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The writer of the academic essay aims to persuade readers of an idea based on evidence. The beginning of the essay is a crucial first step in this process. In order to engage readers and establish your authority, the beginning of your essay has to accomplish certain business. Your beginning should introduce the essay, focus it, and orient readers.
Introduce the Essay. The beginning lets your readers know what the essay is about, the topic. The essay’s topic does not exist in a vacuum, however; part of letting readers know what your essay is about means establishing the essay’s context, the frame within which you will approach your topic. For instance, in an essay about the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech, the context may be a particular legal theory about the speech right; it may be historical information concerning the writing of the amendment; it may be a contemporary dispute over flag burning; or it may be a question raised by the text itself. The point here is that, in establishing the essay’s context, you are also limiting your topic. That is, you are framing an approach to your topic that necessarily eliminates other approaches. Thus, when you determine your context, you simultaneously narrow your topic and take a big step toward focusing your essay. Here’s an example.
|When Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening was published in 1899, critics condemned the book as immoral. One typical critic, writing in the Providence Journal, feared that the novel might “fall into the hands of youth, leading them to dwell on things that only matured persons can understand, and promoting unholy imaginations and unclean desires” (150). A reviewer in the St. Louis Post- Dispatch wrote that “there is much that is very improper in it, not to say positively unseemly.”|
The paragraph goes on. But as you can see, Chopin’s novel (the topic) is introduced in the context of the critical and moral controversy its publication engendered.
Focus the Essay. Beyond introducing your topic, your beginning must also let readers know what the central issue is. What question or problem will you be thinking about? You can pose a question that will lead to your idea (in which case, your idea will be the answer to your question), or you can make a thesis statement. Or you can do both: you can ask a question and immediately suggest the answer that your essay will argue. Here’s an example from an essay about Memorial Hall.
|Further analysis of Memorial Hall, and of the archival sources that describe the process of building it, suggests that the past may not be the central subject of the hall but only a medium. What message, then, does the building convey, and why are the fallen soldiers of such importance to the alumni who built it? Part of the answer, it seems, is that Memorial Hall is an educational tool, an attempt by the Harvard community of the 1870s to influence the future by shaping our memory of their times. The commemoration of those students and graduates who died for the Union during the Civil War is one aspect of this alumni message to the future, but it may not be the central idea.|
The fullness of your idea will not emerge until your conclusion, but your beginning must clearly indicate the direction your idea will take, must set your essay on that road. And whether you focus your essay by posing a question, stating a thesis, or combining these approaches, by the end of your beginning, readers should know what you’re writing about, and why—and why they might want to read on.
Orient Readers. Orienting readers, locating them in your discussion, means providing information and explanations wherever necessary for your readers’ understanding. Orienting is important throughout your essay, but it is crucial in the beginning. Readers who don’t have the information they need to follow your discussion will get lost and quit reading. (Your teachers, of course, will trudge on.) Supplying the necessary information to orient your readers may be as simple as answering the journalist’s questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why. It may mean providing a brief overview of events or a summary of the text you’ll be analyzing. If the source text is brief, such as the First Amendment, you might just quote it. If the text is well known, your summary, for most audiences, won’t need to be more than an identifying phrase or two:
|In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s tragedy of `star-crossed lovers’ destroyed by the blood feud between their two families, the minor characters . . .|
Often, however, you will want to summarize your source more fully so that readers can follow your analysis of it.
Questions of Length and Order. How long should the beginning be? The length should be proportionate to the length and complexity of the whole essay. For instance, if you’re writing a five-page essay analyzing a single text, your beginning should be brief, no more than one or two paragraphs. On the other hand, it may take a couple of pages to set up a ten-page essay.
Does the business of the beginning have to be addressed in a particular order? No, but the order should be logical. Usually, for instance, the question or statement that focuses the essay comes at the end of the beginning, where it serves as the jumping-off point for the middle, or main body, of the essay. Topic and context are often intertwined, but the context may be established before the particular topic is introduced. In other words, the order in which you accomplish the business of the beginning is flexible and should be determined by your purpose.
Opening Strategies. There is still the further question of how to start. What makes a good opening? You can start with specific facts and information, a keynote quotation, a question, an anecdote, or an image. But whatever sort of opening you choose, it should be directly related to your focus. A snappy quotation that doesn’t help establish the context for your essay or that later plays no part in your thinking will only mislead readers and blur your focus. Be as direct and specific as you can be. This means you should avoid two types of openings:
- The history-of-the-world (or long-distance) opening, which aims to establish a context for the essay by getting a long running start: “Ever since the dawn of civilized life, societies have struggled to reconcile the need for change with the need for order.” What are we talking about here, political revolution or a new brand of soft drink? Get to it.
- The funnel opening (a variation on the same theme), which starts with something broad and general and “funnels” its way down to a specific topic. If your essay is an argument about state-mandated prayer in public schools, don’t start by generalizing about religion; start with the specific topic at hand.
Remember. After working your way through the whole draft, testing your thinking against the evidence, perhaps changing direction or modifying the idea you started with, go back to your beginning and make sure it still provides a clear focus for the essay. Then clarify and sharpen your focus as needed. Clear, direct beginnings rarely present themselves ready-made; they must be written, and rewritten, into the sort of sharp-eyed clarity that engages readers and establishes your authority.
Copyright 1999, Patricia Kain, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
Free Practice Tests for learners of English
Writing introductions to essays
Writing essays is a task you are very likely to have to do for Cambridge First , Advanced and Proficiency , as well as IELTS . The length of the essay and the complexity of the question vary depending on the exam, but the basic skills are the same.
You will always need to:
- plan the essay by brainstorming ideas
- organize your ideas
- write an introduction and conclusion
- read your work through and make corrections
The introduction is very important because it is the first thing the examiner will see. A good introduction has two main elements:
- restating the question
- explaining what you’re going to do in your essay
We’ll look at two IELTS examples for these exercises.
Restating the question
The examiner already knows which question you’re answering! So, why do you need to do this? Firstly, restating the question shows the examiner you have understood the question. Secondly, it helps you focus. Thirdly, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate your range of vocabulary and your ability to manipulate sentence constructions.
Example question: What are the benefits of living in big cities, as opposed to rural areas? What are the problems of rural areas and how can they be solved?
- Underline the key words in the question.
- Think of synonyms that would work in this context.
benefit = advantage, pro, plus
big city = metropolis, urban area
as opposed to = compared with, in comparison to
rural area = countryside, in the country
problem = disadvantage, minus, drawback
solve = resolve, overcome
- Look at the way the sentences are constructed e.g. verbs or noun phrases.
the benefits of living in…; how can they be solved?
- Think of ways to change them.
- change a verb construction to a noun construction:
the benefits of life in…
- change passive to active:
how we can solve them
You now have eight things you could change in order to state the question in your own words and show that you have control over English. You don’t have to use all the changes you thought of and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t got as many possibilities as I have included here.
So, the first two sentences of my introduction might look like this:
There are many advantages of life in urban areas when compared with country living. The question to consider is: what are the disadvantages and how can we overcome them?
Explaining what you’re going to do
This just needs to be one more sentence which briefly outlines how you are going to answer the question. Useful phrases are:
I will (attempt to/try to) discuss / look at / consider / compare / examine…
So, I can add a sentence like this to my introduction:
I will compare a typical city in Europe with a countryside area and try to give suggestions for solving the problems found with cities.
Here’s another IELTS question. It’s a different style of question, but the principles of how to write an introduction are the same.
Recently the freedom to work and live anywhere has become the main trend due to the development of communication technology and transportation. Do the advantages of these developments outweigh the disadvantages? Discuss.
- Which are the keywords?
- Can you think of an alternative for each keyword?
- What structures can you see?
- Can you change them?
- Write one sentence explaining how you will answer the question.
Example answers at the bottom of the page.
- freedom, trend, due to, development, communication technology, transport, advantage, disadvantage, outweigh
- flexibility, movement towards, because of, advances, —–**, transportation, benefit, drawback, make up for
- the freedom to…; the development of technology; Do….outweigh…?
- people are free to…; developments in technology; Are …outweighed by…?
- I will examine the drawbacks to developments in communication and transport, and attempt to balance them against the benefits.
** There aren’t always alternatives!
Article contributed by Nicola Prentis who is a teacher and materials writer, based in Madrid and London. She is the author of Speaking Skills (B2+) – a self study book with Collins.
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