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How Not to Start an Introduction

How Not to Start an Introduction

May 20, 2013
Introductions are often one of the hardest part of essays. Students may know exactly what they want to say in the body of their paper-after all, there's a pretty straightforward format for those-but when it comes time to write the introduction, they're at a loss. One simple explanation for this writer's block is that there's no set guideline for what goes in an introduction.
Because of this uncertainty, students often fall back on a number of standard introductory sentences and ideas. But just because these cliches are easy to use doesn't mean that they'll be improving your paper. Writing an essay is about presenting your own unique ideas, and starting with the same introductory device as every other student isn't going to make your work stand out. If you want to make sure your introduction really captures the reader's attention, you need to avoid these hackneyed and over-used introductions.

1. Grand, sweeping statements

Teacher's often encourage students to start introductory paragraphs with statements that link the theme of their paper to issues out in the wider world. If you're writing about Romeo and Juliet, that might mean talking about the role the idea of love has played in art throughout the ages; or, if you're writing about The Great Gatsby, you might talk about how wealth is portrayed in the media today.
All of that is fine and good, but when that introductions start to get grandiose is when your teacher or professor is going to lose interest. Starting with sweeping statements like "throughout history, people have written about the idea of young love" or "the disparity between the wealthy and the poor is the biggest issue facing society today" isn't going to hook the reader-it's just going to tell them that your paper isn't going to be very good.
There are a couple of issues with using these types of introductions. One is that they are just too broad. You're not going to be discussing the entire history of young love in literature, so don't start your paper suggesting that you will. And, by starting so broad, you're probably telling the audience something they already know. We all know how important the idea of love is to plays and novel; it's a waste of time to tell the reader.
The second, and larger, problem with these types sweeping, declarative sentences is that they are likely to put your audience on the defensive. What if your reader doesn't believe that the disparity between the wealthy and poor is the biggest issue facing society? If that's the case, then you've already got the reader arguing with you before you even present your main thesis. And, even if they agree, setting yourself up in the very first sentence of your paper as an unquestionable authority on big issues probably isn't going to endear you to your teacher.

2. Dictionary definitions

Every teacher has seen papers that start this way. Instead of making a sweeping statement about the idea of love or money, the writer starts by providing its definition: "According to Merriam-Webster, love means..." or "the dictionary defines money as...." This might seem like a good way to introduce the main topic of your paper, but it's not going to hook or impress your reader.
Firstly, think about the word you're defining. Probably it's something related to the theme of the book, like family, discrimination, or death. Do you think that readers don't already know what those words mean? Your teacher or professor likely has a pretty good vocabulary, and doesn't need to be told what Wikipedia says about the meaning of family. So, when you start your paper this way, you're basically telling the reader something they already know, which isn't going to make his or her want to read more.
If, on the other hand, you want to start your paper with the definition of a more obscure word-maybe you want to define a foreign word like schadenfreude or explain a technological concept like RAM-you should consider whether you really want to start your paper with that definition. Remember, the introduction is where you present your topic for the reader; it shouldn't be a place where you introduce lots of new ideas or terms. If the definition of the word actually is important to the main argument of your work, then it belongs in the body, not the introduction.

3. Well-known facts or statistics

For the same reasons that you don't start your paper with the definition of a word everybody already knows, you also shouldn't start your paper with a fact or statistic that everybody will recognize. Saying something like "many lives were lost during World War II" or "parents are an important part of a child's life" isn't giving the reader any new information and will seem silly or maybe even condescending.

4. Quotes without context

There's nothing wrong with starting your paper with a quote, but the key is to remember that you need to provide some context for the quote. Keep in mind that, when they start your introduction, the reader doesn't know what your paper is going to be about. They've seen your title, and that's it. So, if you start with a witty quote about love or a line from a play you'll be discussing, your reader isn't going to know how that relates to your thesis. This uncertainty means they'll likely have to go back and reread the introduction once they've read the thesis-something you definitely don't want.
Also keep in mind that you should never use a quote without first providing some context. If the first words the reader sees in your paper is a quote, they're going to be left with more questions than anything else. Who said it and why? When and where is that quote from? Instead of leaving the reader confused, start your introduction with a simple line like "Nineteenth century Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov is famous for having said..." With just that little bit of extra information, you've gotten your paper off on the right foot.
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