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1.22 Writing introductions

Your introduction is the first impression your readers will have of your writing. A good introduction will show them that you know what you're talking about and that you're going to complete the task in question. It will also make them want to carry on reading and feel well disposed to what is to come. A bad introduction will have the opposite effect and might even prejudice the reader against the rest of the writing, even if it does improve.

The most common mistakes made by students are:

not to include an introduction at all
to include an introduction, but one which is unrecognizable as such
to include too much background/historical information in the introduction
to make the introduction too long

A good introduction will:

show that you are going to answer the question or complete the task
show that you understand the issues and their implications
show how you are going to do this by indicating the structure of your answer and making clear the main areas that     you are going to write about (your plan).
show evidence that you have carried out some research by making a reference to one of your sources
be totally relevant
be concise: 8-9% of the total number of words is usually recommended (eg 120 words in a 1500 word assignment).

You want your tutors to say to themselves "Good! This student has understood the question, has done some research and is going to answer the question set, not another one. Let's read on!"

So more specifically, how do you do this?

include a "topic sentence" which indicates the main thrust of your answer. For example:

This essay deals with the economic and political decline in Britain's world role.

This assignment will examine Britain's peculiar unwritten constitution.

Four major features of the influence of human behaviour on planning are considered in this report.

This report will analyse the relative advantages and disadvantages of the different operating systems.

This essay will first describe the recent changes in the tax system and will then go on to argue that these changes are unfair and impracticable.

use the same, or very similar, wording as in the question. If part of the question is "Discuss recent developments in communication technology" then in your introduction say something like "This essay will consider recent developments in the field of communication technology and will ... ". Don't leave any room for doubt.

use words and expressions which clearly show the plan behind your writing, for example:

The essay is divided into four main sections.

It will first consider ...

It will then go on to describe ...

The third part compares ...

Finally, some conclusions will be drawn as to ...

The importance of introductions (and conclusions) cannot be stressed too much.

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Here are some examples of good (and bad!) introductions.

Example introductions

Imagine you are studying the mass media as part of your course and you have been set the following essay title:

Examine the sociological evidence of stereotypes of social groups in the mass media. What are the causes of stereotyping in the mass media and to what extent do they influence social attitudes?

Word limit: 2000 words

Read the following examples and decide which meet the criteria for a good introduction.

Example 1

As we all know, Britain is a multicultural society. In the 1960s many thousands of immigrants came to the country, mostly setting up home in the major cities. The majority of these immigrants came from the West Indies, India and Pakistan and Hong Kong. Racism has always been a problem, with the various groups of immigrants seen as stereotypes, although over the years there has been increasing integration into British society, particularly by the children of immigrant families. This is reflected in the mass media. Twenty years ago black people were rarely seen on television and very few held jobs in the press. However, nowadays, more and more black people work as journalists and are thus able to look at events from a different perspective.

Your comments: _______________________________________________________________________




Example 2

Stereotypes are everywhere: the reserved British, the disorganised Italians, the shopping-obsessed Japanese. This essay will talk about these stereotypes and ask if they are true. It is going to look at the different types of stereotypes and their representation in the media. The following areas will be covered: television; radio; the press, and the cinema. I will particularly look at television and ask the question "Does television reinforce these stereotypes?"

Your comments: _______________________________________________________________________




Example 3

Stereotypes abound in today's society. People seem to have an innate compulsion to categorise others into various groups and then to apply rigid and limited descriptions to these groups. There are therefore, amongst others, stereotypical nationalities and races; stereotypical sexes and sexual orientations and stereotypical classes. And one place where these stereotypes often thrive is in the mass media, particularly in the tabloid press and popular television, such as in situation comedy. Some, for example Hick (1996), claim that this is a harmless phenomenon, whereas commentators such as Ealham (1998) point to the possible dangers of obsessive stereotyping in the media. This essay will examine what sociological evidence there is for the process of stereotyping in the mass media, and will then go on to analyse the reasons for its occurrence. The final part of the essay will ask how far society's attitudes are in fact shaped by this portrayal of the various kinds of stereotypes.

Your comments: _______________________________________________________________________



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Introduction 1

Your tutor would read an introduction like this with a great sense of foreboding. There's no real problem with the actual English, but the writer shows no indication whatsoever of answering the question. The word 'stereotype' has been picked up on, and narrowly interpreted as meaning racial stereotype. But even then there is no attempt to focus on the actual question, and most of what is said is irrelevant. Probably a fail.

Introduction 2

Too short for a start, and not very well written (inconsistency of tenses: will/going to) No attempt to put the question into some sort of context, to get the reader interested in what's to come. At first, it looks as if stereotypes are being interpreted simply as national stereotypes and also the writer goes off on the wrong tack: the question does not ask for a simple description nor asks about the validity of these stereotypes. The last part of the introduction, however, does indicate that the last part of the question will be addressed. If the writer manages to focus more on the actual question, the essay might just scrape a pass.

Introduction 3

This is a very good introduction. It's about the right length (c8%); gives a little relevant background and context, indicating that the writer has thought about what a stereotype is in its broadest interpretation; makes some initial references to sources; and finally focuses precisely on the question, showing the reader that it has been fully understood and that it will be answered. Note that the wording of the final part of the introduction is very close to that of the question. If the essay follows in the same vein, it should get an excellent mark.

Links to further resources on writing introductions

English for Academic Purposes
University of Essex



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Steve Gould
Last updated: 7 November 2008

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