Writing Your Introduction
Before you begin writing the body of your paper, it is a good idea to create a working introduction which quickly sketches essential background for your thesis, explains what will or will not be covered, and leads to the thesis. Once you have written (or at least carefully outlined) the body of your paper, you should be prepared to compose your full introduction.
Introductions serve an important purpose of familiarizing the reader with the argument to be developed in the body of the paper. Your introduction should therefore include a clear statement of your thesis and the method of your approach (e.g. literary analysis, historical reconstruction, comparison of two texts, theological or exegetical reflection, etc.).
In addition to a straightforward articulation of the content of a paper (i.e. the thesis), an introduction should emphasize the significance of your topic. Why is your specific topic worth studying or your thesis worth considering? Usually, a few well-crafted sentences can contextualize the conversation adequately and pleasantly. Only do not insult the reader’s intelligence by explaining the obvious. The aspects of a topic which may have been overlooked or underappreciated are those which usually deserve attention.
Introducing Papers on Assigned Topics
Introductions to papers on assigned topics are normally brief. They usually use terms from the assignment description to explain the purpose of the paper. Several sentences of background information or definition of key terms may be provided (a longer exposition of background information should be part of the first section of the paper). The purpose of these introductions is to communicate to the professor that you have read and understood the assignment, and to let him know how you have limited and focused the topic. They also lead to a statement of the central point of the essay, which in persuasive writing is a thesis.
Including Background Material in the Introduction
For a paper on a topic you have selected, the introduction can serve the additional function of providing the reader with selective background information necessary for understanding the content and import of the paper. Most questions worthy of research have received more than one answer from various writers. An important part of engaging these sorts of scholarly discussions is knowing where your own articulation fits in the larger conversation and being able to provide a summary of other important perspectives for the intelligent but unacquainted reader.
Stating the Thesis in the Introduction
Students sometimes wonder, “Should I really give away the ending?” There are situations, after all, when the best rhetorical strategy is to withhold clarity from the reader until the proper time. But there are important differences between the purposes for reading a novel and an academic essay. The latter are usually read for the information they contain, and for the purpose of evaluation. While the writer might imagine that he achieves a certain rhetorical ‘punch’ by gradually leading the reader to an “Aha!” moment in which the thesis is finally revealed, the effect of such a circuitous disclosure may to confuse and frustrate. If the goal of the writer is for his readers to understand and appreciate the thesis and the reasoning behind it, it is generally best to be clear and direct up front, stating the thesis at the beginning of the paper.
The writer should not worry that such a candid introduction will lack stylistic appeal; the serious reader who wants to understand will be grateful for accessible information about the author’s intentions. Even if a straightforward statement of the thesis appears mundane or unpolished, such an impression is most likely a symptom of an all-too-common tendency toward puffed-up and empty sophistry. “The present paper argues that…” is a perfectly fine way to proceed.
Delaying the Thesis
In some cases, it is better to leave a full articulation of the thesis until a point later in the work, usually near the end. Some apologetic writing, for example, may take a more indirect approach to persuasion and employ a conversational tone that differs significantly from the argument-proving format of the traditional academic essay. Likewise a preacher might deliberately craft a sermon in order to catch the listening congregation off guard—presenting a key idea where it is strikingly unexpected. However, even in these examples, an intelligible introduction must provide some guidance, usually in the form of a purpose statement, so that the reader (or listener, in the case of a sermon) knows what to expect in the body of the work.
To learn more on developing theses for various Westminster assignments, consult the CTW's Quick Guide to Thesis Statements.
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