Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

How to Write an Essay Introduction in 5 Ludicrously Simple Steps

I've written hundreds of essays, and read and marked hundreds more. Without a doubt the single most common comment I would make both about my own (older) essays and the essays I mark is that the introduction is bad. It's too fluffy, it contains a bunch of clichés, it tells the reader vanishingly little about the content of the essay, and it's overall a waste of words.

It doesn't have to be this way. In this piece I'm going to go through five extremely simple steps to writing a good introduction. You will likely be shocked at how easy it is when you consider how difficult it's made to seem.

1. Cut the cliché first sentence

When an examiner reads an essay that begins with "for hundreds of years, the best minds humanity has to offer have wondered most of all [thing that most people have given very little consideration to and that the author clearly hasn't thought about much before the last week either]", it's a little-known secret that they're contractually obligated to kill a kitten.

Likewise, for every essay that begins with a quote from a famous person, schools and universities around the world actually have to pay a tithe directly to Satan, who uses it to fund the chemtrails which fall from the sky and, to quote the philosopher Alex Jones, turn the freakin' frogs gay.

Please don't do it. You don't need to do it. Nobody is forcing you.

Instead, begin your essay simply with an introduction to the topic that you're talking about. You've likely already got a question that you've been asked to write on: what is the relevance of that question? What are you going to contribute?

Let's say that you're writing on the question, "‘It is right that students should contribute to the cost of their degrees.’ Do you agree?" You might not agree, and the specific reason that you don't agree is that you believe that degrees create a public good which ought to be fully subsidised. You could begin your essay like this: "Policies that place a financial burden upon students to pay for their own degrees are premised on the idea that the students themselves are the primary beneficiary of their education, and so should not be funded by other taxpayers who do not benefit as much. In this essay, I argue that degrees create a public good that benefits the entirety of society, and so degrees ought to be fully funded by the state."

This gives a little contextualisation of the topic, introducing the position that you're setting yourself up in opposition to, and then it puts forward your thesis statement. You don't need anything more than that for the first couple of sentences of your introduction.

2. Outline your argument

It's entirely possible that at school or even at university you've been taught that your argument should "develop" as you go through the essay. This is absolutely true, but the common interpretation of this teaching is that you shouldn't tell the reader what's going on at the beginning, and instead they should be forced to read through the whole essay before they get the full picture.

You'll have to forgive me (well, you won't, but I would like you to) but that's total nonsense. I spend a lot of time reading. I have to read an enormous number of essays, papers, books, articles, and so on. A large proportion of that time is spent trying to figure out whether something is going to be useful to me, because I only have so many seconds in the day (and indeed on Earth) and my eyes only have so many words they can read without me becoming even more myopic. If I have to wade through all of your essay before I even know if it's worth my time, then I am simply unlikely to read it. And if I have to read it, you can bet I'm going to resent you for it.

An introduction should introduce. I recognise that sounds like I'm trying to be profound and failing miserably, but it's true. In your intro you should tell me your argument from beginning to end. This is probably best illustrated with an example. Let's go back to the essay question, "‘It is right that students should contribute to the cost of their degrees.’ Do you agree?".

My intro so far was this:

"Policies that place a financial burden upon students to pay for their own degrees are premised on the idea that the students themselves are the primary beneficiary of their education, and so should not be funded by other taxpayers who do not benefit as much. In this essay, I argue that degrees create a public good that benefits the entirety of society, and so degrees ought to be fully funded by the state."

I've already provided some context, and I've given you my thesis statement - that is, a description of the overarching argument I'm going to provide in the essay. From there, I can continue by describing what's going to be in each of my body paragraphs, like this:

"First, I contest the conception of education which understands it as primarily a means to the end of employment and monetary gain. This leads into a discussion of the further benefits of education, which I argue come in the form of an overall benefit to society of a more educated electorate and citizenry, as well as an increase in tax receipts as a result of higher productivity. Following on from this, I will consider the objection that many degrees (particularly in the humanities) do not directly result in increases in economic productivity and therefore ought to be paid for by students; I reject this by arguing that the consequences of only funding those degrees that are directly economically beneficial both sacrifices the additional more intangible benefits of a more educated populace and also entrenches inequality and privilege in society by ensuring that the political and journalist classes continue to be occupied primarily by the wealthy. I conclude that even on a pure utilitarian metric, degrees ought to be fully funded by taxes, regardless of whether this acts as a form of regressive taxation."

What I've done in this introduction is simply outlined each and every step of my argument. I've given you a roadmap: you know where you are in the essay, and in the chain of logic that I'm providing, because I've already told you where we're going.

You might think this is boring, but you're not writing a Dan Brown novel. You're writing an essay. The purpose is to inform first, and entertain second. Regardless of whether you think it's dull, it works on a technical level and it'll help your marks no end.

 

3. Be specific about your argument

You'll notice that in the example above, when I gave the roadmap of my argument I expanded on each point that I was trying to make. When I teach students how to write essays, one of the most common mistakes they make after I've given them guidance is to give a road map, but give an incomplete one.

They might say something like this:

"First I argue that education does more than help people themselves. Then I analyse how it helps society. From there I'll consider whether only science degrees should be funded. I conclude that students shouldn't have to pay for their degrees."

That's still technically the same road map that I gave earlier, but it doesn't tell me nearly as much. What's missing is any elaboration on what each strand of my argument contains and how it's going to be justified. Make sure that you unpack each piece of the argument for me.

You should think of an introduction as an exercise in trying to convey as much information as possible in as few words as possible. That doesn't mean that you should cut it shorter than it needs to be; if you're pushed for words you should always cut the extraneous fluff instead of the road map. 

4. Put the conclusion in the intro

Even if they include a road map, a lot of students will fall down at the last hurdle and keep the conclusion back as some kind of surprise for the end of the essay. Besides being the sort of thing that really puts people off surprises, this is a strategically poor decision. If you tell me what the overall thrust of your argument is, and then give me a map as to how you're going to go about proving or analysing it, you've done about 75% of the work. The last 25% comes from telling me what your conclusions are going to be. This doesn't have to be anything special. You literally just need to tell me what the content of the conclusion is going to be that isn't just recapitulation of your argument. What are the consequences of the thing that you've argued? Is it important for thinking about other things? Should we reconsider a particular argument that we normally take for granted? Whatever it is, headline it in your introduction.

5. Don't write the introduction first

One of the key mistakes people make is thinking that because it's the first thing other people read, the introduction needs to be the first thing they write.

You might have been taught to do the opposite: write the introduction last. I think this is a fine strategy, but one of the ways that I tend to approach essays is to write my intro first in a loose way and then come back to it once I've finished the body paragraphs. What that allows me to do is to have some kind of map and goal for what I think my argument should look like, and then to check back later to see whether I managed to get all those things in. Sometimes the finished product looks nothing like the thing that I wrote out at the beginning, in which case I tweak the introduction so that the map is in the correct order and describes the argument correctly. Sometimes, though, you'll notice that you left something out of the body paragraphs that's actually really important, in which case you should make sure to fill in that hole.

The main aim here is to get it written, and make sure it coheres with what's in the body of the essay. Your writing process should then look like a continuous tacking back and forth between the plan (the intro) and the analysis itself (the body), shaping and reshaping each one to fit with the other until you have something that's good enough to submit. When that's done, you're all set.

I hope you found this guide helpful. If you did, why not check out my other guides on how to write better essays?

How to Write Better Essays v1

How to Write Better Essays v2

How to Write Better Essays (video edition)

Five Common Essay Mistakes to Avoid

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