The introductory paragraph of an academic essay usually has three parts: introduction techniques, the bridge, and the thesis statement.
Introduction techniques are common methods for making an interesting introduction which sets the right theme and tone for the essay. They include anecdotes, interesting facts, quotations, disagreements, or questions. There are other techniques, but these are the most common ones we will concentrate on in class.
An important point about introduction techniques: you can (and often should) use more than one. You can, for example, start with a question, move on to a quote, and then disagree with someone. Or you can tell an anecdote and then ask questions about the issues it raises.
There are five basic introduction techniques which I recommend:
- An Anecdote is an interesting short story. It's a very effective way to start an essay. It helps to connect the thesis to real life, and it makes the topic feel more real and personal. It can also be more entertaining than other techniques.
- Interesting or Surprising Facts which are related to your thesis are another way to catch the interest of the readers. This technique has the advantage of catching the reader's interest quickly; all the reader has to do is read the first one or two sentences, and they will be hooked.
- Quotations also can catch a reader's interest quickly. It can also be a good brainstorming technique: if you are looking for a good idea to write about, try reading famous quotations from people like Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, or other historical figures and writers. However, quotations do not have to be by famous people—they can be quotations of people you know personally. The most important point with using quotes is that (1) they must be interesting, (2) they must help demonstrate the thesis, and (3) they must be meaningful (your father saying "Let's eat!" every night is not a meaningful quote).
- Disagree with Someone: One way to introduce your point is to first tell of an opposite or different viewpoint, then disagree with it. This presents your idea in the context of a larger argument, and lets the reader know the alternative which you disagree with.
- Asking a Question can also work, but as with quotations, this has to be meaningful. You can't just ask something meaningless, like, "Do you know about [essay topic]?" Instead, the question must have a purpose and a clear effect on the reader.
Here are some examples of introduction techniques. First, an Anecdote:
I have always loved animals, and as a child could not imagine how people could mistreat them. One day, however, my mother returned home with a small cardboard box. "I found something on the way home," she told me, and then opened the top to reveal a small orange kitten. The poor creature was dirty and so thin you could see her bones. She trembled as if she were cold and looked up with sad, frightened eyes which I will never forget. How could anyone do such a thing to a defenseless animal?
An Interesting or Surprising Fact:
At the end of World War II, Japan fell victim to two atomic bomb attacks, and has been strongly anti-nuclear since then. However, most people do not know that Japan was trying to make atomic bombs itself during the war, but did not succeed....
Albert Einstein once said that "Religion without science is blind, and science without religion is lame." Although many people think that religion and science cannot work together, many people believe that they are two sides of the same coin...
An example of Disagreeing with Someone:
My uncle, a WWII veteran, always told me that nothing good ever comes from war. It is a terrible tragedy, and of course should be avoided at all costs, but the truth is that war has its benefits.
And, a Question:
Have you ever murdered a person? What does it take to do such a thing? We think of murderers as inhuman monsters, but most people who kill others are rather ordinary people.
You will need to connect your introduction techniques to the thesis statement. First, read the following introduction, which does not have a bridge:
On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin, a 27 year-old Chinese-American went to a Detroit bar with three friends to celebrate his upcoming wedding. There, two white auto workers started an argument with him, assuming he was Japanese and blaming him for losing their jobs at an automobile factory. Outside, the two men chased Chin and attacked him with a baseball bat. Four days later, Vincent Chin died. Making scapegoats just makes a bad situation worse.
Can you see how the writing suddenly jumps at the end, when you get to the thesis? That is a good example of bad coherence; the flow of the introduction is broken at that point.
Now, the same introduction—this time, with a bridge (in bold letters) between an anecdote and the thesis:
On June 19, 1982, Vincent Chin, a 27 year-old Chinese-American went to a Detroit bar with three friends to celebrate his upcoming wedding. There, two white auto workers started an argument with him, assuming he was Japanese and blaming him for losing their jobs at an automobile factory. Outside, the two men chased Chin and attacked him with a baseball bat. Four days later, Vincent Chin died. Although murders like this are fortunately rare, cases in which people are wronged or attacked because of their race are all too common. In Vincent Chin's case, it was ironic because he was not even the same race that his attackers thought. When times are difficult, people have a tendency to create scapegoats. We choose a person or a group, blame them for bad things that have happened and then we usually “punish” them. However, no problems are solved this way; making scapegoats just makes a bad situation worse.
Notice that the bridge begins by commenting on Chin's story, then describes Chin's story in a more general sense, then moves to the general principle that scapegoating is wrong. This allows a smoother connection between the anecdote and the thesis statement.
Here is another example of an introduction with a bridge, this time after an interesting fact:
There is a word in German—"wanderjahr"—which literally means "year of wandering." It means the voyage a person takes with the only purpose being to learn and discover. Usually taken just after college, one travels around the world without any definite plan about where to go next. Such travelers often have little money, and so they hitchhike, stay with anyone who will take them in, and work at whatever small, temporary jobs they can get to support themselves. You might think these people are irresponsible or reckless, but in fact, I believe they are taking the best possible course. After all, classrooms at home can only teach you facts; traveling the world teaches you much more, lessons which are impossible to learn in any school. Young people can benefit greatly from world travel: it gives them a sense of independence, and allows them to learn new languages and points of view.
Notice that in the above example, the bridge itself contains an introduction technique: disagreeing with someone. You could also add another interesting fact, such as how Steve Jobs had a wanderjahr in Asia after dropping out of college, and this helped him become the person he became.
The Thesis Statement
Your thesis statement must be very clearly presented; this is the most important sentence in your essay, after all! Here are some dos and don'ts about the thesis statement:
- Make a point.
- Have only one point. "My friend is honest" is good; "My friend is honest and athletic" is bad.
- Make your thesis statement fit the assignment. If the assignment asks you to write about a personality characteristic about a person you know, do not use a thesis statement such as, "My brother likes cars."
- Be clear and concise. An acceptable thesis statement might be, "My sister is endlessly creative"; a bad thesis statement might be, "My sister is talented for many reasons that I know about." Later on, you may write more descriptive thesis statements; for now, try to focus on being clear.
- Use a thesis statement which summarizes your body paragraphs, and is neither too narrow (specific) nor too broad (general). An acceptable thesis statement could be, "Women and men communicate differently in three key ways"; bad thesis statements are, "Men and women are different" (too broad), or "Women face each other when communicating, while men do not make eye contact" (too narrow).
- "Announce" your thesis statement; do not use expressions such as, "I will tell you about..." or, "In this essay, I will explain...."
- Make a thesis statement which is obvious or which everyone knows and agrees with
Note that it is not necessary to list the topic sentence points in the thesis statement. There are also different ways to introduce the topic sentence points. For example:
- Traffic in Tokyo is dangerous. (no topic sentence points)
- Trucks, taxis, and scooters make driving in Tokyo dangerous. (topic sentence points presented in the subject)
- Huge trucks, unpredictable taxis, and darting scooters make driving in Tokyo dangerous. (topic sentence points presented in the subject with descriptive words telling why they are dangerous)
- Driving in Tokyo is dangerous due to incautious, lumbering trucks, unpredictable taxis making sudden moves, and small scooters zipping between vehicles at high speed. (More descriptive, giving topic sentence ideas in prepositional phrase objects)
The last example looks more interesting, but will cause trouble when you try to write your topic sentences without repeating the exact same wording!