There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
— C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.
— Charles Williams, War in Heaven
”Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should [the prophecies] not prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in the world after all!’
”Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.
— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
main points for this unit
The introductory words of your essay have a number of tasks to accomplish. They have to identify clearly the topic and direction of your essay. They need to establish context and set forth the assumptions on which you will base your arguments. They need to define the limitations you will work with, so that your reader expects no more and no less than your essay will actually deliver. They also set the tone of your discussion — establishing whether you are speaking seriously, humorously, from a position of authority, or in a spirit of inquiry. Finally, they must do all of this in some way that convinces the reader to continue reading.
Depending on your audience and the primary purpose of your essay (to provide information? to persuade the reader to a particular point of view? to entertain?), you can use one of several techniques to “hook” the reader. You may start with an anecdote or quotation that exemplifies your idea, or raise a question that you will then answer. If you are writing an argument essay in support of a particular point, you will need to include your thesis statement in some form.
Consider the following opening paragraphs for articles that appeared in various issues of U.S. News and World Report:
There is running and there is running for your life. George W. Bush was prepared to do the former but now finds himself engaged in the latter. He got clobbered by John McCain in the New Hampshire primary, but that was not the worst of it. The worst of it was telling his parents. [“The Fight of His Life”, Roger Simon, Feb. 21, 2000, p. 22]
At 7 p.m. on January 24, the massive electronic brain of the U.S. intelligence system hiccuped, sighed, and then shut down. In a twinkling, billions of dollars’ worth of supercomputers, high-speed modems, and top-secrete electronics fell silent. The central data network of the National Security Agency in leafy Fort Meade, MD., would remain that way for an agonizing three days—an unprecedented event in the history of the nation’s intelligence services. [“The Sound of Silence?”, Warren P. Strobel, Feb. 14, 2000, p. 24].
U.S. News and World Report’s college guide is a fine bit of work, a useful tool for students and parents. But there is one thing it does not attempt to do: explain what is actually being taught on campuses. [“The New Trivial Pursuit”, John Leo, Feb. 20, 2000, p. 20].
Who says PCs can’t jam? With live concerts and downloads of hit songs on the Internet, computers are giving people new ways to hear their favorite music. [“Bring out the stereo in your home computer”, Kenneth Terrell, November 29, 1999, p. 76]
The first two paragraphs come from news stories, where the primary purpose is to describe “what happened” with respect to some issue or event. The last paragraph introduces an editorial, which is the statement of one person’s opinion about a situation. The final example is from a review of ways to capture Internet sources of music. Which use humor to get your attention? Which use extensive imagery? Which use a question to get the reader thinking? Which express a decisive opinion? Which just “set the stage” for the story?
In an exam situation, you do not have the luxury to draft and rewrite your essay. But when you do have that opportunity, you may find it easier to write your thesis statement, then the body of the essay, and then go back and write the full introduction. When you know exactly what details and supporting points you will use, you can tailor your first paragraph to focus your introduction on what you are saying. If you write the introduction first, you may find that the focus of the essay changes in the writing. At that point, the introduction will probably confuse the reader and weaken the effect of your essay.
One of the major temptations for young essay writers is to simply repeat the introduction as the conclusion, using the same terms and phrases with little added information or insight. A conclusion needs to do more than merely restate the introduction. It should summarize the evidence introduced in support of the introductory thesis, evaluate its importance, and point the reader to using his newly acquired information for situations beyond the content of the essay.
Here is the conclusion to Leo’s article, cited above:
It’s still possible to get a real education at most colleges these days, of course. But negotiating one’s way through the minefield of academia in search of one is a treacherous business.
While it reiterates the claim in the introduction that it is difficult to determine what colleges actually teach, it uses different terms. The reader has been warned and must be prepared to face the difficulties detailed in the rest of the article.
As with an introduction, you can use different devices to leave the reader thinking about the points that you have raised. Vivid images can impress the reader and keep your main points in mind long after he has finished reading. A question is the obvious device to force the reader to think about the importance of your ideas. An appropriate quotation can serve as a good summary, and provide a sense of authoritative closure to an argument. A persuasive essay might conclude with a call to action, requesting the reader to act as well as think. Or you can end, as Leo does above, with a warning to the reader that action on a particular issue may be difficult.
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