Column: Clarity is essential in introductions
Published: Friday, January 18, 2013
Updated: Friday, January 18, 2013 22:01
In my experience as a writing tutor, I’ve noticed that teachers will generally do one of two things when it comes to showing their students where to locate thesis statements. Often, they will insist that the thesis statement belongs at the end of the introduction. This maneuver is safe and acceptable, if a bit stale and routine. On the other hand, they will occasionally ask their students not to write introductions at all; instead, they want the thesis statement to stand in place of the introduction entirely.
Now, I have a confession to make: This latter approach really grinds my writing gears because introductions have always been my favorite part of the whole process. I like reading them, I love writing them, and I especially enjoy helping other writers come up with ways to improve their own. Great introductions resonate with a staying power, whether we’re talking about writing or some other medium. Think, for example, of the outer-space musical sequence with which “Star Wars” begins: It demands our attention while simultaneously establishing the film as a space opera on the grandest of scales.
There is, however, a catch. Writing a good introduction is a challenge, which partly explains why some teachers ask their students to forego them entirely. Introductions ask one to be concise and to reduce information, they test one’s creativity and wit, and they usually set the tone for the rest of the paper. Writers have to find a way to establish an audience (whatever that means). More importantly, they have to learn how to strike a delicate balance between showing their readers enough shiny objects to lure them in while still retaining most of the Easter eggs for grand display in later parts of the paper.
Maybe this will help.
First, please note that introductions need not always open with something swanky, that infamous “hook” that your teachers have been talking about since high school. Here’s better advice: If you have a catchy opening in mind — which you shouldn’t expect to have every time you sit down to write — then try it out, see how it works, and go from there. If, on the other hand, you don’t have anything good, then don’t stumble and fret. Always remember that a good introduction, at bare bones, just needs to provide readers with the proper tools for arriving at the thesis statement comfortably, more or less.
To get there, I’ve always advised something like a top-down approach. That is, when writing the introduction, the easiest method is to move from general, pertinent information to specific, pertinent information, all of which eventually culminates in the thesis statement (which should itself be specific and unique). So, if you’re writing a historical paper, you might open with general historical information about your topic, moving step-by-step toward the thesis statement. Or, if you’re writing a literary paper, you might open with general information about the texts you’re discussing, again moving step-by-step toward the thesis statement.
Still, while we can engage in this simplification of introductions, I encourage you not only to recognize, but also to revel in the fact that introductions can be a challenge. On the one hand, the sky’s the limit in that you’re completely at freedom to decide exactly how your composition is going to look and read. At the same time, this level of freedom can feel infinitely terrifying.
So, here’s my last piece of advice for introductions: Experiment. Upset expectations. Be provocative. Sometimes, it’s best to write what feels right instead of what’s going to earn you the grade.
And please enjoy yourself every time you sit down to chart out the infinite abyss that is your writing. Introductions, after all, should be fun.
Keaton Postler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org