Introductions

Now that we’ve talked about thesis statements, we need to talk about where the thesis statement fits in your paper.  Usually, the thesis statement belongs in the introduction. Introductions are one of the most important parts of a paper—and for that reason, one of the most difficult for many students.  The purpose of an introduction is to establish the context of your paper.  This does not mean telling your reader about the class you are writing your paper for, but establishing the nature of the conversation you are trying to enter through writing, thus giving your reader a way to understand why your thesis statement matters.  What debates are raging on your topic that are relevant?  What unresolved questions are you going to answer? This sort of context is meant to help your readers enter into the conversation along side you.

You probably have heard that an introduction needs to have punch.  You might have been told that you need to use a quotation that gets your reader’s attention.  You need to be striking, creative, inventive, and stupendously brilliant. While these are great rules for creative writing, creative non-fiction, and even journalism, academic writing has a slightly different set of priorities.  While academic writing doesn’t preclude having punch, using a quotation, or being creative (and we of course hope you will be stupendously brilliant!), your first priority MUST be to establish 1) where the paper is coming from and 2) where it is going.  You must make your ideas interesting enough to draw your reader in, rather than focusing on presentation as the attention-grabbing element.

One thing that I see a lot in introductions that are too focused on making the reader “interested” and not enough on establishing the goals of the paper is that they are too broad.  Your introductions need to be more focused than you are probably used to.  Don’t start with the broadest possible understanding of your topic in an attempt to make your work relevant to everyone.  This is the clearest sign of a high-school level introduction: “Since the beginning of time…” or “Since the beginning of history…” or “Since the dawn of man. . .”  These three openings are guaranteed to make your teachers groan because they are often wrong, and even if they are right, they are almost impossible to prove because they are far too broad.  For your introductions, stick to something much more narrow.

Another dangerous introduction is the dictionary definition introduction.  While defining your terms is important as you establish your topic, you should not rely on Merriam Webster to do your work for you.  Instead, you should develop your own definitions out of your readings in the ongoing conversation in which you are participating.  In this case, you may want to quote the dictionary in order to point out the flaws of the definition in terms of the texts you are writing about.  Under no circumstances should you quote dictionary.com or Webster’s dictionary: if you must use the dictionary, use the Oxford English Dictionary (oed.com).So your introduction should let us know what your topic is, why it is important, and what your argument is (that is, it gives us your thesis).  Ideally, you might even be able to let us know how your argument will work by telling us something about your thesis points (how are you going to prove your thesis?) or the organization of your paper.  In other words, your reader will hopefully to be able to predict the general progression of your argument, even if they don’t know the specifics.

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