THE INTRODUCTION should accomplish two things: it should declare your key argument and it should place this argument within the larger, ongoing conversation about your topic. Often writers will do the latter before they do the former. That is, they will begin by summarizing what other scholars have said about their topic, and then they will declare what they are adding to the conversation. Even when your paper is not a a research paper, you will be expected to introduce your argument as if into a larger conversation. "Place" your argument for your reader by naming the text, the author, the issues it raises, and your take on these issues.
TIP: You may decide to leave the real work of your introduction until you have deeply revised your draft. Often, "you need a real draft before you know what you can introduce" (Wayne Booth et. al., The Craft of Research, U of Chicago P, 1995.
*Introductions and conclusions are among the most challenging of all paragraphs. Why? Because introductions and conclusions do more than simply state a topic sentence and offer support. Introductions and conclusions must synthesize and provide the context for your entire argument, and they must also make your intended impression on your reader.
Your introduction is your chance to get your reader interested in your subject. Accordingly, the tone of the paragraph has to be just right. You want to inform, but not to the point of being dull; you want to intrigue, but not to the point of being vague; you want to take a strong stance, but not to the point of alienating your reader. Pay attention to the nuances of your tone. Seek out a second reader if you're not sure that you've managed to get the tone the way you want it.
Equally important to the tone of your introduction is that your introduction needs to "place" your argument in some larger context. Some strategies follow:
1. Announce your topic broadly, then declare your particular take. For example, if you are interested in talking about the way that religious ideals may actually strengthen a college student's ability to question and discuss ideas, you will need to a) begin by introducing the key arguments of a critic or two who would disagree with your take, b) provide a quick definition of the problem, as others have defined it, c) declare your thesis (which states your own position on the matter).
2. Provide any background material important to your argument. If you are interested in exploring how turn of the century Viennese morality influenced the work of Sigmund Freud, you will in your introduction want to provide the reader, in broad strokes, a description of Vienna circa 1900. Don't include irrelevant details in your description; instead, emphasize those aspects of Viennese society (such as sexual mores) that might have influenced Freud.
3. Define key terms as you intend to make use of them in your argument. If, for example, you are writing a philosophy paper on the nature of reality, it is absolutely essential that you define the term for your reader. How do you understand the term "reality," in the context of this paper? Empirically? Rationally? Begin with a definition of terms, and from there work towards the declaration of your argument.
4. Use an anecdote or quotation. Sometimes you will find a terrific story or quotation that seems to reflect the main point of your paper. Don't be afraid to begin with it. Be sure, however, to tie that story or quotation--clearly and immediately--to the main argument of your paper.
5. Acknowledge your opponents. When you are writing a paper about a matter that is controversial, you might wish to begin by summarizing the point of view of your adversaries. Then state your own position in opposition to theirs. In this way you can place your own position firmly within the ongoing conversation. Be careful, though; you don't want to make too convincing a case for the other side.
Remember your introduction is the first impression your argument will make on the reader. Take time to make this impression interesting, and consider who your readers are and what background they will bring with them to their reading. If your readers are very knowledgeable about the subject, you will not need to provide a lot of background information. If your readers are likely to be less knowledgeable, you will need to be more careful about defining your terms and offering background information.
Finally, you might want to consider writing your introduction AFTER you've written the rest of your paper. Many writers find that they have a better grasp on their subject once they've done their first draft. This firmer grasp helps them to craft an introduction that is sure-footed, persuasive, interesting, and clear. (Note: Any changes that you make to an introduction and/or thesis statement will affect the paper that follows. Simply adding the new introductory paragraph will not produce a "completed" paper).
*Adapted from "Writing: Considering Structure and Organization" (Karen Gocsik, Dartmouth College Composition Center, 1997, http://www.daratmouth.edu/~compose/student/ac_paper/write.html#intros)
Creating Your Own Introduction
In preparation for creating a top-notch introduction, answer the following questions in as much detail as possible.
1. What is the context of your argument? You will need to tie this argument to the bigger picture--the "ongoing conversation" on your topic. What is the relevance to the topic you are about to explore? You can get at this by introducing the issues the authors you are working with (and against) discuss. You can also do this by helping your reader understand the importance this topic may have in your reader's life. You may decide to do both. In other words, what's your topic and its significance (in broad terms)?
2. What's the relevance of your topic (the "So What" test)? Why should your reader care about reading past the first sentence of your essay? How is it relevant to the reader and her life?
3. If you are working with a text, what are the names of the texts (and the authors) you are working with and/or against in this paper? What relevant issues do they raise? What is your take on their position? Do you agree? Disagree? Why or why not?
4.What's your thesis?
5. Is there an interesting (but relevant) anecdote you can begin with? Explore a couple possibilities.
Once you have answered these questions completely, take a look at your responses. What seems most promising? Why? How/why is this approach most relevant to your overall argument?
Wayne Booth offers this advice for the organizational structure of your introduction:
COMMON GROUND + DISRUPTION + RESOLUTION (The Craft of Research, 249)
In other words, 1) you might begin by introducing the subject with respect to the common arguments made about it and/or a particular writer's take on the subject; 2) THEN move into your take on the subject, which differs from the common arguments (or at least the one made in the text/texts you are working with/against); 3) finally, show your reader how your disruption resolves the argument presented initially. The essay itself will explain how.