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Sound Writing

Subsection 4.2.1 Writing Introductions

Writing an introduction is widely considered one of the most challenging steps in writing a paper. The challenge of writing a great introduction is real, but armed with a good understanding of introductions, a useful metaphor, and some concrete guidelines, the task of hooking your reader, laying out your argument, and asserting your thesis is one you can overcome. In this section, you’ll learn why you need an introduction, what goes in an introduction, and how to construct an effective introduction (and yes, we got lost in the meta trying to write this introduction!).

Subsubsection Role of the Introduction

The Road Map.

While first impressions are not always accurate, you usually don’t get a second chance to impress your audience in writing. This is why the introduction of your paper is just as important as the body paragraphs and conclusion; it is the “road map” of your argument, the first thing your audience will read, and the part that will determine whether or not your audience will continue reading. Therefore, it’s important to have a strong introduction to introduce your argument, lay out the expectations of your paper, and convince your audience members why they should care enough to read on. To this end, there are a few things you should include in your introduction to make it as effective as possible.
A cartoon of a folded paper map on its side. An orange road with the text "road map" and a red location symbol feature prominently on the map.

Subsubsection Anatomy of the Introduction

Common Ground.

It’s important to begin your introduction with a nice, firm handshake with the audience, which often comes in the form of establishing common ground. Your common ground should do two things: 1) introduce your topic, and 2) establish yourself as an authority on the topic at hand. Common ground is usually established in the form of a factual, uncontroversial statement that is likely familiar to your audience and which may comfortably orient them to your topic. It may also introduce the works, authors, and sources you will be using by drawing an observational similarity between them. When establishing common ground, steer clear of these Opening Statements to Avoid and opt for something like these Effective Opening Statements instead. You can also read more about Revising an Opening Statement.
Example 4.2.1. Establishing Common Ground.
  • “Many people believe this [common ground].”
  • “Both this source and this source examine this critical issue or use this popular trope [common ground].”

Statement of the Problem.

Once you have established common ground, you are now free to interrupt or destabilize this common ground with your main question or problem. This question or problem should arise from a common trend or pattern you uncover within the research; perhaps something you observe in the research does not adhere to common thought, has not been framed in a certain way, or has not been studied at all. Therefore, the question or problem you pose should occur within the context of a broader scholarly conversation. You can pose your problem by drawing a distinction between the audience’s expectation and reality, pointing to startling similarities or differences between your sources, or complicating the common ground statement with a more nuanced or holistic perspective of the issue. To highlight this problem, you can use words and phrases like “however,” “although,” “while,” or “in actuality.”
Example 4.2.2. Posing the Problem.
  • “Many people believe this [common ground], however they may not have thought of it like this [problem].”
  • “While both of these sources examine this [common ground], one actually does this while the other does not [problem].”
Stating the problem should do two things: 1) acknowledge the reader’s incomplete knowledge of the topic, and 2) illuminate to the audience that there is a tangible consequence to their ignorance. By associating a consequence with the stated problem, you will encourage the reader to keep reading your paper in an attempt to rectify their ignorance and avoid any consequent costs. Another way to articulate consequence is to pose to the audience the potential benefits to be gained by resolving the problem and improving their understanding of the topic.
Example 4.2.3. Establishing Consequence.
  • “Recently, however, studies have begun to show this new thing [incomplete knowledge]. Without furthering our understanding of this thing, we may fail to perceive its true implications [consequence/cost].”
  • “Many of these sources examine this issue in the same way [incomplete knowledge]. However, if we look at it in this new way, we may be able to achieve a deeper, more nuanced perspective on the issue [consequence/benefit].”

Response to the Problem (Thesis).

After destabilizing the common ground by posing the problem and stating the potential consequences of incomplete knowledge, you may now give your audience members some stable footing (don’t just leave them hanging!). You can do this by providing the audience with your resolution to the stated problem—this is also known as your thesis statement (for tips on thesis development, see Section 3.4). Your thesis statement should include a clear assertion of your argument that reflects the general organization of the paper, what kinds of information you will be using, and how you will be using that information to make your argument.
There are different ways you may frame your thesis statement. You can offer the solution as the main point of the paper, promising to explicate it in depth throughout your response; this is called a “point-first” structure. You may also want to detail the problem at length, explore various solutions, and finally offer a solution at the very end of the paper; this structure is called “point-last.” Whichever structure you choose should be the one best suited to your argument and what you want the main focus of your paper to be.

Subsubsection Writing Effective Introductions

Now that you have the basic tools you need to write an effective introduction, here are some tips and strategies to get you in the intro-writing mood.

Note 4.2.4.

You don’t necessarily need to write your introduction first! Even though it appears first in your paper, the introduction is generally not the first thing you write. Oftentimes you need to have a solid thesis and some of your body paragraphs—maybe even your whole paper—before you begin writing your introduction. Your introduction is supposed to prepare the reader for what to expect in your paper, so it’s usually better to wait to write it until you have a really strong idea of where you’re headed. This being said, if you feel like writing the introduction will help you develop a path forward, go for it! Just keep in mind that it will likely change as you move through the rest of your paper.
List 4.2.5. Strategies for Writing Effective Introductions
  • Consider your introduction the “road map” to your paper.
    While writing your introduction, you should prepare the audience for what’s ahead. To this end, your thesis should reflect the general organization of your argument. However, if you find you need more room to elaborate on the paper’s organization, you may also find it helpful to include a clear road map for what you plan to accomplish. You may even want to be very explicit, using phrasing something like this: “First, I will explore this issue. Then, I will look at the issue from this perspective. Finally, I will bring these two first parts together to examine the issue in this way.” Don’t be afraid to tell the audience exactly what they should expect from you and your argument; doing so establishes you as the authority, provides your audience with a compass to guide them through your paper, and disables the risk of any surprises sneaking through that may take your audience off guard.
  • Make the length of your introduction proportional to the length of your paper.
    Especially for longer responses, such as research papers, you may find that the introduction of your topic and explanation of the problem takes a few paragraphs—that’s okay! You may not even get to your thesis until a page or so in. Depending on the recommended length of your paper, this may be appropriate to the scope of your argument. It’s also okay if you feel you are putting too much in the introduction—first write as much as you feel is necessary to get to your thesis statement, then go back and see if there is anything that could justify its own body paragraph or that may not be as necessary to your introduction as you originally thought.
  • Start with something concise, engaging, and applicable.
    Crafting the opening sentence of your introduction can be a daunting task, especially as it sets the tone for your argument, introduces the topic of your paper, and is the first thing your audience will read. Thinking about how broad or specific to start can be useful in helping you figure out the appropriate scope for your introduction. For instance, many introductions start with a broader statement and then narrow in scope as they begin to focus in on the specific problem and the thesis. While this structure is useful, it’s important to keep in mind that the “broader” opening statement should still be specific to your topic, interesting, and relevant to what you will be discussing.

Example 4.2.6. Revising an Opening Statement.

For example, you probably shouldn’t start a research paper about the destruction of the Sundarbans mangrove forest with the opening statements, “Forests are inherently valuable to mankind” or “Mankind is destroying the Earth’s natural resources.” Both of these statements are too broad to generate much interest and don’t really indicate what the paper will be about. Consider instead the opening statement:
“Comprising the largest block of mangrove forest globally and accounting for 3% of global mangrove area, the Sundarbans of Eastern India and Bangladesh are biogeographically, ecologically, and culturally unique in their species biodiversity and ecosystem services.”
This statement is specific, interesting, and introduces the topic at hand. However, it’s also broad enough to hint at the bigger picture while opening the floor to a more specific problem or insight. While there are a variety of different ways to craft an interesting and relevant opening to your introduction, there are some opening statement types that are generally too broad, obvious, informal, over-used, or boring to be employed in academic writing and, as a result, should be avoided. (However, it’s important to remember that the type of opening statement obviously depends on the discipline and type of writing assignment; therefore, rather than strictly adhering to this list, use it as a guide.)
List 4.2.7. Opening Statements to Avoid
  • Vague and sweeping statements (“Since the dawn of mankind . . .,” “Since the beginning of time . . .,” “The truth is . . .,” “Writers have always . . .”)
  • Restated questions (“Is the sky blue? Yes, it is.”)
  • Quotes, especially quotes that are not directly related to the content of the paper (“Helen Keller once said, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement.””)
  • Definitions, with the exception of very specialized definitions that are at the heart of your argument (“According to the Merriam-Webster definition . . .”)
  • Clichés or common adages (“History repeats itself . . .,” “Once upon a time . . .”)
  • Citing a statistic (“98% of people believe . . .”)
Instead, try beginning with some of the following opening statement types.
List 4.2.8. Effective Opening Statements
  • Describe a location, person, scene, or anecdote.
  • Elucidate an interesting example.
  • Highlight a startling fact, paradox, or puzzling insight.
  • Challenge a publicly accepted assumption.
  • Provide relevant and interesting information about the historical time period/setting.
  • Offer a provocative statement of the problem.
For more ideas on how to begin, organize, and end introductions, take a look at the following student examples. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of these examples? Make sure to note the thesis statements (underlined) and opening statements:

Example 4.2.9. Introduction: Women in the Odyssey.

Discourse has profound effects on how we view reality, particularly in regard to gender roles. Due to our society’s political correctness, much of the sexism that pervades modern thought is implicit; commentators make thinly veiled metaphors instead of declarations. This implicit bias is nothing new, as it dates back to ancient times. Many literary critics have embraced Homer’s Odyssey as a departure from the explicit sexism of pre-Judea Greece, claiming that the centrality of female characters to the epic poem is a formal challenge to the ivory-laden walls of male domination. While women do have a substantial presence in the Odyssey, the characters of Helen, Penelope, and Athena reify patriarchal norms regarding the role of the feminine in society by positing themselves below the authority and sovereignty of male characters. Coupled with the epic’s clear celebration of warfare, the Odyssey primarily reinforces the chauvinist framework through which we view the world.

Example 4.2.10. Introduction: Male Suffrage.

In early nineteenth-century America, the market revolution raised questions about the nature of a democratic republic. This political discussion was brought about by the development of an industrial working class, landless, economically dependent, and steadily increasing. While the “majority” within the United States during this time period did not consist solely of economically dependent industrial workers, they were becoming a larger percentage of the majority as the country continued to industrialize—and were beginning to clamor for more representation in the government. This posed a threat to the wealthy, economically independent class of rich landowners, businessmen, and lawyers who had traditionally held government office. Facing increasing numbers of the industrial class, the politically established sought for ways to maintain their political influence. Essentially, the two classes were debating over the answer to the fundamental question regarding which group, the majority or the minority, should have greater access to governmental power. Within the greater context of this dispute, universal male suffrage was a smaller topic that reflected the same tensions revolving around this extremely significant political question. The relationship between the two debates was forged by the underlying theme concerning access to the government; universal male suffrage was a microcosm of the tension between the principle of majoritarianism and the preservation of minority rights concerning their places within the government. This question would significantly shape the political discourse in the United States for much of the nineteenth-century.

Example 4.2.11. Introduction: Immigration Act.

Immigration has been synonymous with the United States of America since the days of the founding fathers. In the ten years following 1980, 668,866 European immigrants moved away from their homes, their families, and their jobs to craft new lives in the United States. During the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, the Immigration Act of 1965 removed the discriminatory quota system from United States immigration laws. The quota system was undesirable for a variety of reasons. One key cause at the core of the quest to change this system was that it allowed only a specific proportion of immigrants into the country. This proportion was representative not of the populace of the country in 1965, but of what America had looked like after the census of 1920. To put this into perspective, the number of immigrants allowed into the country from Western Europe was vastly greater than the number of immigrants allowed into the country from Asia and Eastern Europe, leading some to believe that racial stereotyping played some part in immigration.
The Immigration Act placed a cap on the number of immigrants entering the United States from the Eastern or Western Hemispheres, and further divided that cap by placing a limit of 20,000 immigrants per annum from any country. The majority of people immigrating to America from Europe at this time were members of the working class. Among them was my dad. The Immigration Act was designed to make the process of immigration to the United States more fair and less biased toward people of European descent, who seemed “less foreign.” The Immigration Act of 1965 effectively restructured the United States’ immigration policies in such a way that no group, minority or majority, was singled out by being discriminated against or given preferential treatment in terms of their ability to immigrate to America.

Example 4.2.12. Introduction: Belief without Evidence.

When is it justifiable to believe? When is it right to trust in a conviction that could potentially change your life in some way? Is reliable proof necessary? Are there certain criteria that must be met before a thought can become a belief? Or is simply having a desire to believe any idea that pops into your mind, irrational or not, reasonable ground for believing? It is these questions that William James and W.K. Clifford individually seek the answers to. In an excerpt from his book The Will to Believe, James successfully disproves Clifford’s argument, explained in his article “The Ethics of Belief,” and reveals that under certain circumstances, it’s moral and rational to believe something without evidence.