Students often wonder how to write effective introduction paragraphs. Be careful what you ask for because you just might get a blog entry about it. Yes, the instructor expects you to check out these links on your own. By the time you enter a transfer-level college composition class you’re expected to know how to write effective introduction paragraphs, which means that the instructor will likely not spend much class time on it. As previously stated, he also won’t spend much valuable class time on grammar lessons. Please keep in mind that it is not his job to “correct,” “edit,” or “fix” your writing. Among other things, editing for grammar and mechanics issues is the writer’s responsibility. The instructor is a writing coach, not a grammar cop. Practice with effective introduction paragraphs is another writer’s responsibility.
Please feel free to research and look these things up on your own. Make some time in your schedule to research and follow up on weaknesses in your writing. Be an active rather than a passive learner. Don’t expect that all your learning happens in the classroom. A great way to learn editing strategies and how to write introduction paragraphs is to look them up on your own, not by classroom lectures. Then discuss what you learn with friends. Also, improvement requires PRACTICE. So try these things on your own. Taking initiative by addressing weaknesses will benefit you and your writing in the long run.
Find a quiet place and practice writing on your own. Then get some feedback on it.
Here is a good YouTube discussion on the Introduction Paragraph. And here is a pretty good YouTube tutorial on Introduction Paragraphs. Both of these have good examples. Here is an excellent handout on the topic. And here is a handout on developing body paragraphs in your essay. Here is a handout on editing and proofreading (the LAST step in the writing process). And here is a good little video presentation on proofreading. These are really terrific! (The video is about the Trojans! Not the USC Trojans per se, but close enough. Fight on!) Take some time to check these out. They are really helpful.
A good introduction paragraph needs a thesis–here is a helpful thesis generator.
A helpful resource is the COMP book. Look at the sections on Introduction Paragraphs and Openers. Much of the material comes from John Trimble’s Writing With Style.
HELPFUL STEPS ON WRITING AN INTRODUCTION PARAGRAPH:
1) The first step is actually not worrying about the introduction paragraph. Or a definitive thesis. How do you know what you want to say until you come up with ideas first?
2) Don’t waste time trying to come up with a sentence that “grabs the reader’s attention.” This tactic can be a source of tremendous anxiety and writer’s block. Skip it and spend your time on more efficient pursuits… such as the next step… Peter Elbow suggests that at first it’s often a great idea to completely ignore the audience and write for yourself. You’ll have plenty of time later during revision to consider your audience’s needs and try to create “reader-oriented” prose.
3) INVENTION. Spend a fair amount of time doing pre-writing and invention. Start with a 20-30 minutes interval. After you write, then take a 15-20 minutes break. Have a snack or a cup of coffee. Maybe take a brief nap. Or daydream for awhile in silence or while listening to introspective jazz piano music on Pandora (I recommend Bill Evans or Brad Mehldau). Then repeat: return to invention. Try another invention strategy, if you want. Write down all your ideas and feelings. All of them. Don’t censor your thoughts. No one is judging you. No one will tell you that your writing isn’t good enough. No one will tell you that what you’re writing is stupid.
Remember: invention is messy. This step is like an artist’s or writer’s notebook. Very messy. Tentative. Lots of sketches. This is your time and space to try things out without judgment or self-censorship. Don’t listen to the critical “inner voice.” Forget that character. Don’t listen. Forge ahead. Dig deep. Listen to the voice inside you that wants to be free. That’s your authentic voice trying to break out.
Freewrite. Brainstorm. Cluster. Draw pictures. Tell a story. Ask yourself journalistic questions (Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?). Try making a Fact / Ideas List. See my previous blog entry on invention (it’s in the blog post on the difference between editing and revision). A great discussion of invention is in our COMP book. Look it up in the table of contents.
4) Remember, the writing process is recursive or circular–you can always come back to this step–even while your planning, drafting, or revising your paper. It’s not a mistake to return to the beginning of the writing process to get more ideas and specific details on what you’re writing about. How do you stuff body paragraphs with ample evidence, description, and detail? INVENTION, INVENTION, INVENTION. It’s the most important step in the writing process. Unfortunately, some people dismiss it or don’t take it seriously. Others don’t practice enough or give it a chance. It is NOT a mindless, boring writing exercise. It is crucial for your paper to be successful–that is, you need interesting ideas to stimulate YOU and the READER alike. You control your writing. You unleash your mind. You free up your ideas stuck in your head and in your heart. Write down everything–even if it seems lame or insignificant. No one will see it but you.
5) After spending a fair amount of time on invention–after you feel confident and sure that you have plenty of fecund, fat, and juicy ideas–lots of specific details and feelings–then make a points-to-make list.
6) A points-t0-make list is potential paragraph points. These are points that you might make in your paper. Make a laundry list of potential points.
7) Then try writing a tentative or working thesis statement. Typically, you will promote one of your ideas from the points-to-make list. You will take one of those points and convert or build it up into a thesis. But keep in mind, your tentative thesis is not like Moses’s Ten Commandments. It’s not written in stone. You can change it at any point. You need a thesis of some sort in order to plan your paper.
8) So you see… you don’t need to worry about writing an introduction and a thesis statement first. Don’t worry about the hook or grabbing the reader’s attention right away. All you need to begin planning your paper is a bunch of interesting ideas that you generate from invention and a working thesis. And don’t worry about invention–in many cases, you don’t really know what you want to write or know what you’re thinking until you sit down and begin writing. So you just have to haul off and give it a try. Free your mind. Turn off your inner critic. Forget the bad experiences you may have had with writing. Release. Just like the Pearl Jam song. Evenflow!! OK, Nevermind. Hehe… Pearl Jam and Nirvana references in one sentence, not bad. Spoonman!! Couldn’t resist a third grunge reference.
9) Then you can begin drafting and/or use a rough plan. Some people like to begin drafting after invention and arranging ideas. Other folks like to outline first. Whatever you prefer, know that you can go back and forth. Draft, Plan, Invention again. Or: Plan, Draft, Invention again. Or: Invention again, Plan, Draft. Or: Invention again, Draft, Plan. Reverse outlining can be really helpful. And/or reorganize your draft. Make many drafts. Check your draft against a plan or outline. This will help a lot with logical coherence and paragraph unity. After drafting, then revise and rewrite. You may need several drafts, not merely one. Allow plenty of time (weeks & days, not hours) to draft your essay. Veteran writers always take time to draft, revise, and rewrite–over and again. Keep in mind that veteran writers also begin with invention; they don’t skip it and begin drafting first. That makes writing a LOT more difficult and stirs up unnecessary anxiety. It’s always a good idea to spend plenty of time on invention. Then feel free to return to it at any stage in the writing process–even when you think you’re nearly finished. Having plenty of ideas to work with, you’ll feel a lot more confident with your writing.
10) After you plan your draft, and perhaps even after you’ve drafted the essay, then write the introduction.
11) Make sure your topic sentences relate to or support the thesis. Make sure that you have paragraph transitions. You can check on these things during revision.
Here’s a template:
1) Don’t start general. No openers that begin with “Since the beginning of time.” If you mention “mankind,” “In society these days,” or “In today’s world,” then start over. No lists: “I will discuss A, B, and C.” Your thesis must be arguable, not a laundry list of items. A list looks like you’re about to set up a five-paragraph essay, and we don’t want the limitations of the five-paragraph essay. You don’t always need to start with a question, quote, or anecdote. In fact, asking the reader a rhetorical question, or pretending to ask, can be kind of annoying or off-putting. Sometimes questions work. Most importantly, start specific and narrow down your thought process. Lead into and build up to your thesis. Sometimes it’s better to proceed backwards from your thesis statement.
2) What are you writing about? State the topic
3) Who are you writing about? Are you writing about a text? Author? Title?
Consider your rhetorical purpose…
4) What’s the problem or issue? What complexity, ambiguity, paradox, question, concern, debate, fallacy, or argument are you addressing? Pro or con? What shall you try to resolve or clarify? What line of inquiry are you pursuing in the paper?
5) Your thesis [state your position and rationale: what you think and why you think that way]
6) Comment on your thesis. Basically, try to briefly explain why your position is valid, interesting, new, necessary, or valuable for the ongoing conversation or debate? What do you bring to the conversation? Why does your position matter? In other words, the reader will want his or her “So What” question answered before moving on into the paper…
In general, the introduction paragraph is 6-8 sentences or so. Any shorter and you’ll come across like you don’t know what you’re saying. Any longer and you’ll come across like you haven’t figured out exactly what you want to say because you want to say everything on your mind and cannot focus or narrow your thinking within a reasonable scope.
SAMPLE THESIS STATEMENTS (I took this material from the Internet):
- This is a picture of a sad woman that makes you feel depressed. [This is a WEAK thesis statement. It is very basic, blunt, and limited. The description of the picture is also rather vague.
- In this photograph, a woman slumps, a hand held to her worried face, her three children pressed against her. The two older children flank her, their heads resting on her shoulders, but turned away from the camera, as if they were hiding out of shame. The mother, however, stares out into the distance, as if she is hardly aware of the photographer’s presence, or is simply too far gone to care. [This is also a WEAK thesis statement, but for different reasons. It is describing facts and not making an arguable statement]
- In a photograph called “Migrant Mother,” a woman surrounded by three children stares out into space. Looking at this picture, you get a sense of hopelessness. [This is a “satisfactory” thesis statement. It is fairly formulaic and lacks the eloquence and flare of a “strong” thesis.”]
- Although this woman is nameless, and her story lost in the sands of time, there is such a strong aura of sorrow about her that, looking at this photograph, it is difficult not to feel a very personal sense of loss, as if her grief were somehow your own. [This is an “strong” thesis statement. It demonstrates good command of language. The writing is fluent and expressive, and if it weren’t for the awkward cliché (“lost in the sands of time,”) it would be great.]
- Think of the worst day you ever had, multiply it by a hundred, and that is how you will feel when you look at the photograph, “Migrant Mother.” [This is a “WEAK” thesis statement. It is far too casual in its language, and is very bare bones in its mention of the picture. The writer seems very uninterested and careless; the thesis is fairly uninteresting.]
- A woman is surrounded by three children. She looks out and to the left, as if looking at something we cannot see. The baby in her lap looks to be asleep. The background seems to be a tent of some sort, perhaps held up by the wooden post in the right of the foreground. [This is a “very weak” thesis statement. All description, not arguable]
- From the mother’s defeated posture to the corpselike visage of the infant in her arms, everything in this photograph reeks of despair, the kind of bone-deep despair that makes a modern reader want to avert his eyes, but which was all too common during the days of the Great Depression. [This is an “very strong” thesis statement. It is written in a sophisticated manner with some real stylistic flare.]
- The title of this photograph, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California,” is bleak enough, but it does not convey anything like the true effect of the image. To look at this picture is to feel drained and despondent. One might even find oneself slumping in one’s chair, mirroring the deflated posture of this woman, crushed beneath the weight of her misery. [This is an “strong” thesis statement, but not as good as the previous thesis statement (#7). Although it is slightly melodramatic, it is written in a sophisticated manner with some nice turns of phrase. It could probably be condensed some more, and certainly you wouldn’t want to write anything longer than this for your thesis.]
FOUR WEAK OPENERS–NEED REVISING & EDITING (Only the first few sentences, not the entire introduction paragraph–exactly as written in the paper):
1) “Throughout time friendships and encounters with others have evolved in drastic ways. People across the world now have the opportunity to communicate with a complete stranger if they would like to in a different geographic area, something that twenty years ago would not have been probable.”
—Comment: Syntax errors. Punctuation errors. Begins general and vague. Avoid “throughout time” openers. Don’t need the historical sweep. “Encounters”? What encounters? Sounds covert and naughty. “Evolved” sounds Darwinian. “Drastic? How can anything involving making friends be called drastic? “People across the world”? Where exactly? Feels directionless. And believe it or not, 20 years ago people were talking with one another with all sorts of technology. In 1993, it was called the telephone. The Internet was around. Bill Gates was alive. People walked upright and had electricity. Complete strangers from all over the globe talked with each other all the time. “Probable” or “possible”? Both were true back in the dark ages of 1993, both probable and possible to talk to people around the world. Weak: lacks direction and focus.
2) “It is irregular for a complete stranger to become friends with another complete stranger out of the blue. The fact of not knowing a single thing from the other person immediately cautions one from even making an attempt to form doing the unthinkable and forming a friendship”
–Comment: Syntax and spelling /typo errors. Unnatural “academic” voice: “It is irregular…” Who talks like this? Repeat words: “stranger.” “Out of the blue” is a cliche. Too general. The second sentence is confusing to me. The reader is liable to stop reading when he or she is confused or the writing is not clear.
3) “In the present time of life, expanding you social group can be very beneficial for a variety of reasons. In some cases however, meeting people doesn’t always turn out to be positive. Some stranger that one meets can turn out to be creeps or just another person who is going to leach off of you.”
–Comment: Syntax errors. Punctuation errors. Spelling. Unnatural voice: “In the present time of life.” Who says the “present time of life”? Very general: “Variety of reasons,” “Some cases.” What reasons? What cases? When? Where? How? Repeat words: “Turn out.” It’s not really clear where this writer is heading or what topic he or she is writing about.
4) “It seems that in today’s world there is so much competition, the competition to sell oneself and be this person that everyone wants to know. I on the other hand do not like to sell myself or make myself seem more appealing. I offer what I have nothing more nothing less. I am a dreamer, but aren’t we all, I might be a small fish in a big pond, and although people have many options when it comes to making friends, a complete stranger should “friend” me because I am a good best friend, adventurous, and enjoy being enlightened.”
–Comment: Syntax errors. Punctuation errors. “Seems” is a weasel word– it’s empty and lacks substance or backbone. Unnatural voice: “In today’s world.” Too general: “Many options.” Repeats word: “competition.” All of us have to “sell ourselves” at some point whether we like it or not–job interviews, applications, financial aid, first dates, applying for loans, being a good employee, etc. Move on and get to the point. Cliche: “small fish in a big pond.” The thesis is on the right track, but with a list the reader expects a five-paragraph essay.
FOUR STRONGER OPENERS–NEED REVISING AND EDITING (Exactly as written in the paper):
1) “There are seven billion people in the world, what is it that leads individuals to having the friends that they have in their lives today? Most individuals want a friend who has similar likes, values, and morals. So why should someone take the time to seek me out as a friend?”
–Comment: This begins with fairly commonplace and obvious language: “There are seven billion….” You never need to begin a sentence with the words ‘There are.’ These are what we call “empty words.” You’ll see it a lot (especially in novice writing) and it’s never necessary to begin sentences that way. Waste of time and energy. Those two words can be cut without effecting the meaning of the sentence (Think Occam’s Razor–haven’t heard of it? Try Google). The second sentence after the question is also an obvious commonplace. And it’s super vague and general. If something is obvious to everyone, it’s likely a great idea to skip it and move on. Commonplace sentences need to be cut. This is why invention is so incredibly important in the writing process, because it helps you avoid commonplaces and have something substantial to say. I’m not a fan of hard and fast rules, but here is one: If you’re in doubt, then cut it and start over. The only things that really work in the above opener is that I’m actually interested this time in the questions posed. But I may not be interested in questions next time.
2) “Social networking has doubtlessly brought many people closer together, but in doing so it has also brought much ambiguity to the term friendship. What does it mean to ‘friend’ someone? And why should someone decide to ‘friend’ a complete stranger? The true meaning of friendship has not been lost on me however. Real friendships are formed organically and often have long lasting impacts on your life. Your own opinions and outlook can be greatly shaped by the conversations and memorable moments you share with your friends.”
–Comment: Syntax and punctuation errors. I’m not sure ‘doubtlessly’ is a word. My spell checker doesn’t catch it, but the writer needs to look it up. This also begins with an obvious commonplace. Again, if something is obvious to everyone, then you should likely skip or cut it. The voice sounds a little artificial and academic: “but in doing so it has also brought much ambiguity.” Just say it’s ambiguous. Get to the point. Less wordy and less academic sounding. Use your own natural speaking voice. The first questions sends the reader in the wrong direction. The paper topic is not about defining the term ‘friending.’ With this question, the reader expects that she’ll read a paper on what ‘friending’ means. “Real friendships are formed organically” also sounds artificial and blah to me. Why not “organic” rather than “formed organically”? What in this world (if not all carbon-based lifeforms) “forms organically”? But “organic” is fairly vague and is an ambiguous word. Cut it. “Long lasting impacts” also needs to be reworded or cut. The last sentence here is an obvious commonplace. Skip it. But this opener works a bit because of the tone and the second question. Otherwise it needs to be revised–rethought. This is an approach you take during revision: rethink and read aloud each sentence. Does it make sense? Is it necessary? To who? Is it obvious? Does the sentence relate to the next sentence? Does it fit in the paragraph? Does it serve my purpose or make clear a point?
3) Have you ever noticed how every friend that came into your life, started out as a stranger? Despite parent’s warning on how to never talk to them, getting to know one is not as bad as it seems and eventually happens on a daily basis anyways. The thought of a stranger wanting to friend you may shake you up, but it is rather a blessing because then you have the chance to be either yourself or even role play and imagine yourself as someone very desirable like a model, a superhero, a celebrity, or someone much more attractive. Although, there is a massive number of strangers to choose from, making me feel like a little fish in a big pond, you should choose to friend me so that we can discuss our thoughts on physical activity, religion and a common must have love for animals.”
–Comment: Syntax and punctuation errors. A bit general. Please be careful with apostrophes–look them up! The first question is fairly interesting (needs editing). This is more conversational. Lots of obvious commonplaces here: “eventually happens on a daily basis.” I like being shaken up, so I like the words “shake up,” but unfortunately I’m not very shaken up by the sentence as a whole. It doesn’t in fact shake me up. But I want it to. Why would I want to play a role? I already think I am a superhero so I don’t need to play a role. Is this writer suggesting that we need to fake who we are to make friends? It’s like a character in a movie going to a party in Hollywood and introducing himself as a producer when in fact he’s a waiter. Don’t need a comma after “although.” Cliche: “small fish in a big pond.” Please! This kind of statement is dull and it shows a lack of insight or ideas. Avoid cliches. If you’re in doubt, ask someone what she thinks or cut it. The last sentence is a list. We don’t need lists. The reader will expect a five-paragraph essay: “I will talk about A, B, C in Paragraph A, Paragraph B, and Paragraph C.” I like the tone and the conversational voice. This opener doesn’t come across as “academic” or artificial.
4) “What does it take to be a good friend? I’ve always wondered what it was that qualified you as one. Is it your personality or looks or what? A lot of people have their own explanations as to what makes a good friend. But before you can become on you have to get to know the person you’re trying to become friends with. Start with small talk and everything. Although people have many options when it comes to making friends, a complete stranger should friend me because I know where I come from and it influences me on where I want to go and who I want to be after college.”
–Comment: Syntax and punctuation errors. Careful with typos. This writer begins by sending the reader in a direction other than convincing her to be friends. Always focus on the topic. The reader could easily think that the essay will be about what friendship means or what it means to be a good friend. What are the qualities or characteristics of being a good friend? That sounds like what the writer is saying. The topic is about convincing a stranger to friend you. Thus, the writer needs to adopt the rhetorical stance of “persuasion.” You must focus on convincing evidence and details. Consider your rhetorical purpose. Are you supposed to explain, describe, compare, give examples, show a process, or persuade? In this assignment, you’re asked to persuade the reader. In the fourth sentence, the writer adopts an advice columnist voice with a very vague and general imperative: “Start with small talk and everything.” What is ‘everything’? The ‘although’ clause in the thesis is a bit too obvious. Of course we have options. The position here isn’t really arguable. Everyone knows where she comes from. This is general and vague–the phrase isn’t specific or convincing about how a stranger should friend him or her. But I like the conversational tone. It’s natural and not at all academic or artificial. The advice columnist phrase is a little artificial and a commonplace, but that’s an easy fix when you revise the paper.
WHAT’S THE TAKE AWAY?? THE IMPORTANCE OF REVISION:
- I’m not trying to criticize everything that you write or show you how wrong your writing is. I’m trying to help you with questions to ask yourself and questions to ask of your sentences during the revision process.
- Think about the topic of your paper.
- Think about your rhetorical purpose–what are you supposed to do? Explain, critique, describe, tell a story, or persuade?
- Avoid unnecessary words and cliches. If something is obvious or commonplace, then consider skipping it.
- Invention is a crucial step for coming up with many interesting ideas.
- You needn’t initially worry about coming up with an introduction paragraph or trying to grab the reader’s attention.
- Try to write with your own voice–you don’t need to sound “academic” or adopt an inauthentic role.
- As always, try to eliminate “Engfish.” (See the “Engfish” blog post). Breathe life and energy into your sentences. Active verbs. Be confident by using your own words. Take risks and experiment with language.