Writing introductions is hard, and not just because it’s usually a battle against a blank page. In The Sound of Music it’s simple to start at the beginning. But an introduction actually asks a lot of a writer—an exciting hook, background information, introduction of key terms and ideas, one or more motives, and, eventually, a thesis.  The writer has a lot of ground to cover. She also has to capture the reader’s attention and convince her to stick along for the ride.

Students often ask about the conventions of an introduction.  Where should the thesis go?  Where should I put this background information, and how much is necessary?  How long should the introduction be?  Too often, these questions convey a misconception: That the introduction is simply something to get through before the real part of the essay begins. But an introduction isn’t just a dumping ground for background information and a single-line thesis at the end. Rather, it is in many ways the most important part of a paper. It marks the bona fide beginning, where critical elements of the essay are introduced: a motive, key terms, orientation, and a thesis.  Instead of thinking of these elements as distinct, the best introductions tie them together.  Orienting the reader means curating the background information that explains or justifies key terms and motive.  An introduction is a place for analysis and excitement, where every fact points to the future of the paper. It is the hard-boiled, condensed roadmap to the paper.

The essays in this section demonstrate the essence of introduction writing while also showcasing diversity.  In Katherine Raber’s lab report on a mangrove population, for example, the majority of the introduction is background information in the service of motive.  Katherine curates her information elegantly—she does not tell us everything she may know about mangroves; instead, she chooses facts that tie orientation and motive together.  Ramie Fathy’s lab report, “Characterization of the Pathogenicity of the MSH2 P640T Mutation in Saccharomyces cerevisiae,” demonstrates how a short literature review can also function as orientation (to a scholarly discourse) and motive (finding a gap in the conversation).  In his personal reflection on his writing process, Ramie explains how he imagined his introduction as a “pyramid” that gives the reader broad-to-specific background information in order to articulate his experiment.

Often at the Writing Center we read papers that veer towards the far ends of the spectrum:  those that dramatically reveal a thesis in the last few pages of the paper, and those that include the thesis in the first few sentences of the first paragraph.  It seems to us that this reflects an anxiety about the structure of an introduction.  Do you keep some tricks up your sleeve or reveal them right away?  We think, however, that theses should not just be a mic drop at the end of a three-page introduction.  Rather, “soft” references to the thesis can be placed all over the introduction, with each reiteration reflecting progress made in introducing orientation and key terms.

In this section, Lexi Tollefson’s essay demonstrates how to present a thesis two distinct times in an introduction without sounding repetitive.  She first articulates her thesis in her first paragraph, but it is a simple version.  After a few paragraphs in which she introduces key analytical terms and methods, her thesis reappears in a refined and complicated way—in a way that is all the more comprehensible to the reader because of its earlier appearance.  

As demonstrated in this section, an introduction can take many forms.  Between lab reports, classic humanities “close reading”-type papers, and an analytical philosophy paper, our editorial team tried to capture the essence of an introduction while showcasing it in many forms.

The author


Lekha Kanchinadam ’14 is from Plainsboro, New Jersey, and is in the History Department.