an indication what theoretical school you are drawing on – but it will probably not be necessary to establish in detail what the different kind of capital mean. This is something you can clarify when you get round to discussing, for example, cultural capital later in the essay.

In our introduction example from above, then, definitions are not necessary because none of the terms used are particularly unclear or ambiguous. Yes, there is the question of what capitalism is. And there are other terms such as ‘material forces’ or ‘ideas’ that might raise questions. However, the entire essay in a sense is a discussion of what capitalism is, and how these material forces and ideas contribute to it. The terms will become clearer when you get round to them. For the introduction, an overview of the topic and the essay, this suffices. As you go along with your essay, of course, these different elements do need to be clarified.

The appropriate place for definitions in your introduction can actually be almost anywhere, depending on how big they are. If they are slightly longer, for example need a sentence or two or three, they can be either at the end of the introduction, or indeed at the beginning. Especially in shorter essays, in which, for example, you only have 200 words for the introduction, placing them at the beginning, where they simultaneously serve as the introduction to the topic, makes a lot of sense. If the definition is very short, such as the above ‘culture (in the sense of norms, values, ideas)’, it can even be dropped into the essay plan of the introduction, such as ‘First, the essay will examine the role of culture (in the sense of norms, ideas, values)’, second…’ etc.

A final, but important thing to say about definitions is that you should always choose definitions that serve the purpose of your discussion. Don’t think of definitions as something overly objective, an authority that you need to follow. Rather, look at different definitions from different scholars (ie from the academic literature, not from general dictionaries), and ask yourself which one works best for your essay. For example, if you write about something to do with the cultural aspects of globalisation, you probably want to choose a definition that gives cultural elements a prominent place. Or if your interest is in political agency (rather than just structural factors) in revolutions, you should build your analysis on a definition that gives appropriate space to political agency. It should be you who chooses the definition, not the definition that chooses you.

Final Thoughts

Part 2 of this blogpost looks at how to write a good conclusion. To a large extent good conclusions are the mirror of a good introduction, and it makes a lot of sense to look at them together.

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