The introduction is the broad beginning of the paper that answers three important questions:
- What is this?
- Why am I reading it?
- What do you want me to do?
For a paper less than 5 pages, it should be a paragraph. For a paper between 5-10 pages, it can be as long as the first page. For an even longer paper, an introduction can be a couple of pages, and will often have its own section heading.
In a good introduction, you should answer these three questions by doing the following:
- Set the context – provide general information about the main idea, explaining the situation so the reader can make sense of the topic and the questions you will ask
- State why the main idea is important – tell the reader why s/he should care and keep reading. Your goal is to create a compelling, clear, and educational essay people will want to read and act upon
- State your research goals – compose a sentence or two that clearly communicate what you want you hope to discover, why you are interested in the topic, or where your idea for the essay came from. You might also include an overview of the types of sources you explored, the methods of research you engaged in, or particular sources you found inspiring.
Some Basic Guidelines
- DON’T summarize – Though it might seem easy to preface your thesis with only a synopsis of the texts you’re writing about, this is a particularly dull way to begin a paper.
- DON’T keep reiterating your thesis – Your thesis should appear in your intro as the culmination of the previous thoughts, not just something you mention and then keep restating to fill up a paragraph.
- DO ask yourself questions while writing – Why is your thesis relevant? How is its being proven important to the understanding of either text or fact? By linking your argument to a larger issue, you will give your argument both universality and interest.
- DON’T rely on rhetorical questions– Your job is to answer questions, not pose them. The reader should have a firm grasp from your introduction that you know where you are going and will help them along. A question as an attention grabber (see below) is good: a series of questions with no answers is bad.
- DO be creative – Think about what aspect of your topic you find the most interesting, and figure out why. Use this to make it interesting to your reader.
- DO be appropriately specific-Avoid starting essays with broad statements like “Since the beginning of time” or “For as long as anyone can remember.”
Possible beginnings- don’t pick one and stick with it for EVERY essay you write. Variety is the spice of life!
The quotation – Find a quote from one of your sources or, even better, from elsewhere that seems to get at the problem you’re dealing with. State it at the beginning of your intro and discuss how it relates to what you’re trying to prove.
The question – Throw out a broad question of universal interest, and demonstrate how a possible answer can be related to your thesis (Example: “What do women want? It’s a question that’s plagued mankind since the dawn of history…the works of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath yield two different paradigms of feminine self-realization”).
The anecdote – This works particularly well for a historical essay, and even better if you have some ability at creative writing. Pick a specific incident that represents the underlying conflict of your piece, and briefly narrate it like a story. Explain afterwards how the instance reflects a problem you’re attempting to solve.
The conclusion is the closing argument of your paper, and so, should answer the following three questions:
- What is the most important thing I learned from this paper?
- What should I do with this knowledge?
- Is this a valuable piece of research?
As the very last impression your reader gets of your paper, the conclusion is your opportunity to sell your argument once and for all. It’s a place for reflection, for looking back at the relationship between the numerous ideas of your paper. Most importantly, however, it ought to be the site of your most complex analysis; that which incorporates everything that’s gone before.
Some General Cautions
- DON’T allow the conclusion to become merely a restatement of the thesis with a couple of linking sentences beforehand.
- DON’T view it as merely an ornamental way to end your paper – its role should be to justify your paper at the highest level.
- DON’T copy/paste your introduction or simply reorder the ideas from your introduction. Your conclusion should have completely different goals from your introduction.
- DO analyze how your argument has changed as your paper has progressed. If you haven’t proven anything more than merely what you mentioned in your introduction, you haven’t really said anything at all. Throughout the course of a good paper new subtleties of argument ought to have manifested themselves, and the place to integrate all these subtleties into a new, more powerful statement of your thesis, is right in the conclusion.
- DON’T begin your conclusion with the opener “In conclusion…“. That makes your paper awkwardly self-conscious and contrived, rather than naturally unfolded.
- DO attempt some sort of unified closure, with respect to what you set up in the introduction. If you used one of the previously mentioned clever introductions, make reference again to the quote, questions, or anecdote you incorporated.
- DO consider linking your argument to a more universal idea, analyzing its relevance with an eye on the new angle your argument proved.
- Your conclusion is the last paragraph that your reader will encounter.
- Your conclusion should remind your reader about the most important aspects of your essay.
- In most essays, therefore, your conclusion should creatively restate the main idea of the essay.
- Your conclusion should also leave your reader even more interested in your topic and idea.
- For some essays, especially for persuasive or argumentative essays, it’s particularly effective to end your conclusion by directly addressing your reader with a question or call for action.
- For other essays, especially research papers or literary analysis, this is your opportunity to gesture to the advancements you have made in the field, or towards future research you believe should be done as a result of your work.