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Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches how to write an excellent introduction for your essay.

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Source: Richard D. Norris et al. “Sliding Rocks on Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park: First Observation of Rocks in Motion.” PLOS One, August 27, 2014.

Video Transcription

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? Today we'll focus on the most important part of any essay, the introduction. We'll take a look at the basic requirements for what introductions need to say and do, then focus on the many tasks that introductions have, and end with a discussion of the hook, the little something that distinguishes good introductions from great ones.

You just heard me say that introductions are the most important part of any essay. Why did I say that? Because it's true. I mean, think about it. The introduction is the beginning of the essay. It's the first thing readers learn about the text. And as such, it's got the burden of convincing them to keep reading. And if it fails, well, let's just say it doesn't matter how well the conclusion is written.

So let's look at how these important pieces of text come to be. The first thing we should do is debunk the myth that introductions have only one paragraph. This is true for the five paragraph essay format, but not necessarily the case in all texts. Ultimately, it's up to the writer to decide how much time and space he or she needs to introduce the subject, topic, and thesis of any given essay or writing project.

Another prevalent myth about introductions are that they should be written first. If anything, introductions should come later, as they can often become a time sink or barrier for students, especially on the very first draft. Besides, after the rest of the essay has been written, body paragraphs, conclusions, and all, chances are whatever the old introduction says doesn't apply quite as well as you probably thought it would, and now you'll have to change it. So I say, save introductions for when you know exactly what you're introducing.

Let's look at what goes into making an introduction. There are two critical things introductions need to do. The first is that they should establish the essay's topic, including any conflict or controversy that the writer will be addressing. Introductions should also include a clear articulation of the thesis. Often, especially in longer and more complicated essays, the thesis as stated in the introduction is itself a summary of the more detailed argument that will follow. Still, the introduction should introduce the thesis in one way or another.

Often this includes stating the general line of reasoning that the body of the essay will take. Called a nut graph, this part of the introduction tends to state things like, first I will explore x. Then I will expand on x by looking at y, and then I will demonstrate how y is really z, or something to that effect. It gives the reader a very quick outline of the essay's main points, a map for them to use as they proceed through the text.

But enough talking about introductions. Let's look at a couple and see what they are or are not doing. Take a moment to pause the video and read this introduction, looking as you do for how it establishes the essay's topic and where the thesis might be. Seems pretty straightforward, right? It introduces the topic, complete with a conflict, the choices we make about work, and it states the thesis in no uncertain terms, advocating for an alternative lifestyle.

Now, though, let's look at another. In this introduction, things get a little more complicated. Take some time to look it over. In this example, it should have been fairly easy to identify both the topic and the thesis. But there's something wrong. Something's missing. We don't have any kind of reasoning yet, and so we don't really know how or why the writer is connecting this broad topic of crime to the death penalty, especially given the historical stance the introduction seems to be taking. So take this as an example of how an introduction can technically do everything it needs to do and still fail in a very important way.

Now, one more, if for no other reason than to give us some contrast. Here, as you can see, the tone and subject are very different from either of the earlier, more traditional academic texts. Still though, we've got a topic and a thesis, don't we? Though this introduction is much lighter, it's still presenting an argument, and doing so in a fairly effectively way, I'd say.

Even though we've already covered what's required of an introduction, and we've looked at two of them doing it all pretty well, there's more to talk about. No discussion about introductions would be complete without mentioning hooks. Remember how we started off talking about how introductions are the most important part of a text? Because they come first, and so they have the burden of convincing the reader to keep reading. Well, that's where hooks come in. Hooks are actions or strategies that introductions can use to try to catch the reader's interest.

A few of the most common hooks are a provocative anecdote or situation and a compelling quotation, though I should mention here that this hook, if overused, will have the opposite effect and bore readers, especially readers that are already familiar with the quote or the subject. Introductions can also hook readers with a concession, which is particularly useful in essays that will make a controversial argument, as this tends to help build ethos or credibility for the writer.

Introductions can also use an interesting fact or statistic to engage readers or an analogy, using it to compare something to another, as in, voting for Obamacare is like stabbing yourself in the foot. This is an extreme example, but whether you agree or not, you're interested, right? And that's the point. The last common type of hook is defining a key term. Usually, when this works well, it's not just a dictionary definition, but also an explanation as to how the term's meaning is being debated or how it's central to the essay's claim. Something to make it clear why it's not only important to the essay, but to the reader as well.

Now, let's look at some more example introductions and see if we can identify the type and effectiveness of the hook or hooks they used. This first essay should be pretty easy to type. "Every morning, crews hose down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. They cover the pavement and sidewalks with soapy water, washing away all evidence of last night's activities. Before the bars open and any of the tourists who left the spilled beers and daiquiris, crushed lipstick-smeared-cigarettes, and streaks of half-dried vomit manage to stumble out of bed, the streets will again be washed, ready, waiting for them and their money.

Years of observation has taught me there's something about the way we behave when we know we're not going to spend much time in a place, especially when we're paying for it. It's the nature of tourism that changes our perceived responsibilities as humans, and the problem isn't just with tourists." Here, we can see how using Bourbon Street as an example, a provocative anecdote or situation, helps the essay establish its topic and also makes the reader more interested in reading about tourism.

Now, here's a completely different argument's introduction. "Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, is well known for the phenomenon of tracks left by hundreds of rocks plowing across the nearly flat playa surface. Rock movement by pebble to boulder-sized pieces of dolomite and granite leave tracks in the playa surface, showing the direction of motion via grooves cut in the playa mud. Remarkably, multiple rocks commonly show parallel tracks, including apparently synchronous high angle turns.

The phenomenon of rock motion has excited considerable interest, and various mechanisms for rock motion have been proposed, but owing to the harsh nature of the playa's surroundings and the difficulty of access, there's been no unambiguous determination of the mechanisms for rock motion." in this introduction, the author chose to foreground the mystery surrounding the subject, making the moving rocks of Death Valley more real because of it. If, for example, the essay had just started talking about all the research and study, as well as the scientific experimentation that was done, chances are many readers would lose interest.

And now, our last example, which might be familiar to you. "Commensalism is the name for a biological interaction in which one organism benefits, and the other derives neither benefit nor harm. In a stable environment, like that which occurs in isolated environments, organisms evolve to lose anything that isn't necessary to their daily needs. But when that environment changes, when the organisms upon which others depend can no longer survive, entire ecosystems can crash. Though much less commonly known than the related terms of parasitism and symbiosis, commensalism is common when multiple species live together in a non-predator-prey relationship."

Here we have a definition being used, introducing the relatively uncommon term around which the argument will be built, and simultaneously displaying the essay's topic. It's also implying that the reader's assumptions about symbiosis and parasitism are incorrect, which is a challenge, another way to engage and hook readers. And that's the point to all of these, front loading the so what part, putting all the reasons your readers really need to know or to believe whatever the rest of the essay will try to convince or tell them about.

What did we learn today? We learned about introductions, from the basic requirements, their tasks and purposes, to how they can hook readers. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.