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When should I write the introduction?

Whether you write the introduction first or last is, of course, a matter of your own preference. Many people naturally start with the introduction, but it is useful to return to it at the end of the writing process and check to see if it adequately represents what you have done in the rest of the text. If you get stuck on the first sentence with writer's block, then it makes sense to move on to another part of the essay and return to the introduction later. If you use writing as a way to help you think and work out your ideas, then writing the introduction last may help you to tie your ideas together and provide a focus for editing the draft. However, if you write an essay and simply add an introduction that fits it, there is a danger that you may not have engaged closely with the question. Whether you write the introduction first or last, it is good practice to plan your introduction at the very beginning, as it will help you to focus and define your understanding of the question and your approach to it, without which it is hard to go about working through the rest of your ideas whether in planning or writing. The following pages will give you guidance on what to consider in planning your introduction.

Do I have to grab the reader's attention? 

The need to begin a text with an attention-grabbing opening is largely a concern in contexts such as journalism, commercial literature or advertising, where the writer has a short opportunity to persuade the reader to read on, rather than skip the text. Academic writing is more functional, and before even beginning the text, the reader has already identified a need to read the piece, whether it is marking an essay or reading research to inform their own work. It is not essential therefore to begin by grabbing their attention as they will be reading your essay in any case. What you do need to achieve, however, is a positive impression, that will indicate that your essay will be a pleasure to mark, and will stand out from the rest of the essays to be assessed. In terms of the introduction, this is achieved by a combination of stylish writing and clear, easy to read structure. A fresh and creative approach should be apparent throughout your essay, not just the introduction, and 'gimmicky' openings should be avoided. However, there are some things you can do to make your introduction attractive and interesting. You will find more ideas in this section, and also in the resources on academic style, developing your own ideas and interpreting the question.

Should I start with a quotation?

Beginning with a quotation is a common way to start an introduction, but is by no means the only effective method. If you feel that this would enhance your introduction, consider whether you will use a quotation from a primary source or the secondary literature.

Primary source:

  • focus for unpacking the issue
  • roots your approach directly in the text, validating it.

Secondary source:

  • lends authority
  • opens up a debate, in which you can place yourself.
  • someone else's voice dominates
  • may constrain your own approach (might be positive or negative)

Searching for a suitable quotation may become a displacement or distraction from developing your research and argument, however. It can be a very effective strategy for opening your introduction, but it is best to view it as one of a range of strategies rather than a formula.

Should I state my conclusion in the introduction?

There is no definitive answer to this; generic advice may recommend that you 'say what you're going to say' or provide a 'thesis statement' in your introduction, but this may apply to some subjects more than others. As a discipline, English places less value on a rigidly conventional structure for academic writing than other subjects in the Social or Natural Sciences. To state the outcome of your argument at the beginning may detract somewhat from the reader's interest in following your ideas, and the writer's voice is not in a position to make too concrete a statement as you have not yet had the opportunity to convince your reader through following the chain of reasoning and evidence in the main body of the essay. However, to leave the reader with no sense of where your line of argument will go might be confusing and unclear, making your writing hard to follow. A good compromise might be to outline clearly the question or problem that you have identified, to indicate the approach you will pursue, without providing the final answer at this early stage.

How long should the introduction be?

There is no simple answer to this question - as a very rough guide, you could think of the introduction as being 10% of the total length of your essay. More important is to consider whether the introduction contains the elements it needs in order to set the discussion up effectively.