How to Write an Essay: Introductions

“Face your essay with the fearlessness of an adorable kitten.”

-Me, just now.

A few of you have voiced interest in taking a look at what an introductory paragraph for an undergraduate literary essay might look like. Let’s begin with what an intro paragraph does, how it works, and some strategies for creating a successful one.

Your introduction does just that: introduces your chosen topic. Assume your reader is familiar with the text; your job is then not to summarize what happens, but to give your own spin on it, or point out something that you think is interesting, overlooked, and worth saying.

The first sentence of a successful literary essay will grab the reader’s attention: it might do so by making a controversial or bold (but always pertinent) statement, asking an intriguing question, or by incorporating a particularly interesting quote from the text (one that relates to what you will be talking about). The paragraph then proceeds to build on that opening sentence, introducing the topic you will be writing on (the subject) and the approach you will be taking (your interpretive lens) in the rest of the essay. The introduction culminates in your thesis, a succinct (one-sentence) statement that makes an interpretive claim about a text. (For more on the thesis statement, see https://myenglishta.wordpress.com/2012/10/20/start-writing-a-thesis-statement-with-or-without-a-prompt/, and https://myenglishta.wordpress.com/2012/10/19/writing-a-thesis-statement-part-2-incomplete-and-complete-thesis-statements/.) The author’s name should appear somewhere in your introduction, and the name of the work should appear in your thesis statement.

Tom Doran, one of my colleagues in the department, was kind enough to pass on a sheet that he uses when teaching introductions (by the way, Tom says that you should think of essay writing as deer body-slamming, not kitten-dog confrontation (or more likely, kitten-dog intersubjectivity) Tom’s GIF). You can download it here: Bad Introductions. This PDF has examples of some common introduction “types” that you should avoid at all costs, as well as information on what those paragraphs did wrong. Take a look at what it has to say before moving on in this post.

For your own reference (and perhaps amusement), I’ve decided to give you a glimpse into my own endeavors at essay writing as an undergraduate English student. The following intros were all for 8-10 page assignments (with various prompts, and for various classes), but it might be helpful for you all to take a look at what they do successfully, and where they fall short. In any case, this seems the easiest way for me to give you an idea of how a literary essay’s introductory paragraph situates the reader so that s/he has an idea of what your argument will be focusing on. Enjoy!

Paper 1: The Role of the Roman Public in Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra

In both Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare demonstrates a keen interest in defining the “public” of the Roman Republic. A “Respublica”—Latin for “the common good”—is a state in which all citizens participate in some capacity, and carries with it a connotation of freedom (as opposed to tyranny). Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra both record defining moments in the lifespan of the Roman Republic: Coriolanus, its beginning, and Antony and Cleopatra, its demise. Coriolanus is burdened by the memory of former tyranny; as a participant in the expulsion of the last Tarquin king, Coriolanus himself literally bears the scars of political violence on his body. The Roman public also shows its psychological scarring, as the mere accusation of Coriolanus’ tyrannical ambition enrages both the people and Coriolanus himself. In contrast, Antony and Cleopatra records the definitive end of the Republic, as Octavius Caesar (his uncle’s successor in name, ambition, and deed) skillfully dismembers the Triumvirate, consolidating his own political power and ushering in the age of the Roman Empire. Shakespeare describes the Roman “public” in collective, anthropomorphized terms, depicting the public as a key component of the Roman body politic. By figuratively attributing parts of the human body to the Roman public, Shakespeare creates a collective Roman “character”—an entity that his central political figures must consider and to which they must respond, emphasizing the power and expansiveness of the Roman people as a whole.

Paper 2: The Vindication of Eve: Unveiling the Goddess in Howards End 

“When four men agree, what’s a girl to do?” This sentiment, voiced by Forster’s own “rubbishy little creature”, becomes laughably absurd in a novel like Howards End, where dim-witted Dolly exists chiefly for her insipidity and comedic appeal (68). But her statement’s irony resounds so profoundly because it is precisely Forster’s men who fail, time after time, to think, feel, or accomplish anything of great moral significance in the novel, thus opening a philosophical power vacuum that Forster must somehow fill. To compensate for his men’s inadequacy, he endows his elect women—Meg, Helen, and Mrs. Wilcox—with a mystical ability to perceive and piece together fragments of the fractured universe. By juxtaposing these idealized women beside various aspects of goddess symbolism, Forster asserts the female’s spiritual importance as an instrument more keenly attuned to the pattern of the universe. This harmonious female presence rejoins Man with Nature and past with present, reflecting spiritual wholeness when men prove deficient.

Paper 3: Kubla Can (But I Can’t): The Problem With Mediation in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”

One might assume that an introduction will guide an audience in their approach to the work it introduces—essentially, telling a reader how to read. But what if an author subtly insists that you approach the introduction with the same careful discernment required to unlock the piece it introduces? Coleridge prefaces “Kubla Khan” with a lengthy note explaining his poetic process in the creation of his iconic poem. Taking the speaker at his word, one might assume that the introductory note merely gives autobiographical context to an otherwise psychedelic, and rather frenetic, poem; in effect, anchoring an imaginative vision to reality. However, the note also seems to express the same frustration—the inability of the speaker to fully convey his poetic vision—that the poem itself does. This implies that both the note and the poem address precisely the same idea; that the poem itself is a poetic re-visioning of its prose counterpart, and vice versa. The marriage of the poetic and prosaic under the same title further implies that they are complementary sides of the same coin. Coleridge stitches these two pieces together in order to more wholly re-capture his vision. But despite these two different approaches, the speaker ultimately acknowledges his inability to fully “recollect” his fragmented vision, implying that the limitations of written form prevent both prose and poetry from completely conveying the speaker’s imaginative experience.

What do you think these introductions do well? Where do they need improvement? Are these examples helpful to you when trying to think about how an introduction works?

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. phinious says:

    The “bad introductions” document and the examples of introductory paragraphs you gave are pretty helpful. I noticed that the examples you gave definitely hooked me at the beginning, especially the second and third ones. Even though I don’t know anything about any of those paper topics, the way they were structured and worded made me want to keep reading. The example sentences in the “bad introductions” document were just either dull to read or sort of cookie cutter predictable. Even though there wasn’t a whole introductory paragraph with each of those bad examples, if there were, the first sentence doesn’t make me want to keep reading. I will make sure I avoid falling into any of those examples when writing any paper!

  2. briannamyers says:

    Personally, I think I write like #2 I like to try and tell a story before I get on with my thesis. I’m not sure if that’s particularly a good thing, but I know that’s the sort of hook that interests me, so that’s what I stick too. However, I think it might have taken just a little too long to get to the point, I feel anyway. I prefer my thesis to be straightforward and to the point, why say in five words what you can say in one, essentially. I don’t enjoy when people use too many words, or even words that are too “smart”, I think it fell short there, but I could be wrong

  3. akazan07 says:

    While I typically do not fall into the traps seen in the Bad Introductions piece, I was pleasantly intrigued by the examples given on how introductions should more or less work. Like another student, I follow a generic writing formula that I use for most papers, and while it works, it does not allow the creativity and range of techniques seen in these examples. First, I was trained to never open a paper with a quote, yet Paper 2 does so impeccably by purposefully choosing a quote that illustrates a main conflict seen in the piece. Paper 1 had a lot of summary, and while it flowed the main points were not as clear or concise as they could have been. Overall, these are great, helpful examples, particularly the cleverness of Paper 3 and has shown me that breaking my generic formula can lead to stronger, more innovative writing.

  4. elydston says:

    I really enjoyed the “Bad Introductions” paper. I’m currently in my last year at UCSB and as an English minor I’ve written my share of papers, and my share of bad introductions. I have to admit, I cringed a bit while reading the paper, noting that I myself have fallen into a few of those traps and cliches. I have used the “since the dawn of time” approach in several papers over the course of my time at UCSB, and it was interesting to see a written out explanation of why it isn’t a viable technique when writing a strong paper.

    In terms of the paper examples you’ve given us, I found paper two to be especially interesting. I would personally never put quotes in an introduction paragraph, much less at the very start of the very first line. Perhaps it has something to do with how I was originally trained to write papers, but I tend to be very formulaic and paper two went directly against my traditional formula. However, I also found that it was informative and piqued my interest, so perhaps it is time that I become less rigid and explore more options in terms of introduction paragraphs.

  5. bsteele94 says:

    All of these introductions did exactly what an introduction is supposed to do, which is to tell the reader what the essay is about, while also leaving the detail for the rest of the essay to delve into. I’d say that they’re a little confusing, but that’s only because I’m unfamiliar with the works they’re talking about. Other than that, there’s not much I can see that should be improved. These examples are very helpful for getting an idea of how an introductory paragraph should be written.

  6. alexiskopp14 says:

    All three of the introductions used different techniques and proved different points, which proved that there are multiple ways to write an introduction. I think all three of the introductions have very good diction and word choice; this helps to see the writer’s perspective or point of view on the topic. The first two introductions seemed to tell what the story was about, and in introductions you are supposed to assume that the reader knows what you are writing about and is familiar with. These all were very helpful to see in regards to writing an introduction because it helps to know that there are various methods to writing an introduction.

  7. ahushjoy says:

    Each of the introduction were unique as they presented multiple ways to convey a point, at the same time they demonstrated obstacles that a writer can run into. The first paper runs into a problem that I often end up doing myself, which is the tendency to present more information than necessary in the introduction. It is essential to set up for the paper, but we must remember that we expect the audience to be familiar with the work that is being written on. Something I noticed that all the introductions do well is maintain a consistent flow, which can be just as critical to the paper as content. Without one’s information being conveyed in an orderly fashion, it can be difficult to comprehend the “point” persay even if the information itself may be a thought-provoking interpretation.

  8. maxinegarcia says:

    I liked and noticed that all of the introductions you used drew in the reader using a different opening method. Intro #1 starts by stating the main comparison that will be analyzed during the essay, Intro #2 uses a relevant quotation from the work, and Intro #3 (my favorite), begins with a conception that will be argued against. I find Intro #3 to be the most effective because it almost meta-references itself, and that is a playful and unique way to open an essay on the topic of poetic process.

  9. emilychild1 says:

    I was particularly interested in the introduction of paper three, the Coleridge one, which essentially seemed to be an introduction about an introduction and the blending of that introduction with the poem it proceeds. I liked the way it started out with an assumption and then promptly challenged that assumption, which caught my attention and already had me thinking, even though it was only the second line of the introduction. These examples were helpful to me in thinking about introductions because they showed more interesting ways of writing an introduction than just summarizing the work and prefacing what the essay is about to explain. They were good examples of creative and interesting approaches, like challenging something about the work or someone’s understanding of the work.

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