Online Academic Resources - Writing

Writing Effective Introductions

Here’s an introductory strategy that works for many kinds of writing
and from one discipline or subject to another.

Creating Tension in the Introduction and Offering a “Surprising” Thesis
(adapted from The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing, 3rd edition)

Context and Process: An effective piece of essay writing creates interest right from the start—a forward-moving energy that motivates the reader to continue reading. One way to create this interest is by creating tension in the introduction. How do you create tension? By contrasting two kinds of ideas related to your topic: a common or conventional way of thinking about your topic vs. the “better” way to think about your topic. This “better” way, then, forms the basis for your thesis statement. The effect of using this kind of contrast? Your reader is “hooked” from the start since she or he will want to continue to read on to find out why your way is the better way to understand the topic. Your reader will want to see how you resolve the tension you created between those two contrasting ideas.

Examples: The following examples are taken from the published writing of Dr. Atul Gawande, a medical doctor who also enjoys a career as a writer for publications like The New Yorker and Slate.

From the essay “Sick and Twisted,” The New Yorker, July 23, 2007

The documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has more than a few insufferable traits. He is manipulative, smug, and self-righteous. He has no interest in complexity. And he mocks the weak as well as the powerful. (Recall his derision, in “Roger and Me,” for an impoverished woman in Flint, Michigan, who slaughtered rabbits to make ends meet.) For all that, his movie about the American health-care system, “Sicko,” is a revelation. And what makes this especially odd to say is that the movie brings to light nothing that the media haven’t covered extensively for years.

Question: Where in the paragraph does the writer make the turn from a common way of understanding Moore to a different way? What language does the writer use to make that turn?

From the essay “The Unkindest Cut,” Slate, July 13, 1997

With surprisingly little fanfare, four states recently passed laws calling for castration—either chemical or surgical—of sex offenders. Last month, prompted by two prisoners who actually wanted the treatment, Texas Governor George Bush signed a law letting judges offer castration as an option for perpetrators of sex crimes. Florida, California, and Montana have all enacted more stringent laws to order involuntary chemical or surgical castration of these criminals. The technology for castration has evolved considerably, and there is evidence that, in some circumstances, it can dramatically reduce the likelihood a sex offender will strike again. Nonetheless, there are strong reasons that court-ordered castration is a bad idea.

Question: Where does the writer make the turn? What language does the writer use to make that turn?

The following example is by a student from College Writing 2 who was asked to write an essay on her understanding of the process of revision in writing.

What do you think revising entails? For many years, I assumed and was informed by many teachers that revising is polishing the grammar and fixing awkward sentences, a common belief from students. When I would receive my graded papers from teachers, all I would see were red marks and lines crossing out words and commas, and I kept believing that it was the only way to improve my writing. Currently, after reviewing four authors that examined revising first hand, I have come to believe that revising is all about discovering the meaning within writing. Revising your writing correctly includes knowing how to find a voice or a sense of self within a piece and forming a clear meaning.

Question: Where in the paragraph does the writer make the turn? What language does the writer use to make that turn?

Here are some strategies you can use to surprise your readers:

  1. Give the reader new information or clarify a confusing concept.
  2. Make problematic something that seems unproblematic.
  3. Identify an unexpected effect, implication, or significance of something.
  4. Show underlying differences between two concepts normally thought to be similar or underlying similarities between two concepts normally thought to be different.
  5. Show that a commonly accepted answer to a question isn’t satisfactory that a commonly rejected answer may be satisfactory.
  6. Oppose a commonly accepted viewpoint, support an unpopular viewpoint, or in some other way take an argumentative stance on an issue.
  7. Propose a new solution to a problem.

Question: Which of the strategies from above are used in the examples?

Here are some introduction techniques you can use to serve your strategies:

Once you’ve decided how you’re going to frame the introduction and surprising thesis, based on the strategies above, consider using one of these common introduction techniques. That is, you would use one of these techniques to help you create the “surprising” frame/thesis.

  1. Ask a series of questions.
  2. Cite an appropriate quotation.
  3. Tell a brief story or anecdote.
  4. Describe a scene.
  5. State an interesting or startling fact.
  6. Establish general context or background.

Question: Which of the techniques from above are used in the examples?

Thesis form: Finally, one of the best ways to actually write a thesis statement with tension is to begin the statement with an although or whereas clause: “Although most people believe X, this essay asserts Y.” Or, use this kind of sentence frame in your planning and prewriting to help you achieve focus and surprise in your thesis.

Practicing a Surprising Introduction/Thesis: Practice writing an introduction with a surprising thesis for your essay option.

  1. Choose a strategy from the list on page 2 that applies to your topic.
  2. Do some freewriting or listing toward that strategy to generate some ideas.
  3. Choose an introduction technique from the list on page 2 and use it to open your introduction in the spirit of the strategy.
  4. Write the full introduction, leading to the surprising thesis/thesis statement.