Introductions and conclusions play a special role in the academic essay, and they frequently demand much of your attention as a writer. A good introduction should identify your topic, provide essential context, and indicate your particular focus in the essay. It also needs to engage your readers’ interest. A strong conclusion will provide a sense of closure to the essay while again placing your concepts in a somewhat wider context. It will also, in some instances, add a stimulus to further thought. Since no two essays are the same, no single formula will automatically generate an introduction and conclusion for you. But the following guidelines will help you to construct a suitable beginning and end for your essay.
Some general advice about introductions
- Some students cannot begin writing the body of the essay until they feel they have the perfect introduction. Be aware of the dangers of sinking too much time into the introduction. Some of that time can be more usefully channeled into planning and writing.
- You may be the kind of writer who writes an introduction first in order to explore your own thinking on the topic. If so, remember that you may at a later stage need to compress your introduction.
- It can be fine to leave the writing of the introduction for a later stage in the essay-writing process. Some people write their introduction only after they have completed the rest of the essay. Others write the introduction first but rewrite it significantly in light of what they end up saying in the body of their paper.
- The introductions for most papers can be effectively written in one paragraph occupying half to three-quarters of the first page. Your introduction may be longer than that, and it may take more than one paragraph, but be sure you know why. The size of your introduction should bear some relationship to the length and complexity of your paper. A twenty page paper may call for a two-page introduction, but a five-page paper will not.
- Get to the point as soon as possible. Generally, you want to raise your topic in your very first sentences. A common error is to begin too broadly or too far off topic. Avoid sweeping generalizations.
- If your essay has a thesis, your thesis statement will typically appear at the end of your introduction, even though that is not a hard-and-fast rule. You may, for example, follow your thesis with a brief road map to your essay that sketches the basic structure of your argument. The longer the paper, the more useful a road map becomes.
How do I write an interesting, effective introduction?
Consider these strategies for capturing your readers’ attention and for fleshing out your introduction:
- Find a startling statistic that illustrates the seriousness of the problem you will address.
- Quote an expert (but be sure to introduce him or her first).
- Mention a common misperception that your thesis will argue against.
- Give some background information necessary for understanding the essay.
- Use a brief narrative or anecdote that exemplifies your reason for choosing the topic. In an assignment that encourages personal reflection, you may draw on your own experiences; in a research essay, the narrative may illustrate a common real-world scenario.
- In a science paper, explain key scientific concepts and refer to relevant literature. Lead up to your own contribution or intervention.
- In a more technical paper, define a term that is possibly unfamiliar to your audience but is central to understanding the essay.
In fleshing out your introduction, you will want to avoid some common pitfalls:
- Don’t provide dictionary definitions, especially of words your audience already knows.
- Don’t repeat the assignment specifications using the professor’s wording.
- Don’t give details and in-depth explanations that really belong in your body paragraphs. You can usually postpone background material to the body of the essay.
Some general advice about conclusions
- A conclusion is not merely a summary of your points or a re-statement of your thesis. If you wish to summarize—and often you must—do so in fresh language. Remind the reader of how the evidence you’ve presented has contributed to your thesis.
- The conclusion, like much of the rest of the paper, involves critical thinking. Reflect upon the significance of what you’ve written. Try to convey some closing thoughts about the larger implications of your argument.
- Broaden your focus a bit at the end of the essay. A good last sentence leaves your reader with something to think about, a concept in some way illuminated by what you’ve written in the paper.
- For most essays, one well-developed paragraph is sufficient for a conclusion. In some cases, a two-or-three paragraph conclusion may be appropriate. As with introductions, the length of the conclusion should reflect the length of the essay.
How do I write an interesting, effective conclusion?
The following strategies may help you move beyond merely summarizing the key points of your essay:
- If your essay deals with a contemporary problem, warn readers of the possible consequences of not attending to the problem.
- Recommend a specific course of action.
- Use an apt quotation or expert opinion to lend authority to the conclusion you have reached.
- Give a startling statistic, fact, or visual image to drive home the ultimate point of your paper.
- If your discipline encourages personal reflection, illustrate your concluding point with a relevant narrative drawn from your own life experiences.
- Return to an anecdote, example, or quotation that you introduced in your introduction, but add further insight that derives from the body of your essay.
- In a science or social science paper, mention worthwhile avenues for future research on your topic.
How does genre affect my introduction or conclusion?
Most of the advice in this handout pertains to argumentative or exploratory academic essays. Be aware, however, that different genres have their own special expectations about beginnings and endings. Some academic genres may not even require an introduction or conclusion. An annotated bibliography, for example, typically provides neither. A book review may begin with a summary of the book and conclude with an overall assessment of it. A policy briefing usually includes an introduction but may conclude with a series of recommendations. Check your assignment carefully for any directions about what to include in your introduction or conclusion.
WRITING INTRODUCTIONS & CONCLUSIONS
Even when you know everything about your paper's topic, it's hard to know how to create a "hook" that makes a reader want to read it. And how in the world do you end satisfactorily? The fact is that many of us anguish over our intros and conclusions. The problem of introductions and conclusions is really one problem. They are linked, not only in anguish but in content; they are almost mirror images of each other.
First, however, there are two common misconceptions to dispel. Your thesis is
not an introduction. An introductory paragraph starts with a "hook," which leads into the thesis. You do need an introduction as well as a thesis. Second, a simple restatement of your thesis is not a conclusion. To create that satisfying sense of finality in your conclusion, you must revisit the stuff of your introduction. If you start with a story, return to the story. If you start with a definition, return to the definition, even if only to contradict it.
From the TIP Sheet "How to Start (and Complete) a Research Paper," you already know to start writing your paper in the middle, with the thesis statement and body. When you are ready to finish with the introduction and conclusion, choose from several strategies:
- Illustrate: Show instead of tell.
- Challenge: Raise reader expectations.
- Quote: Make use of the wordsmiths.
- Compare/contrast: Evoke familiarity by comparing or create tension and expectation by contrasting.
- Define: Define-or redefine in a unique way.
- Make a provocative statement: Offer an amazing statistic or personal insight.
An illustration can be as simple as a personal story or anecdote. It's natural to think of a personal anecdote as an introduction to a personal narrative, but stories and anecdotes can be effective introductions to any kind of paper. The following anecdote introduces a research paper on vegetarian and vegan diets. The conclusion returns briefly to the story:
We took our sons fishing in the spillway next to the dam one moonlit night. In the hush of the night, one of them hooked a small trout. But when the landed fish screamed aloud, my son fled the scene in horror and has never eaten flesh since.
People adopt vegetarian and vegan diets for different reasons, not all of them out of horror, as my son did. Whatever their reasons, they are finding more options in grocery stores, restaurants, and cookbooks than ever before.
An example taken from local or world news events is another kind of illustration. This is the introduction and conclusion to a paper on urban growth problems in California:
The Chico city council recently approved six hundred new homes to go in on the east side of the city. The impacts this development will have are likely to be extreme, illustrating the problems all California cities face in managing growth.
How well Chico will cope with the increased traffic, pressure on schools, and impacts to the watershed is yet to be seen. But Chico is not alone in having to find solutions soon.
A composite illustration is a fiction that you create in order to make a point. (Composite means including a bit of this and a bit of that.) The advantage of a composite illustration is that it can be perfectly crafted to fit your point. A composite can illustrate extreme examples that are possible though not likely ("Suppose that..."), or distant consequences that are possible but not yet observed.
An analogy is an extended comparison between one thing and another (the development of a balanced state budget compared with a shopping list, perhaps). If you come up with an apt analogy, it can be very effective; however, a so-so analogy is better abandoned sooner than later. You are better off with a good story than with a mediocre analogy. For more on analogies, see the TIP Sheet, "Writing an Analogy."
A challenge raises reader expectations and creates tension. A challenging opening statement is effective for a thesis that calls for changes to be made in public policies or personal actions, such as in persuasive essays and argument or analysis papers:
Chances are, if you live outside city limits in any of California's twenty-one rural counties, you couldn't use public transportation if you wanted to. There isn't any.
Sure, Californians need to get over their love affairs with their cars, but having a better system of public transportation in place would help. Then, perhaps, I could get from rural Durham to rural Oroville, where I live, without putting yet another car on the road.
A question is another type of challenge:
Does it make sense to prohibit minors from carrying calamine lotion with them at school without two kinds of written permission, and yet allow them to leave campus without parental knowledge or consent for invasive medical procedures?
Even more than many of the zero-tolerance laws in place in our schools, this one should be ditched. Does it make sense? Clearly it doesn't.
Note that a question is an introductory strategy, not a thesis statement. A thesis statement should answer the question, and in some detail-not just "yes" or "no."
Make good use of the wordsmiths of history. Online quotation banks, usually searchable by topic, are a great source for quotations on practically any subject. You have some latitude in how you choose a quote for an introduction; it can be offbeat or unexpected. In the following example, an unusual quote by Albert Einstein is used to introduce an essay on restricting cell phone use while driving:
Albert Einstein once said, "Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves."
It doesn't take an Einstein to realize that cell phones are not the first, nor will they be the last, driving distraction. We don't need more restrictions on cell phones; we just need better drivers.
Song lyrics or familiar sayings sometimes make good introductions, but avoid clichés such as "Haste makes waste." If a familiar saying draws on jargon or sayings familiar only to a particular group, you have to provide the context for those who are unfamiliar with that group:
Computer programmers have a saying: "Garbage in, garbage out."
The next time you read the results of the latest poll, consider the polling method, the sample, and the source, and remember, "Garbage in, garbage out."
Compare or contrast
Comparison shows similarities and creates a sense of familiarity. Contrast shows differences and creates tension and expectation. You do not have to be writing a compare/contrast paper to use this as an introduction strategy. For example, this is a contrast intro to a personal narrative:
When I was seven, I thought my father was all-powerful and could do no wrong. When I was seventeen, I thought he was a jerk.
My father wasn't the god he seemed when I was seven, but he was sure a lot better and wiser than I thought he was when I was seventeen.
A definition can make a good introduction. You don't have to be writing a definition paper to use definition as an introduction strategy. You can use a standard dictionary if you want, but consider using books of quotations or online quotation banks for more interesting definitions:
Here is how Ambrose Bierce defines a conservative: "Conservative. noun. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a liberal, who wishes to replace them with others."
In the matter of agricultural subsidies, we are better off sticking with existing evils than replacing them with others that promise far worse results.
Another interesting use of definition is to use it as a starting point to re-define something in your own terms:
Webster says friendship is mutual feelings of trust, affection, assistance, and approval between people. However, I say friendship sometimes is knowing when to walk away.
Walking away that day was the biggest favor Mai ever did for me.
Make a provocative or startling statement
If the provocative statement is someone else's, treat it as a quotation. If the provocative statement is statistical, make sure you cite the source. If you have a way with words or an insight all your own, by all means use that:
It is ridiculous and immoral to allow congressmen to give themselves pay raises.
Restricting the ability of congressmen to vote themselves raises would go a long way to restoring morality and a sense of public service to public servants.
As you can see, introductions and conclusions are closely linked. Once you decide on a strategy, try simply over-writing the introduction (as one student we know regularly did) and then split off part of it to use as the conclusion. When you begin to think of introductions and conclusions as two pieces of a single puzzle, you will probably find them much easier to write.