Crafting an Introduction
As a writer, I can think of few things as important as how you open a piece. It needs to draw the reader in, give them something to be interested in, and make them want to stay with you until the end. This is something that is often not explored in academic writing, but I think it is really important. Just because you are writing for a college class, does not mean you should abandon all the things that make a work compelling to read. It also makes it more interesting for you to write!
Here are several options for how to begin an article, essay, or paper:
Anecdote: A story that will draw your reader into the paper. Here is an example from a story I wrote about a Google engineer who is trying to help indigenous communities.Scene: Open in situ. Is there a way to recreate a scene based on what you read? For example, Daniel Kahneman writes about decision-making and all the ways that this can go wrong. Here’s what I would do if I were writing about one of his more famous concepts, the availability bias, which suggests that we are more likely to think something is going to happen based on our experiences. I might open with this:
- It’s been almost ten years since the fire. My then-future husband’s house burned down on our very first date. As we stood there in the pre-dawn hours while the firemen packed up their gear, we wondered what to do. The sound of water dripping from everything made is seem as if it was raining and the smell of smoke was thick in the air. Since that day, we’ve both developed a habit if triple checking to make sure everything is off. Once you’ve lost everything once, you tend to overestimate the likelihood of the event happening again. This is what Daniel Kahneman calls . . .
The trick here is to be really detailed and include sensory details that really frame what you saw. For an example of this, see this article I co-authored with a friend. It is science writing, but we opened in scene to make the technical details we were about to explore more palatable.
Profile: Open by introducing an important figure in your story. Example – When she was ten years old Dr. Susan Smith discovered what would become a life-long obsession with archaeology…
Background: Give us some details about why this story matters. (Warning: Don’t be boring and hit your readers with data and statistics right out of the gate – be creative and compelling.) I really like Dr. Cynthia Coleman’s blog post on Black Swan and Zika virus.
Quotation: Is there one quote that perfectly articulates what you have to say? (Warning: I should add that this is my least favorite opener and I think it is pretty lazy to let someone else open up your writing, and editors I have worked with agree, but some people still think it is a valuable options so I include it here.)
Dialogue: Similar to scene setting, this can really draw a reader in, if it is done well.
Question: Imagine a world where…? This can be done, but it can also be overdone too. Make sure you ask really good question(s) and answer them artfully. If you ask more than one question, there's a sort of unwritten rule of three, which suggests three is the best number of questions for symmetry and rhythm.
Contrast: Do you have two polar opposites that perfectly illustrate what you are writing about? Bruce Ballenger (author of the text this material is drawn from) writes about one student paper where his student, Dusty, opened with “a comparison between her friend Susan, who grew up believing in Snow White and Cinderella and married at twenty-one, and herself, who never believed in princes or white horses and was advised by her mother that it was risky to depend on a man” (Ballenger, 186).
Announcement: Open with what the paper is about: With police violence making headlines at tragically regular intervals, we set out to discover . . .
Remember, these are only examples, and you can introduce your paper in any way that makes sense. Just remember to answer one really important questions about your paper: so what?
Homework for Wednesday:
- Write three different openings for your paper. Experiment and try something you may never have considered before. (While you may have a clear favorite, I would still like to see all three options.)
- On Wednesday, we'll exchange introduction with a classmate who will read all three and see if he or she can answer these questions: What is the paper going to be about? What is the “central question I’m trying to answer”? (Ballenger, 187) Can you guess my thesis?
- As always, your homework needs to be typed and formatted in MLA style. Please. I'm begging now.