If the title is your first point of contact, the first chance you have of really engaging with your readers would be your introduction. How they react to your introduction will determine their attitude about the following paragraphs, as well as if they are even interested enough to keep reading. In order to keep your readers engaged and positive – or at least interested – you will need to do three things in your introduction:
In order for your opening sentences to be effective, they should satisfy one or more of the following.
Imagine, for example, that you are writing an essay in response to the following essay topic:
Should zoos, first established in the nineteenth century, be abolished? Provide a well-supported argument in defence of your thesis. Write your essay with a general audience in mind.
If you were writing in response to the topic above, you might want to avoid the following openings:
Sample Opening 1: Zoos, first established in the nineteenth century, should be abolished.
This opening is grammatically correct and performs the basic function of introducing the topic and a position on the topic. It is not effective or engaging, however, as it simply reshuffles the topic question and it lacks originality.
Sample Opening 1.2: Since the dawn of time, man has constantly enslaved animals on this planet. This must stop. Zoos should be abolished in 1999.
This opening lacks effectiveness because it makes a sweeping generalization in addition to using extreme language. Both can be alienating to readers and can suggest bias, as opposed to a well-developed and well-reasoned project. Extreme language should be avoided generally in the body of the paper, as should generalizations; for the introduction, try to avoid generalizations like the following:
All men hide their emotions...
All people on social assistance are lazy...
Since the stone age, we...
Mankind's greatest challenge…
Instead of relying on general statements or a superficial rewording of the topic sentence, try beginning your introduction with one of the following introductory techniques. These help to capture readers' attention and make it easier to transition into offering background information as needed.
Epigraph/Quotation: If, in your research, you have run across a quote that summarizes the issue particularly well, demonstrates the point that you are arguing against or the importance of what you are arguing for, poses an intriguing question, or is in some other way especially relevant, it can make a good starting point for your introduction. Be sure that you do not leave the quote to stand on its own, however; like quotes in the body of your paper, this one will need to be analyzed and tied in to your original ideas about the topic.
When choosing a quote, avoid things like aphorisms or truisms, and avoid quotes that are immediately recognizable within the first few words – these types of quotes are so familiar to readers that they tend to "tune them out". They can also reflect a lack of thought on the part of the writer, which tends to lessen the engagement of readers.
Ex. In a speech to a local high school, attorney Jim Johnson closed by saying, "The only way to prevent violent crime is to learn how to fight back and protect yourself, with weapons, if necessary." The fact that this perspective is not only being touted by respected professionals but presented to high school students is a wake-up call. It is time to reexamine the approach Canada is taking to coping with and preventing violence in its communities.
Concession: If you're writing a persuasive piece, you might consider beginning with a concession--that is, by beginning with an acknowledgement of part of your opponent's argument as being valid. Remember that a concession is not a form of weakness. In fact a concession is a strength as it finds common ground with your opponent and establishes that you have done thorough research and are basing your argument on reason, rather than opinion or on an only partial understanding of the issue.
Ex. Requiring high school students to participate in organized sports is a good way to ensure that they get the physical activity they need in order to be healthy, but the organized sports offered by high schools do not provide options for students with disabilities or students who are simply not interested in traditional sports. A better solution for ensuring students stay fit and healthy…
Narrative/Hypothetical example: Narrative can be a great way to engage readers, get them to focus on your topic, and add the "human element" to your topic. Keep in mind, however, that it might not be appropriate or allowed for all types of assignments – like any other writing techniques, it should be used only when it will serve the purpose, audience, and topic of your writing.
Ex. A woman walks alone through the park, surrounded by dense trees and bushes, any of which could hide a potential attacker. She hears a rustle behind her, but does not change her pace or start to worry – in fact, her only concern is whether the rustle was caused by a skunk that might be nervous and prone to spraying. Although this scenario is ideal for our urban parks…
Question: Questions can be a good way to challenge readers and get them thinking about your topic in the way you want them to. When choosing the kind of question to use, however, be sure that you avoid questions that are either obvious ("What is green energy?"), will be answered in the body of your introduction or essay ("How old is the oldest living thing on Earth?"), or too general ("How long will it take for world peace?"). The questions you ask need to actively engage readers with your topic and main idea.
Ex. Television programs used to be events in and of themselves: families and friends would gather around the TV when their favourite program aired, anticipating the enjoyment of a brand new episode. Looking at the changes in television programming and technology, and the impact it has on how people enjoy this form of entertainment, one might ask what happened to the social element of television? Is it still present, in a different form, or is it disappearing?
Striking fact or Statistic: Use a striking fact to engage your audience's interest. This helps to show readers that there is more to a topic or issue than they may have thought, in addition to simply being interesting. Readers respond well to a piece of information that is memorable and unexpected.
Ex. Octopuses (the correct plural, as opposed to "octopi") have three hearts and nine brains. They are alien in terms of both biology and intelligence.
Paradox: (Begin with a statement that seems absurd, but may be true.)
Example: If writing a paper on disciplining children in the home, you might begin by arguing that "Parents must be cruel to be kind." At a first glance, this may seem to endorse child abuse. However, a more detailed discussion in your paper might reveal your belief that in order to help children grow into responsible adults, rules in a household must be followed. You're not necessarily endorsing physical punishment: instead, you might be endorsing grounding the child.
Background information: (Introduce relevant background information to orient your reader to the topic. Keep such material focused and condensed, particularly for shorter papers. If you're writing a persuasive piece, it's a good idea to use background material that leans toward your position.)
Example: You might, for instance, provide background on the Waterworld Marine Park, highlighting the shortcomings of its pool habitats, or detailing the number of fines it has had to pay for its inappropriate treatment of the animals.
Analogy: (You might employ a striking comparison to make a point or introduce your reader to an unfamiliar topic. Usually, you draw a comparison to something common in order to explain something uncommon or unfamiliar.)
Example: "A habitat at Marineland Water Park is a cell not unlike what you'd find at the Kingston Penitentiary, or at the Kent Correctional facility. The difference, of course, is that every inmate at Waterworld has been wrongfully persecuted and incarcerated. The inmates are serving life sentences without having committed any crimes."
Definition (not from a dictionary): (Using a definition can be very effective in efforts to clarify difficult terms or in an effort to orient your reader to a particular topic or your angle on a particular topic. Avoid using dictionary definitions--especially of common terms--because your reader will likely know what they mean, or can easily access such definitions themselves. You might, however, cite a dictionary definition and then go on either to dispute the definition, or expand upon it within the context of your paper. Definitions from authoritative texts can be very helpful when writing persuasive texts.)
Example: When arguing for or against the use of physical discipline of children in the home, for instance, you might cite the Criminal Code of Canada definitions of the terms "child abuse" and "corporal punishment."
Humour: (You might use a humorous example or personal anecdote to establish your topic and engage your reader. Remember that humour can be an effective tool only if it is funny and appropriate to the audience and the writing context.)