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11.4: The Introduction

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  • Research essays have to begin somewhere, and this somewhere is called the “introduction.” By “beginning,” I don’t necessarily mean only the first paragraph—introductions in traditional research essays are frequently several paragraphs long. Generally speaking though, the introduction is about 25 percent or less of the total essay; in other words, in a ten-page, traditional research essay, the introduction would rarely be longer than two and a half pages.

    Introductions have two basic jobs to perform:

    • To get the reader’s attention; and
    • To briefly explain what the rest of the essay will be about.

    What is appropriate or what works to get the reader’s attention depends on the audience you have in mind for your research essay and the sort of voice or authority you want to have with your essay. Frequently, it is a good idea to include some background material on the issue being discussed or a brief summary of the different sides of an argument. If you have an anecdote from either your own experience or your research that you think is relevant to the rest of your project or will be interesting to your readers, you might want to consider beginning with that story. Generally speaking, you should avoid mundane or clichéd beginnings like “This research essay is about…” or “In society today…”

    The second job of an introduction in a traditional research essay is to explain to the reader what the rest of the essay is going to be about. This is frequently done by stating your “thesis statement,” which is more or less where your working thesis has ended up after its inevitable changes and revisions.

    A thesis statement can work in a lot of different places in the introduction, not only as the last sentence at the end of the first paragraph. It is also possible to let your readers know what your thesis is without ever directly stating it in a single sentence. This approach is common in a variety of different types of writing that use research, though traditionally, most academic research essays have a specific and identifiable thesis statement.

    Let’s take a look at this example of a WEAK introductory paragraph:

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\):

    In our world today, there are many health problems, such as heart disease and cancer. Another serious problem that affects many people in this country is diabetes, particularly Type II diabetes. Diabetes is a disease where the body does not produce enough insulin, and the body needs insulin to process sugars and starches. It is a serious disease that effects millions of people, many of whom don’t even know they have the disease. In this essay, I will discuss how eating sensibly and getting plenty of exercise are the most important factors in preventing Type 2 Diabetes.

    The first two sentences of this introduction don’t have much to do with the topic of diabetes, and the following sentences are rather vague. Also, this introduction doesn’t offer much information about what the rest of the essay will be about, and it certainly doesn’t capture the reader’s attention.

    Now, consider this revised and BETTER introductory paragraph:

    Example \(\PageIndex{2}\):

    Diabetes is a disease where the body does not produce enough of insulin to process starches and sugars effectively. According to the American Diabetes Association web site, over 18 million Americans have diabetes, and as many as 5.2 million of these people are unaware that they have it. Perhaps even more striking is that the most common form of diabetes, Type 2 Diabetes, is largely preventable with a sensible diet and exercise.

    This introduction is much more specific and to the point, and because of that, it does a better job of getting the reader’s attention. Also, because it is very specific, this introduction gives a better sense to the reader where the rest of the essay will be leading.

    While the introduction is of course the first thing your readers will see, make sure it is one of the last things you decide to revise in the process of writing your research essay. You will probably start writing your essay by writing an introduction—after all, you’ve got to start somewhere. But it is nearly impossible to write a very effective introduction if the rest of the essay hasn’t been written yet, which is why you will certainly want to return to the introduction to do some revision work after you’ve written your essay.

    Exercise 10.3

    Working alone or in small groups, revise one of the following “bad” introductions, being sure to get the reader’s attention, to make clear what the essay being introduced would be about, and to eliminate unneeded words and clichés. Of course, since you don’t have the entire essay, so you may have to take certain liberties with these passages. But the goal is to improve these “bad beginnings” without changing their meaning.

    Example #1:

    In society today, there are many problems with television shows. A lot of them are not very entertaining at all. Others are completely inappropriate for children. It’s hard to believe that these things are on TV at all. In fact, because of a lot of the bad things that have been on television in recent years, broadcasters have had to censor more and more shows. They have done some of this voluntarily, but they have also been required to do this by irate advertisers and viewers as well. For example, consider Janet Jackson’s famous “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl. I contend that Jackson’s performance in the 2004 Super Bowl, accident or not, has lead to more censorship on television.

    Example #2:

    There are a lot of challenges to being a college student. We all know that studying and working hard will pay off in the end. A lot of college students also enjoy to cheer for their college teams. A lot of colleges and universities will do whatever it takes to have winning teams. In fact, some colleges and universities are even willing to allow in students with bad test scores and very low high school grades as long as they are great athletes and can make the team better. All of this leads to a difficult to deny observation: college sports, especially Division I football, is full of corruption and it is damaging the academic integrity of some of our best universities.