At a coffee shop in a quiet neighborhood, Staci pulls open the door and takes in the smell of mocha, which mixes with the scent of freshly baked pastries. She spots her friend Sofia, who looks up from her laptop to greet Staci.
“Wow! You’re wearing clothes!” Sofia says.
“Obviously. I typically wear clothes when I go out in public. Most people do,” Staci replies.
“Clothes are important because they protect us from the elements.”
“Yes—I kind of know this already. What’s wrong with you?”
Sofia continues to smile and chat about other topics such as the fact that the sky is blue and that the place where they meet sells coffee. Staci begs Sofia to tell her something new, but Sofia can only tell her that frosting is typically made with sugar, which is a sweet substance. After a few more minutes, Staci wishes Sofia well, but she tells her she really must go.
Though Staci, in the scenario above, tried to continue to visit with Sofia, she ran out of patience. Likewise, most readers, when they see an introductory paragraph that makes a series of obvious statements, will stop reading. While essays can begin in a general way and then transition into a thesis statement, there is such a thing as being too general. Consider the following sentences, which often pop up as introductory sentences in essay writing:
- ___topic has been debated a lot recently.
- Art/literature/history/etc. has been studied a lot lately.
- Life is hard.
- Children don’t come with an instruction manual.
- Love is important.
These kinds of statements may seem to serve as a starting point for a more specific topic, but they won’t effectively hold onto your reader. Inventing a new, catchy, and earth-shattering statement might not come naturally and could be too time consuming for most writers to attempt. However, there are easier methods you could use to engage your readers. A few are listed here:
1) The striking quote. If you are analyzing a work of literature or studying a topic that uses outside sources, you could identify a unique and interesting quote from those sources, which could help readers anticipate your thesis statement. As you search for quotes though, you could ensure that the information and word choices in the quotes really are unique and can’t be stated any other way. Consider the following made-up examples:
“Nursing is a profession that requires hours of hands-on practice, applications of theories, and the ability to set boundaries and improvise as well” (Stasia, 2017).
“A bedpan and a pat on the back won’t cut it these days because nurses are expected to save the day with more than a few super powers” (Sooper, 2018).
The first quote above offers information that could probably be summarized and used as a supporting point for an argument in the body of a paper. It doesn’t contain vivid imagery that could “hook” readers and draw them in. However, the second quote uses interesting language that creates concrete pictures in the minds of the readers. A bedpan, a pat on the back, and the super-hero-nurse who “saves the day” make a memorable impression. This kind of quote then, could certainly “save the day” for a reader.
2) The personal anecdote or description. This method might not work for every kind of essay, especially if the assignment indicates a more objective approach. However, a brief sentence or two that describes a specific situation that relates to a topic or problem to be solved could be effective.
Example: There are many problems with vandalism in neighborhoods.
Revised: A local pocket park shows signs of vandalism. The bright green bench, where parents typically sit and watch their children play, is now covered in spray paint. The swings have been torn down and, in order to repair the damage, neighborhood association fees will rise.
The first example above is too general for readers to fully picture or appreciate. The revised example, on the other hand, describes a specific incident that the writer has experienced. From this example, readers can perhaps anticipate a discussion regarding vandalism, its effects, and how this problem might be solved on a local level.
Of course, there are other methods for introducing essays, but they might not always be reliable or effective. For instance, posing a question could draw readers in, but this approach could backfire in a couple of different ways:
1) What happens if readers do not answer the question the way you want or expect them to answer?
Example: Is it right to create classrooms that don’t have any technology in them?
The question above might spark some discussion, but if a reader thinks it’s perfectly fine to create classrooms that don’t use technology, then that reader may not care to read on.
2) Some assignments call for objective language that avoids the use of second person (you/your/you’re, etc.) Asking a question such as, “Would you want to drink water out of a plastic bottle or a metal container?” already violates that rule in the first line. This kind of opening question would not work for this assignment.
Sometimes, writers are encouraged to begin with a shocking fact or statistic, but facts and statistics are already thrown at readers from the minute they get up in the morning until the moment they go to bed. Adding in another statistic or fact to the reader’s day might not seem so “shocking.” As a result, the reader might move on to something else. Facts and statistics then, could be more useful in body paragraphs to support a claim or observation.
In general, writing—even “boring” essay writing—provides an opportunity to engage in conversation with your readers. If the conversation starts with statements both you and your reader have heard before, your reader may disappear before you’ve begun to really speak about the things that matter.
Cecilia Kennedy, PhD
For extra help with introductions and essay/report writing in general, I’m happy to lend a hand. Contact me at paperrockwriting.com (email@example.com)