You sit down to write your essay and find yourself staring at a cursor blinking on a blank page. How do you even begin?
An introduction is one of the most important parts of an essay, but it can also be one of the most daunting. You might not know how to start, how much information to include, or even exactly what your essay is trying to say.
In this article, we’ll give you the tools to write a strong introduction. This includes an overview of the key elements of a good introduction, advice about structuring your intro as well as tips on how to write a good hook to open your introduction.
Key elements of a good introduction
A good introduction is essential to any good essay. It’s where you first introduce the reader to your topic, argument, and individual voice as a writer. It draws the reader in and prepares them for what to expect. Think of your essay as a journey that your reader is about to embark upon; you need to give this reader the essential tools to navigate the landscape of your essay with ease.
Remember, the introduction forecasts the rest of the paper for your reader, both in content and tone. If you seem authoritative and persuasive in your introduction, the reader is far more likely to engage with the rest of your essay more attentively. On the flipside, if your introduction comes across as vague or ill-defined, then the reader will walk into your essay lacking confidence in what is to follow. Think of the introduction as the foundations you are setting for a successful argument. Any lack of clarity here will echo through the rest of the piece.
With this in mind, here are the essential elements of a good introduction:
A good introduction orients the reader to the topic and argument by providing the essential information and context your reader must know in order to follow your argument. What background information do they need to know about your topic? Is there relevant historical context? Are there any major scholars who have written on this topic before? If you’re writing about a video game, but your reader doesn’t know when it is set, how you play, or the goal of the game, they’ll probably have a hard time following your argument.
When writing about a specific genre of literature or film, orient the reader to the key aspects of that genre, perhaps with a succinct quote from a scholar summarizing the genre’s core elements.
Orientation also involves defining key terms used throughout your essay. What specific terms are core to your argument, or have specific meanings in your field, that your reader needs to know? Providing a definition through engagement with a scholarly source can be useful when defining key terms, lending credibility to your definition.
For example, see how Aoiffe Walsh employs this tactic in her article on the Femme Fatale. She writes:
“In Women in Film Noir, Janey Place famously describes the Femme Fatale as ‘the dark lady, the spider woman,’ claiming, ‘the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction is among the oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion in Western culture’ (2019).”
You should also establish for your reader your discipline (what field you’re in) and method (what approach you’re taking). By the end of the introduction, the reader should know if you’re analyzing historical events, a literary work, or the results of an experiment. Within your specific discipline, you should also clue the reader into the method you used, the way you’re approaching your topic. You might be writing about a poem, but are you providing a close reading, putting it in the context of the author’s life, or reading it through the lens of a larger theory or literary movement?
In short, think of your reader as an educated peer, but one that is not an expert in your topic or field. Assume that your reader is unfamiliar with your topic. You don’t need to teach them everything in the introduction, but you do need to teach them enough so that they can follow your argument.
The difference between a good essay and a great essay is having a focused and meaningful question that you’re trying to answer (that is where the word “essay” comes from: the French word essayer, to try!).
A good research question motivates your research paper and makes your thesis meaningful. It sets up what you’re aiming to discover and helps establish the scope of your essay. Your paper should be tailored toward answering a specific question, not just pointing out what you find interesting.
Although this question does not need to appear explicitly in your introduction, asking it outright can help make sure you and the reader are on the same page about the purpose of your essay and the motivation behind your argument.
3. Thesis statement
Your introduction should state outright the argument that you are trying to make. A common mistake is waiting to state your thesis until the end of the essay. You’re not trying to surprise your reader with your argument; you’re trying to convince them, and you need to be clear to be persuasive. A thesis statement tells the reader what you’re trying to prove so that they know what to look for in the rest of the essay.
Within or around your thesis statement, you can provide a roadmap of your essay’s structure. This is especially helpful in longer papers, as it forecasts how your argument will unfold in the coming pages.
4. “So what?”
Why should someone read your paper? Why is your argument important? What’s new about what you have to say? These are all ways of asking “so what?” — a question that should guide your entire essay but take center stage in your introduction and conclusion. Like having a compelling research question, remembering “so what?” can take your writing to the next level. Through your orientation, question, and thesis statement, you have opportunities to show your reader why your argument matters.
In some cases, especially if the topic of your essay has been assigned to you, the “so what?” may not be obvious, or it may be difficult to find. The importance of your argument doesn’t need to be overblown or inaccurate to the scale of your argument — a five-page paper on metaphors related to hunger in a certain novel won’t solve food scarcity — but consider: Why is it important to answer this question? How does this argument change the way we look at the topic? Has something been articulated here, however small, that hasn’t quite been said before?
Structuring your introduction
You know the elements of a good introduction, but how do you order them? You might know that your thesis statement should come toward the end, but how do you get there?
One common recommendation for the structure of introductions is the “triangle structure” — starting with the broadest view of your topic before getting narrower until you land on your thesis. While the “triangle structure” rightly emphasizes providing context for your topic, it is important to avoid starting with such a broad view that you spend your whole introduction trying to cover the distance between your broad opening and your specific thesis.
The most compelling introductions start with something specific — a relevant anecdote, a textual detail, a moment that sparks your interest or provokes your question. Then, they provide the necessary context and orientation before honing in on a specific argument.
Here is our suggested structure for a good introduction:
- Hook the reader.
- Orient the reader to the topic, context, and key terms.
- Ask your research question.
- State your thesis.
The length of your introduction should vary based on the length of your essay. The longer the essay, the more complex it tends to be, and the more information the reader needs in order to follow the argument. For short essays, a one-paragraph introduction is often sufficient; for longer papers, you may need several paragraphs (or even pages for a MA/PhD thesis).
Writing a hook
Your introduction should start with a hook, a sentence or two that grab your reader’s attention and get them invested in the essay from the start. A hook isn’t obvious or cliched; it is clear, catchy, a little unexpected, and related to your specific argument.
Here are some examples of weak hooks:
1.) The history-of-the-world: “From the dawn of time…”
- This type of opening is much too broad; it invites overgeneralization and implies that you don’t have something substantive to say about your topic.
2.) The dictionary definition: “According to Webster’s….”
- Starting with a definition, especially of a common word, tells your reader that you didn’t know where to begin. While you should define key terms in your essay, bring them up when you can show how they’ll work in your argument or why they’re important rather than as a default starting place.
3.) The obvious importance: “...is extremely important/famous.”
- When you find yourself writing about classic literature or significant scientific developments, don’t just start by reasserting that your topic is famous or important; your reader knows that. Why is it famous or important? Are you contextualizing it in a new way? Is there a common interpretation of the topic that you intend to diverge from?
4.) The quote: “Nelson Mandela once said….”
- Starting with the quote of a famous person, particularly one whom your essay isn’t actually going to spend time talking about, reads as a lazy move.
- Starting with any quote can feel like a crutch: lead with your own ideas! You can start with a quote when it helps illustrate the tension you’re aiming to explore and you follow it up directly with your thoughts (see the third example of a strong hook below).
Here are some real-life examples of good hooks and why they work.
Good Example 1:
“Set in a Gothic posthuman world in which a vampiric contagion transmogrifies humanity, Richard Matheson’s novella I am Legend (1954) explores the fear of the viral.” (from “‘Lovie – is the vampire so bad?’: Posthuman Rhetoric in Richard Matheson’s I am Legend” by Chris Koenig-Woodyard in Posthuman Gothic)
- This short hook packs a lot of punch. It doesn’t try anything fancy, but it does its job setting up the essay. A less sophisticated version of this essay would begin: “Richard Matheson’s novella I am Legend was published in 1954 and is an important novel in the development of vampire literature.” Instead, this hook keeps things simple while hitting on the key elements of the essay:
- It begins with the two core critical conversations the essay is entering — the Gothic and posthumanism — which the writer will later define.
- It describes the text the writer is analyzing.
- It both names the text (important and sometimes overlooked!) and tells us about the novel succinctly and without launching into a plot summary.
- It narrows in on the particular aspect of the text the writer is interested in: “fear of the viral.”
Good Example 2:
“In Black Mirror’s “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” (Sewitsky 2019), Ashley O has it all: money, fame, and conventional good looks; she is depicted as a liberated, powerful woman whom girls and tweens view as a role model. But this empowerment is fleeting and deceptive as it is actually premised on subsuming feminist ideals under those of capitalism and the patriarchy. Thus, far from showing how Ashley is empowered, “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” actually depicts how the patriarchy, in the guise of empowerment feminism, actually infiltrates and undermines the feminist project.” (from “The You They Love: Patriarchal Feminism and Ashley Too” by Mona Rocha and James Rocha in Philosophical Reflections on Black Mirror)
- This hook sets up an assumption and then knocks it down. Ashley O seems one way, but this actually isn’t the case (as the essay will go on to prove). This kind of a move can hook the reader; they want to know what what seems true isn’t.
- In this introduction, Mona Rocha and James Rocha get right to their argument before taking the time to orient the readers to the ideas they need to understand (feminism, patriarchal feminism, capitalism). If these writers began with those broad ideas, the reader would be swimming through paragraphs before they knew what the point of the essay was or what the writers were talking about. Starting with the episode and the core argument actually helps the reader know what to look for as they move into a broader, orientation-heavy section.
Good Example 3:
“The very first paragraph of Frederick Douglass’s 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, presents us with a claim that leaps off the page as a problem for modern thought. One rooted in an altogether improper adjacency given the conventions and central aims of the slave narrative as a form, that is, to serve as black humanity’s literary proof. Douglass writes, ‘I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs.’ This moment of all-too-fraught proximity between the enslaved black person and the nonhuman animal—positioned here as twin captives, affixed by modernity’s long arc—demands our attention.” (from the introduction of Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man by Joshua Bennett)
- Joshua Bennett begins his book with a quote that captures a problem or tension: the “proximity between the enslaved black person and the nonhuman animal.” This idea is precisely what Bennett’s book aims to explore. His hook pulls the reader in by promising a “problem for modern thought” — hinting already at the stakes of his argument — and chooses a quote that clearly illustrates the tension he looks for in other pieces of literature. This hook might be a bit longer than one you’d find in a five-page paper (it’s setting up a whole book, after all), but it still provides a good example of how to use a quote to focus in on your question.
Extra tips and tricks for tackling introductions
- Write the introduction last.
Though it’s the first paragraph anyone will read, we recommend that your introduction be one of the last things you write when finalizing your essay. This may seem counter-intuitive, but while writing the body of your essay, you’ll gain a clearer idea of what you’re actually arguing. Then, you’ll be able to re-write your introduction with those specifics in mind.
Plus, when initially facing that anxiety-inducing blank page, it can help to dive into the body of your argument so you don’t feel as much pressure about exactly how to start.
- Revise, revise, revise.
Related to the point above, the introduction (and thesis) can and should be revised several times as your argument shifts. It can be helpful to write a messy draft of your introduction and thesis to kickstart and guide your writing during your first draft; then, you can return to them and make them stronger.
Don’t view your first draft of an introduction as set in stone, more like a beta version. The hardest part of writing an essay is starting, so write your introduction with this in mind. You can, and should, re-visit it.
- Check your key terms.
Read through your essay and mark any words that a reader unfamiliar with your topic needs to know to understand your argument. Ask yourself: have I defined these terms? Do they need to appear in the introduction? You should also make sure that you’re being consistent about how you’re using your key terms throughout your essay.
- Look at examples of good introductions.
One of the best ways to improve your writing is by reading good writers. Being an enthusiastic, engaged reader helps you notice what moves other writers are making, how they follow (and break!) the rules, and when writing is particularly effective.
MSt, Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies (University of Oxford)
Paige Elizabeth Allen has a Master’s degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Oxford and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University. Her research interests include monstrosity, the Gothic tradition, illness in literature and culture, and musical theatre. Her dissertation examined sentient haunted houses through the lenses of posthumanism and queer theory.