Since the dawn of time, writing teachers have had to deal with introductory paragraphs built around vague overgeneralizations that have little to do with anything in the rest of the essay. I have observed colleagues in coffee shops audibly groan when they read a paper starting with the phrase “throughout humankind.” While many instructors lament students’ attachments to the conventional thinking that states that introductions should start broad, others wave a flag of surrender, instructing students to forgo introductions entirely and just put the thesis in the first sentence. That approach ignores the values of a great introduction, which I can’t cover at this time. (For the record though, it should be noted that putting an instructor in a good mood while grading a paper is a strategy not to be undervalued.)
What I can do here is show how to get relevant introductions from your students. And contrary to what some believe, teaching relevance has little to do with helping students calibrate the breadth of their opening sentence. Students are best served when they are forced to rethink their understanding of introductions, including what their purpose is and when they are best written.
Generally, bad introductions are the product of two bad habits: (1) writing the introduction before knowing what the rest of their paper is about and (2) writing with the goal of introducing a topic rather than an argument.
Most students already know the reasons why writing an introduction first is bad. Introductions written before the rest of the paper at best introduce ideas and concepts that are tangential to the work done in the body paragraphs. At their worst, they produce a list of sweeping statements about art, science, and humanity.
Many students do not seem to be as aware of this second bad habit, introducing the topic of the paper rather than the argument, which I see happening in even professional writing. In introductions that only introduce a topic, we get a collection of facts about whatever is being analyzed, but these facts offer little help to us understand the argument of the essay. For example, an introduction that mentions that F. Scott Fitzgerald originally wanted to use the title Trimalchio in West Egg for his novel The Great Gatsby may intrigue the reader; however, unless the argument of that essay argues that sometimes book editors have more sage wisdom than their authors, it is not a fact that belongs in the introduction. In other words, unless the material in the introduction is used to help the reader understand the argument, cut it.
To break these bad habits and illustrate more effective strategies. I use the following in-class activity.
Activity: Introducing a candidate to a crowd
Goal: Teaching the elements of a relevant introductory paragraph
Time needed: 45-60 minutes
Materials: Notebooks, pens, thinking caps
Goal: Showing why you can’t write before you know your argument
Set up: Assign every student a partner, but instruct them they are not to talk to their partner. (For reasons that will be come clear in a minute, it’s best to break up pairs of friends.) Tell students that they are to write a speech introducing their partner as a candidate for “class commander” (or some other made up title, the sillier the better.) Do not tell them what the duties of this position are. If they ask, tell them to interpret the title in whatever manner they wish. The goal of the speech is not to convince the class to vote for this student. Instead, they should try and prepare the class to hear the candidate speak on why s/he is the best person for the job.
Writing: Give students five or ten minutes to write down the best speech they can. Once everyone is finished with a draft, read a selection of the essays aloud. (If you have a larger class, you might have students get into groups of five or so and read their essays to each other.)
Discussion: Ask students what they found the most successful in the speeches they heard. You’ll likely hear answers that praise a particular speech because it was funny or because it presented a compelling case for the other student. Both of these ideas have merit and should be explored. When addressing the humor, you can note that the best introductions are interesting and get the reader intellectually or emotionally invested in the topic. In addressing the idea that a particular introduction presented a compelling case, you can talk to students about how the introduction prepares the reader to understand who their candidate is.
Next, ask what was most difficult about this task. In this discussion, students will likely note that they found it difficult to write about a person that they don’t know very well and for a position that they know nothing about. This point leads into phase two.
Potential sticking point: A student might complain that the better introductions were making an argument and they were told that the goal was simply to prepare the class to hear the candidate speak. To this objection, you can point out how the best introductions present the themes that an argument will trace and the questions it will answer. While these introductions may seem to present an argument, the difference is that they don’t go into an extended presentation and interpretation of evidence. Putting main ideas in the introduction prepares the reader for a more lengthy consideration of these ideas.
Phase II –
Goal: Finding out relevant information, and using it to revise
Activity: Have a student come to the front of the class to lead the brainstorming of what they think the duties of “class commander” are and what traits they feel will be best in a “commander.” Have the student write the answers on the board. It is likely that there will be disagreement on either the role or the traits needed. Rather than trying to resolve them, leave all of the options open. (If your class objects, point out that the Constitution defines the duties of the President and citizens still argue about what his/her role is and what traits make for the best President.).
After this discussion, pair the students off and have them interview each other. Tell them the interview is a fact finding activity to prepare for rewriting their speech.
Potential sticking point: While the discussion is going on, walk around and listen in on a few conversations. If you hear students just giving vague positive traits, encourage them to ask for anecdotes that they might use to illustrate the candidate’s traits.
Writing: Once it seems like the productive discussion is dying down, have students return to their seats. Give them a limited amount of time to rewrite their speeches. (If you give them too long, you might find students attempting to write essays.)
Phase III –
Goal: Realizing what makes an introduction relevant
Discussion: Have students read their essays aloud to the class or in groups. Ask them again about which essays are most effective and why.
You’ll likely hear that they liked a speech because it made them feel that the candidate was the “best person for the job” or “had all the qualifications asked for.” In responding to this statement, point out that almost all the essays seemed to present candidates with the traits listed on the board. You might also point out that there are contradiction in the list of traits and ask how they knew which points to address.
Give time for the students who wrote the better introductions to speak about the strategies that they used to make their introduction relevant and effective. You might also ask why students focused on some traits or duties of the “class commander” instead of others (and receive the answer that they picked the duties that they felt the audience cared about most.)
Take away points: Write the traits of the best introductions down. You’ll likely hear them say that the best introductions have the following traits:
- Some humor (which you can broaden to include emotional or intellectual engagement with the audience)
- Information pertinent to the audience (i.e. facts that will affect the audiences reception of the argument)
- A hook (which I’d classify as one of the two above statements)
- Anecdotes or other reasons to assume that the later claims are based in reality
- No extraneous information (i.e. everything stated has a clear connection to the argument)
Final sticking points:
You may find that students want to assign a particular person “class commander.” In this case, you may want a ceremonial duty to assign to this person. Or you could have a crown on hand.
Some students may be resistant to this activity because it reminds them of an icebreaker game. If you detect this attitude, you can use it to show students the similarities between it and the experience of reading many student introductions. Students dislike icebreakers because they learn information that has no immediate application and is often forgotten. That is exactly what it is like to read an introduction that contains overgeneralizations or vague statements that don’t relate to the argument.
Many students will have been told that they should write the introduction first and feel that they are unable to do it. Conveniently, the ice breakers concept provides a metaphor for understanding why that is. As instructors know, ice breakers are meant to get a group of strangers comfortable talking to each other and not meant to give an actual introduction to other students. Writers also need time to get comfortable with the act of writing and thinking. That level of engagement does not turn on like a light bulb. Many students have become dependent on the habit of writing their introduction right when they sit down to break up the ice in their mind. However, if students can understand that initial type of writing as breaking the ice and then go back and revise their introduction, they can have it both ways.
Since the dawn of time, students have begun their essays with vague, overgeneralizations having little to do with anything in their essay. These students were taught to start broad and narrow their focus down until they reach their thesis. You’ll occasionally find students who start out with their thesis in the first sentence of his introduction. Usually, these student who has encountered a teacher so frustrated by the funnel method that s/he taught them to just state what they are trying to say. Although the funnel method leads to frustrating opening sentences, it shares only a small percentage of blame for the overall quality of an introduction. It can in fact still produce introductions that capture the reader’s attention and provide necessary information to understand the complexities of the argument.
Getting students to understand how to write a compelling introduction then does not come from providing a new method for them to follow. Instead, it comes from changing students thinking about introductions. Most bad introductions are bad because the writer does one or both of the following. One, s/he begins writing with the introduction and never revises it. Two, s/he imagines that the purpose of the introduction is to tell the reader what his/her topic is.
Writing introductions first and never revising results in poor introductions because the writer has neither fully focused his/her attention nor does s/he know enough about the argument to present the relevant issues to the reader.