It is important to state your aims clearly. This may be because you have set your own question, or because any essay title or question can be interpreted and approached in a wide variety of ways, and no two essays on the same question will be alike. The reader's first question when reading an essay is likely to concern the exact way in which that particular writer has approached the task set, and a good introduction will address this early and give an indication of their specific focus. At its simplest, although not technically part of the introduction, this could be remembering to clearly state the essay title at the top of the page, where there is a choice of questions (this is particularly important in an exam or where you have chosen or created your own question).
A poor introduction might simply restate the question, or a close paraphrase of it. A good introduction might:
- identify the way in which the question has been understood, maybe out of a range of possible approaches. Restate your own interpretation of the title, perhaps as an aim or research question. This is particularly useful in open or implied essay titles (see the resource on How might I interpret an essay title? for more guidance).
- identify any key terms that are open to debate, or define (out of a range of possible meanings) the interpretation that you will pursue (lengthy negotiation between different meanings, if discussed at length, is better in the main body, but you can raise it as an issue).
- offer some literary, historical or critical context which will provide a framework that you will bring to bear on the essay. This could be a quotation from the author on their own work, historical detail, or anecdote that raises an issue relevant to the topic.This kind of detail is not included for its own sake; to be effective, it should always help to frame your approach and bring out the issues and problems inherent in the topic. Avoid sweeping generalisations about the topic, and look for ways of opening the debate up.