Introductions and conclusions play a special role in the academic essay, and they frequently demand much of your attention as a writer. A good introduction should identify your topic, provide essential context, and indicate your particular focus in the essay. It also needs to engage your readers’ interest. A strong conclusion will provide a sense of closure to the essay while again placing your concepts in a somewhat wider context. It will also, in some instances, add a stimulus to further thought. Since no two essays are the same, no single formula will automatically generate an introduction and conclusion for you. But the following guidelines will help you to construct a suitable beginning and end for your essay.
Some general advice about introductions
- Some students cannot begin writing the body of the essay until they feel they have the perfect introduction. Be aware of the dangers of sinking too much time into the introduction. Some of that time can be more usefully channeled into planning and writing.
- You may be the kind of writer who writes an introduction first in order to explore your own thinking on the topic. If so, remember that you may at a later stage need to compress your introduction.
- It can be fine to leave the writing of the introduction for a later stage in the essay-writing process. Some people write their introduction only after they have completed the rest of the essay. Others write the introduction first but rewrite it significantly in light of what they end up saying in the body of their paper.
- The introductions for most papers can be effectively written in one paragraph occupying half to three-quarters of the first page. Your introduction may be longer than that, and it may take more than one paragraph, but be sure you know why. The size of your introduction should bear some relationship to the length and complexity of your paper. A twenty page paper may call for a two-page introduction, but a five-page paper will not.
- Get to the point as soon as possible. Generally, you want to raise your topic in your very first sentences. A common error is to begin too broadly or too far off topic. Avoid sweeping generalizations.
- If your essay has a thesis, your thesis statement will typically appear at the end of your introduction, even though that is not a hard-and-fast rule. You may, for example, follow your thesis with a brief road map to your essay that sketches the basic structure of your argument. The longer the paper, the more useful a road map becomes.
How do I write an interesting, effective introduction?
Consider these strategies for capturing your readers’ attention and for fleshing out your introduction:
- Find a startling statistic that illustrates the seriousness of the problem you will address.
- Quote an expert (but be sure to introduce him or her first).
- Mention a common misperception that your thesis will argue against.
- Give some background information necessary for understanding the essay.
- Use a brief narrative or anecdote that exemplifies your reason for choosing the topic. In an assignment that encourages personal reflection, you may draw on your own experiences; in a research essay, the narrative may illustrate a common real-world scenario.
- In a science paper, explain key scientific concepts and refer to relevant literature. Lead up to your own contribution or intervention.
- In a more technical paper, define a term that is possibly unfamiliar to your audience but is central to understanding the essay.
In fleshing out your introduction, you will want to avoid some common pitfalls:
- Don’t provide dictionary definitions, especially of words your audience already knows.
- Don’t repeat the assignment specifications using the professor’s wording.
- Don’t give details and in-depth explanations that really belong in your body paragraphs. You can usually postpone background material to the body of the essay.
Some general advice about conclusions
- A conclusion is not merely a summary of your points or a re-statement of your thesis. If you wish to summarize—and often you must—do so in fresh language. Remind the reader of how the evidence you’ve presented has contributed to your thesis.
- The conclusion, like much of the rest of the paper, involves critical thinking. Reflect upon the significance of what you’ve written. Try to convey some closing thoughts about the larger implications of your argument.
- Broaden your focus a bit at the end of the essay. A good last sentence leaves your reader with something to think about, a concept in some way illuminated by what you’ve written in the paper.
- For most essays, one well-developed paragraph is sufficient for a conclusion. In some cases, a two-or-three paragraph conclusion may be appropriate. As with introductions, the length of the conclusion should reflect the length of the essay.
How do I write an interesting, effective conclusion?
The following strategies may help you move beyond merely summarizing the key points of your essay:
- If your essay deals with a contemporary problem, warn readers of the possible consequences of not attending to the problem.
- Recommend a specific course of action.
- Use an apt quotation or expert opinion to lend authority to the conclusion you have reached.
- Give a startling statistic, fact, or visual image to drive home the ultimate point of your paper.
- If your discipline encourages personal reflection, illustrate your concluding point with a relevant narrative drawn from your own life experiences.
- Return to an anecdote, example, or quotation that you introduced in your introduction, but add further insight that derives from the body of your essay.
- In a science or social science paper, mention worthwhile avenues for future research on your topic.
How does genre affect my introduction or conclusion?
Most of the advice in this handout pertains to argumentative or exploratory academic essays. Be aware, however, that different genres have their own special expectations about beginnings and endings. Some academic genres may not even require an introduction or conclusion. An annotated bibliography, for example, typically provides neither. A book review may begin with a summary of the book and conclude with an overall assessment of it. A policy briefing usually includes an introduction but may conclude with a series of recommendations. Check your assignment carefully for any directions about what to include in your introduction or conclusion.
In order to construct my personal language history, it seems only fitting to bring up the earliest memory that I can exactly date. I may have retained fragments of earlier times, but I know for sure that I remember my third birthday. I remember crawling on top of my kitchen table toward my birthday cake, surrounded by my parents, siblings, and grandparents. I recall being utterly awestruck as I edged toward that cake, which was beautifully decorated with little candies and slowly rotating on a mechanical platform. I can even picture my grandmother warning me to not eat all the gumdrops my mother used to decorate the cake; I should leave some for everyone else, she said. Unfortunately, what I don’t remember was what I said in reply— or what I said at all that early in my life, for that matter. I distinctly remember understanding language, but I have no recollection of using it myself at age three.
After a few futile attempts to remember my earliest days of speaking, I finally decided that the only way to report that segment of my life was to call my mother and ask her what she remembered. What followed was a twenty-minute session of her rehashing old baby stories of mine that I can’t believe I couldn’t remember right away. As it turns out, although she remembered a lot of specific moments in my childhood, she couldn’t remember for sure what my first word was. Some good the baby book did.
My mother believes that I was able to speak earlier than most children, or at least use more complicated forms of speech earlier. According to her, I could repeat sequences of words at a young age. I would hear one of my parents say a sentence and then repeat it verbatim. The most memorable example of that is when I repeated one of the interjections my mother made while changing my diaper. Apparently, I was also a vocal child. Once when my mother was playing organ during a church service, I got bored and decided it would be fun to yank some extension cords snaking under my feet. I unplugged the organ, and when I heard that the music stopped and the congregation became silent, I cried out “Uh oh” loud enough for the entire church to break into laughter.
Another of my mother’s favorite stories about my early use of language is my habit of creating dialogues with marbles. My mother’s friends would warn her not to let her little toddler play with marbles— I’d probably swallow them and have to go to the hospital. But my mom didn’t listen to them. Instead, she listened to me as I assigned all my marbles rhyming names like Charley, Marley, Farley, and Carley, and had them talk to each other as if they were people. What is most remarkable to my mother is that I grasped the concept of rhyming at an early age, not to mention imagination. This activity carried on later when I first received G.I. Joes, but by that time I had even added shooting and explosion sound effects.
By the time I was in kindergarten, I began dictating adventure stories to my mother, whom I requested to write down my stories. I can still see her in the back seat with me, scribbling the plot and dialogue of my latest thriller onto a napkin during a long road trip. Disney’s movie The Jungle Book must have had an influence on my early language, since I can particularly remember my imaginary heroes hunting for bad guys in a rain forest.
So, what causes a child to excel in language? Was it by chance that I became a natural storyteller at the age when most kids are usually more concerned with learning how to tie their shows and read clocks? Naturally, my mother’s answer to that question is a resounding “No.” She gives a good portion of the credit to herself. She and my father frequently read and re-read books to me. I was a big fan of Go Dog Go and Are You My Mother?, she said. When I became obsessed with action figures, my father read me the character biographies that came as part of the cardboard packaging. I made sure to save all of the G.I. Joes’ back stories so that my parents could read them to me again later.
My mother believes that music played a part in my language development as well. My mother sang while playing piano for my entertainment and would sometimes turn on her old record player and watch me sing, dance, and clap my hands. I don’t know much about the inner workings of children’s minds, but my mother has a Master’s in Education, so I will have to take her words as truth that something about music helps children’s speech develop.
Toward the end of the phone call, my mother also named my father as a chief agent in my language development. Dad, who was a full-time Lutheran minister until I reached Second Grade, sang to me from the then-new blue Lutheran hymnal. I have my doubts, but my mother believes that hymns may have helped me become the Creative Writing major that I am since the complex words may have built my vocabulary. She added that hymns are stories in themselves, albeit short and somewhat repetitious.
Therefore, my mother’s hypothesis is that because I received plentiful auditory stimulation in the form of music and a healthy dose of literature in the form of children’s books and hymns, I may have developed extraordinary language skills. But that is only a guess. After all, it is only a guess that my abilities were anything special in the first place. Although I would like to believe that my mom is right, there is very little solid proof. I can think of no source more biased than my mother. The only truly objective accounts of my past are the few instances of video documentation my parents have somewhere in the living room closet. Even those don’t prove much, other than that I had a pirate-themed party for my sixth birthday and that I used to enjoy jumping in piles of raked leaves.
The most significant memory I have of my early language was after I moved from Chicagoland to an Illinois suburb of St. Louis in the summer of 1994. Once school started, I noticed that people sounded different than people in Chicago. I can remember feeling squeamish when I heard the slight Southern accents some residents of Southern Illinois use. Is “Missouri” really pronounced “Mizzurah,” I wondered? Why is this lady pronouncing the word “fruit” “freoot” instead of “froot?” Why does the word “crayon” sudden sound more like the word for the jeweled adornment a king wears on his head? The funny thing about this is that the Southernness of the Southern Illinois drawl was only relative— my perception on the matter has changed. What once sounded odd to me sounds normal, which probably means that I have adopted a little of that manner of speaking myself. The voice of someone from my hometown of Alton, Illinois may sound like a Southern accent to someone from Chicago, but it could also sound like a Northern accent to someone from Tennessee. A Chicagoan might not be able to tell the difference between someone from Southern Illinois and someone from the South, and someone from Nashville may not be able to differentiate someone from St. Louis with someone from Chicago. I, however, can do so easily.
My early attitudes about language are still present today. As a result of my move to a new area, I have always been interested in regional dialects. In addition, my love of storytelling has come a long way from creating dialogue with marbles and having my mother write my tales of adventure on a napkin from her purse. I am now pursuing a major in Rhetoric with a concentration in Creative Writing, and hope to someday publish novels, short stories, and works of creative nonfiction. Yet my interest in reading the literature of others will have to suffice until I get my big break, so I plan to begin a career in publishing when I am finished with college.