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When you write an introductory paragraph, you are  generally establishing the CONTEXT of the essay and the primary ARGUMENT/PURPOSE of your essay. You do these things by:
  • Introducing your response to the prompt to the audience of your teacher and peers. You’re creating a way for the reader to enter into your thinking on the page and explaining the way you've chosen to respond to the prompt. 
    • However, do not regurgitation all the information from the prompt or your class discussions in the introduction. If your audience is your professor and your peers, they already know what the prompt is. You show you own understanding of it by responding appropriately, not be excessive summary and generalizing.
  • Hooking the reader, creating interest in the subject of the essay. Teachers are required by their job description to read your essays, but as the writer, it’s in your best interest to hook us, to write an opening that makes us WANT rather than HAVE to read your essay.
    • However, skip the tired cliches. If I have to read another essay that begins with any variation on any of the following themes, I might end up in a 19th century British Asylum. 
      • In today's modern times...
      • In today's fast-paced world...
      • Nowadays...
      • Technology is advancing
      • Growing up for as long as I can remember...
    • Skip the bland restatement of facts or defining common words. Again, audience awareness. Your reader, a college professor, likely already knows the word you want to define. If not, they know how to use the dictionary. (As with every guideline though, there are good reasons to cross them.)  
  • Establishing why this topic is relevant, the why and how it matters. Here you're providing answer to the "so what?" question for your readers.
  • Establishing the main line of thinking/main argument you’ll be developing in the essay—which is done in the thesis statement. (Not every writing assignment has a thesis statement, but essays written for school usually do.)
  • Creating a context and brief background for the topic and thesis. (This context/background sometimes finds its way into paragraph two and/or other parts of the essay depending on your topic, organization, and how much information is needed.)

The introduction establishes the contract between you and your reader--a clearly composed and well-edited introduction establishes your ethos. As a reader, I am much more willing to forgive "errors" and inconsistencies later in the essay than I am early in the essay. Think about it.  Imagine you pick up a magazine in a waiting room and start reading an article. If you are confused in the first paragraph, you'll stop reading, flip the page, put the magazine down. If you're bored in the first paragraph, you'll stop reading. If the first paragraph is riddled with errors and weirdness, you'll stop reading. Your teachers do not have the choice to stop reading, but they do have to grade you, so a strong introduction is key to a successful essay.

Keep in mind, what content goes in the intro paragraph largely depends on the prompt and the genre. Personal or expository essays might begin with a story or illustration whereas a problem-solution essay usually begins with an overview of the problem to set up the solution.

Writing the introduction is hard work. Some writers find it easier to write the introduction AFTER they write the rest of the essay—then they know what context they are introducing. I often write a place-filler intro to get myself started, and then come back and revise the crap out of it later.

Also, there are many patterns for writing an introduction. Do an internet search for “essay introduction strategies” and you’ll come up with dozens, like these.  However, please, for the love of my sanity, do not quote a dictionary definition in your intro (or anywhere else in your essay for that matter).

Example Introductory Paragraphs

Research Essay:  What Should We Be Teaching in Schools 

Teaching Students Their Rights

          Freedom of religion. Right to due process. Right to privacy. These are just a few rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. They are also among the constitutional rights applying to students. Students have been placed into a separate category of people when it comes to legal matters in the United States. As a result, their rights slightly differ from that of adults. They still have the rights listed in the Constitution, but the interpretation may vary because of policies created by public schools. Public schools have rules restricting certain rights to an extent in order to ensure the safety of all students on campus. The rules created have stirred troublesome situations with students in the past, many of which have been taken to court. Therefore, along with the Constitution, various court cases have set a precedent of rights for students specifically. Unfortunately, many students are unaware of these rights and how they can play into their daily lives. It is the job of the schools to teach students of their rights, regardless of personal opinions. When they are in middle or high school, it should be required of schools to teach their students about all of the rights they are promised, constitutionally and otherwise.


Expository Essay:  Connection Between Language and Identity

Learning Language; Learning Culture

There was a hot discussion in my English class. The question was “what is intelligence?” The class had diverse ideas and were sitting in a circle engaged talking to each other. I was amazed by their original ideas. I agreed with many of their thoughts, but I had my own opinions and I wanted to participate in the discussion. In spite of my thoughtful ideas, I missed my chance to talk. Here is what was happening in my brain. I was listening to my peers, translating their English to Korean. I was thinking my thoughts in Korean, organizing my sentences in Korean, and then translating those to English. I have been in America for three years, studying and speaking in English. I study hard and have earned high scores on intelligence tests and my school work. Yet my speaking English still falters. Learning English has been a struggle, and not just a struggle of learning words, but a struggle of learning to join the conversation, and learning to join the culture.


Personal Essay:  Significance of Place

Land of Opportunities

I often complain about living in Woodland, and how it is small, there is nowhere to do anything, and not even an actual mall because that “thing” in the middle of town is definitely nowhere near the definition of a mall. I complain about school, probably the most, about waking up early and the homework; even though I know I should do it on time, but I will never stop being a procrastinator. These things I complain about are really a luxury, a luxury that not everyone gets to have. Opportunities are tied to place, and where you end up  by chance on this planet almost always determines them. In Think, Lisa Bloom states that women in American have “the great good fortune to be born…in a country that expects females to become educated and to contribute.” I had the good fortune of being born in the United States, and as a female Pakistani-American, until recently I really never thought to think I should be grateful for something as simple as where I was born. But I’ve changed my mind.


Definition Essay:  Marriage

Love: the Foundation of Marriage

I am twenty-seven, married, and born into a Mexican-American family. Although I was born in America, I grew up in a culture where family means everything and traditions are  taken seriously. I am a family girl at heart, and as such, marriage and children mean a great deal to me. I have known my husband for almost seven years, and we have been married two. Most people call this the “Honeymoon” phase, but believe me, this marriage has its ups and downs. Luckily for us, we experienced a lot of our hardships during our dating days, so we have figured out how to address our issues in a calm manner. In an excerpt from Marriage, A History, by Stephanie Coontz, she writes, “Whether it is valued or not, love is rarely seen as the main ingredient for marital success.” However, as I understand it, love is one of the main building blocks in a marriage, and love should include respect, trust, and communication to maintain a stable and lasting marriage.


Expository Essay:  Mirror to the Mind


          This assignment has literally been one of the hardest assignments of my life. It awakened something inside I didn’t see coming. At first I thought the purpose of this assignment was directed at making a career choice, discovering our personality types, or determining what might make us happy. Yet after watching the short videos in class, and reading the online articles, and taking personality tests, I soon realized that there was more to this, and assignment whose goal was likely to get us to dig deeper into ourselves and our personalities, and to reflect on where we are today, where we want to be, and how we might get there. Brene Brown’s TEDx speech, “The Power of Vulnerability" opened my eyes to fear and how it affects people; in fact I cried that day after watching that and went home and watched it a few more times. It gave me a sense of where I am today, where I want to be, and where I need some change. The process of gaining self knowledge like this may not be easy or comfortable, but it is essential to living a whole, positive life, and embracing a meaningful future. 


Note:  As a rule, I do not recommend directly mentioning the assignment in the essay; yet, because of the nature of the topic and process for this writer, it works for this example.

Argument Essay:  Literary Analysis

How Do I Love Me?

          All relationships, whether they are rooted in love or merely friendship, need a good foundation upon which to build, and just as a home built on a weak foundation will wash away in the driving rains, the relationships that are built on weak underpinnings will also wash away during the trials of life. A strong individual cornerstone needed by those building a solid relational foundation is a healthy self-esteem, but unfortunately for some people a high regard for one’s self is often taken to an unhealthy extreme because they suffer from a personality disorder which makes it nearly impossible for them to establish and maintain close relationships. Rob Fleming, of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, also has problems developing close bonds and while his strained relationships also include family and friends, it’s the failed relationships of the female persuasion that are his primary focus as he spends an inordinate amount of his time dissecting and attempting to self-diagnose the reasons why those relationships failed.  Unfortunately what Rob is unable to diagnose is that he suffers from a mental health disease called Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) which is the primary cause of his unsuccessful attempts at building strong interpersonal relationships.

Big Boys Do Cry

            In today’s society children are taught from birth that boys and girls have different expectations and roles they are required to play. Girls are the ones who are nurturing caregivers who take care of the home and children, while her husband is the strong supportive one who provides monetarily for his family. This has led to the sexist belief that girls are the ones who cry and are highly emotional, and boys are the strong and stable ones who show no emotion. If a boy does dare to show his emotion he is often ridiculed and called names or made to feel that he is inferior to other men which can lead many men to repress and deny their feelings.  Rob Fleming, the main protagonist, is a perfect example of what happens when emotion is bottled up without release. As with most things in life, emotion will always find a way to come out one way or another. In Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, patriarchy has established societal expectations that have forced Rob to repress his emotions causing him to project his feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and anger onto those around him, diminishing his own feelings of self-worth and the quality of his personal relationships.