by Maria McCann
Writing tip from Maria McCann, Royal Literary Fund Fellow in the Department of Arts and Cultural Industries
Many students fear writing these. It may ease the stress if you remember this: just because introductions are read first, it doesn’t mean you have to write them first. It’s often easier to write the introduction at a later stage, when you’re familiar with what you’re introducing.
What’s in an introduction?
- Information needed to understand the rest of the essay, e.g. that you have opted to work with diaries from 1950’s Russia, or some explanation of background/context, or why the question is important/controversial.
- Definitions of any terms that need clarification.
- Signposting of the journey ahead. I find it helpful to think of the intro as one of those announcements you hear on trains: ‘This is the 19.41 service to Ipswich, calling at Filton Abbey Wood, Bristol Parkway…’ The rest of your essay has to deliver what is promised in the introduction. If not, your reader will be justifiably annoyed: the Ipswich train somehow ended up in Edinburgh.
- (Sometimes) an indication of your own viewpoint. You may prefer not to state this in the introduction and instead to let it develop throughout the essay, but you yourself should know what it is from the start, or you will wobble about all over the place. Students who struggle with focus and structure sometimes find it helpful to be explicit about viewpoint in the introduction: committing yourself to a line of argument can help keep you on track.
- Information and ideas that look forward towards the conclusion, just as the conclusion will look back at the introduction.
- Ideally, something to interest the reader. If you don’t think this is important in assessed academic writing, picture a tutor marking late at night with a large pile of essays, all on the same topic. Fortunately there’s no need for your work to be weird or quirky: just keep it informed, well-argued and well-written and that weary tutor will be filled with joy. Having said that, one way to kick-start an introduction is to begin with a surprising fact or a resonant quotation – but only if it’s relevant. Don’t be seduced by something flashy that doesn’t make a genuine contribution to your argument.
If you’d like to book a confidential one-to-one session with me to work on your writing skills email me at Maria.McCann@uwe.ac.uk. I’m in 3S201 on Frenchay on Wednesdays and Thursdays.