Effective introductions in persuasive academic essays

Date published by Date updated: September 17, 2015

Like everything else in an argumentative or persuasive essay, the introduction serves the thesis statement—everything in the introduction should help readers move from information they already know to the information you plan to convince them of in the essay. In the course of doing this, the introduction usually addresses three questions: what? why? and how?

What does the essay claim? Why is this claim interesting or important—why is it worth reading about? How will the paper proceed to examine the topic matter? This article briefly elaborates on how you can answer each of these questions.

What

This element of the introduction requires you to identify your topic and is by far the easiest of the three questions for you to answer. Likely, each time that you’ve ever written an introduction, you answer this question, at least partially, without thinking about the question at all.

That said, thinking carefully about how you answer this question is important.

Early in the introduction, it can be helpful to outline the general area of research you’re covering in the essay. A common mistake is to leave the introduction with only this general level of detail, though. Later in the introduction it’s important to pick out the specific issues that you will focus on. A precise thesis statement helps with this.

So, an introduction usually moves from general information on the topic to the specific claim about this topic matter that the paper focuses on. Often, somewhere between the most general introductory information and the statement of the essay’s main claim, the introduction also includes a discussion of relevant background. Key terms can be defined, key theories can be situated, and key historical details can be given. If it’s necessary to understanding the essay’s main claim and it doesn’t take long to explain, you can usually put it in the introduction.

The function of a literature review

As a part of explaining background, long essays (about 20 pages or more) almost always include a literature review. The purpose of the literature review is to place the point the essay makes in relation to other discussions of the topic. While long essays have the space to spend several paragraphs on this, shorter essays do not have this luxury.

The introduction of a shorter essay (about 19 pages or under) should try to cover the function of a literature review, but it does not require the same level of detail. To give a sense of how your point fits with what others are saying, use a general sentence (or a few) about how people tend to understand your topic. This sets you up to explain next what’s unique or important about your claim.

Why

This question is the most important—without a good answer, the value of your entire essay is in question.

At the same time, answering this question is the most difficult aspect of writing an effective introduction. If you are given an assignment sheet that decides your topic for you, the topic’s importance may not be clear to you. Furthermore, it’s often difficult to decide what new insight you have to contribute to the body of literature on your topic.

There are a few things you can try to emphasize to give a sense of why your essay is worth reading. For starters, try to provide brief statements that give answers to some or all of the following questions:

  • What new material or insight are you offering?
  • What important issues does your essay help define or answer?
  • More simply, of what use is the information you offer?

How

There are a couple of ways of indicating how the essay will proceed. Usually, an introduction presents what’s sometimes called a “map” or briefly presents all of the key elements of the paper in the order that these elements are given in the body of the essay.

Mapping

Maps are most often used in essays that wind their way through theoretical material that can be difficult to follow. They are also used in long argumentative essays such as theses and dissertations. They are not always necessary, especially for shorter essays, but can provide useful clarification if the material or structure of the paper is complex.

The map gives readers a way of anticipating what’s to come so that they can follow along more easily. Maps also give readers a way of orienting themselves as they read through the essay—if they forget how the part they are reading relates to the rest of the essay, they can turn back to the map to find out.

The essay map, like a roadmap, gives the directions that the essay will follow before the essay arrives at its destination, the conclusion. As a roadmap does, the map of an essay presents only the route, answering how; it does not focus on why the essay takes the route it does. To lay out the structure of the essay, maps use what’s called “signposting language”: “the first chapter of this thesis discusses…”, “in the second section of the essay, I explain…”, “finally, these theories are applied to…”.

Presenting key elements

Such presentation should happen whether or not a paper uses a map. Unlike in a map, here signposting language is unnecessary. Instead, we show the relationships between the key parts of the essay. We focus on why each element is important to the others, usually presenting the elements in the order they appear in the body of the paper. You should be concerned with telling why all of these elements lead to the conclusion—telling how they support your thesis statement.

In long essays (about 20 pages or more), the key elements presented are often given as statements of what each chapter or section contributes to each other and the main point of the essay. In shorter essays (about 19 pages or under), the key elements presented often mirror the most important topic sentences in the essay.

Template structure

To put all of this advice together, you can review a template for the structure of your introduction.

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Article by Shane Bryson

Shane finished his master’s degree in English literature in 2013 and has been working as a writing tutor and editor since 2009. He began proofreading and editing essays with Scribbr in early summer, 2014.

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