Writing Effective Journal Essay Introductions

A lot is riding on them, but they can be difficult to compose. James Phelan and Faye Halpern offer some helpful strategies for getting them right.

May 16, 2018
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Ranjltsinh Rathod

Authors and editors in the humanities know that journals are more likely to accept scholarly essays with strong introductions and that such essays are more likely to influence academic conversations. Yet from our experiences as journal editors and authors, we also know that writers often struggle with introductions.

That’s understandably so: not only is a lot riding on an essay’s introduction, but it also needs to accomplish multiple rhetorical tasks efficiently. And while everyone knows the general purpose of the introduction -- to state the essay's thesis -- many people have trouble determining how best to get to that statement. In this article, our thesis is threefold. First, there are many effective strategies for building up to that statement. Second, underlying these strategies is a smaller set of common purposes. And finally, working with an awareness of both the first and second principles is a sound way to write strong introductions.

Strategies and Purposes

Here is an illustrative list of strategies, neither comprehensive nor mutually exclusive.

The Problem-Solution Strategy. You start by identifying a problem and unpacking its key dimensions and then propose your solution in the thesis statement or statements. (You no doubt recognize that we have just used this strategy.) For another example, see Catherine Gallagher, “The Rise of Fictionality.”

The Question-Answer Strategy. You interweave descriptions of noteworthy phenomena and questions that they raise; you then propose answers in your thesis statement or statements. Some examples include Peter J. Rabinowitz’s “Truth in Fiction: A Re-Examination of Audiences” and Sarah Iles Johnston’s "The Greek Mythic Storyworld."

The Revision of Received Wisdom Strategy. You begin by respectfully setting out a plausible and generally accepted view about the essay's central issue; you then point out flaws in this view and formulate an alternative view in your thesis statement or statements. Examples are Gerald Graff’s “Why How We Read Trumps What We Read” and John Hardwig’s “The Role of Trust in Knowledge.”

The Bold Pronouncement Strategy. You announce an especially arresting thesis in your opening sentence or sentences. You then proceed to provide the relevant context for that thesis. For examples, see Brian McHale, “Beginning to Think About Narrative in Poetry” and Susan Wolf, “Moral Saints.”

The Storytelling Strategy. You use an anecdote that illustrates salient aspects of the essay's central issue and then link the anecdote to your thesis about that issue. This strategy is often combined with one of the others, especially No. 1 and No. 2. Examples are Miriam Schoenfield’s “Permission to Believe: Why Permissivism Is True and What It Tells Us About Irrelevant Influences on Belief” and Jane Tompkins’s “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History.”

These strategies are ultimately means to accomplish three interrelated rhetorical purposes of strong introductions. All three are concerned with your readers, but the second also pays attention to your dialogic partners: the other scholars whose work you engage. Those three purposes are to:

  • Immediately garner your audience’s interest. You and your readers know that problems beg for solutions, questions for answers. Revising received wisdom promises your audience something fresh and even perhaps contrarian. Making bold pronouncements invites your audience to see whether you can back them up. Telling stories asks your audience to engage in their instabilities and complications and to look for their resolution in your thesis and its supporting arguments.
  • Situate yourself in the relevant scholarly conversations. Introductions aren’t the place for extensive reviews of previous scholarship, but they are the place for combining attention to issues raised by earlier commentators with giving your writing an argumentative edge. Questions, problems, revisions, pronouncements and storytelling in the service of argument -- all these rhetorical acts arise from the intersection between your distinctive take on your object of study and the takes of previous commentators. Consequently, regardless of your particular strategies, your introduction should orient your audience to the general intervention your essay wants to make in the scholarly conversation. Are you intervening by saying “yes and,” “yes but,” “no” or some combination of those responses?
  • Help provide what Gordon Harvey calls a “motive,” which underlies and drives your argument. To put it another way, the strategies push you toward answering the “So what?” question. A strong introduction will signal to your readers that you’re aware of what’s at stake in your argument and why it matters. Although you can work with problems, questions, revisions, pronouncements and storytelling without addressing the “So what?” question, you are more likely to address it, at least implicitly, by pursuing the first two purposes. By pursuing all three, you are more likely not only to have your essay accepted but also to have it make a difference in your field.

Applying the Strategies

In practical terms, the main challenge of writing effective introductions is finding the sweet spot in which you properly balance your presentation of others’ work with your own ideas. We have two main suggestions for hitting that spot. The first involves a general approach to the challenge, and the second builds on it with more specific advice.

First, think of your introduction as needing both “a hook and an I,” a precept that becomes clearer when you think of introductions that have only one of those components. The “all hook and no I” introduction has paragraph upon paragraph (or even page upon page) describing how other scholars have viewed the issue the article addresses with little indication of how the author’s thesis fits into this conversation. Conversely, “the no hook and all I” introduction immediately launches into the author’s argument without establishing the current scholarly conversation that makes it meaningful.

This advice about avoiding the no hook and all I introduction may initially seem to run counter to the bold-pronouncement strategy we outlined above, but a closer look reveals that it is a distinctive variation, a “first I and then hook” progression. The strategy involves moving from your arresting assertion to the context that sharpens its stakes. At the same time, this possible objection helps clarify the situations in which it makes sense to employ the bold-pronouncement strategy: those in which readers of the journal will immediately recognize the striking quality of the thesis, the ways it seeks to take the scholarly conversation in a substantially new direction.

Why might authors go for just the hook or just the I? You might opt for the all-hook intro because you want to demonstrate up front your mastery of a body of relevant scholarship. A noble rationale, but one that often has the unfortunate effect of suggesting to readers that you are so immersed in that scholarship that you haven’t figured out your own point of view.

You might opt for the all-I intro because you want to give your readers credit for knowing a lot about the relevant scholarly conversation rather than rehearsing points you believe they are already familiar with. Another honorable justification, but one that often has the unfortunate effect of suggesting that you are actually not familiar with what other scholars have said.

We also want to note that using the hook and an I approach is ultimately less a matter of sheer quantity -- X number of sentences or paragraphs to others, and Y number to your ideas -- than of argumentative quality. Good introductions do not just repeat what other scholars have said; they analyze it and find an opening in it for their contribution.

Effective uses of the hook and an I can create that opening in numerous ways: they can point to significant aspects of your object or objects of study that previous work has overlooked; they can indicate how previous work explains some phenomena well but others less well; they can point to unrecognized but valuable implications or extensions of previous work; or they can begin to make the case that previous work needs to be corrected. The list could go on, but the key point is that you want to make your audience see the same opening you do and pique their interest in how you propose to fill it.

Consequences

This approach to introductions has ripple effects on the larger activity of writing an effective essay.

Introductions and abstracts. We often find that authors use their first paragraphs for their abstracts. We do not recommend this tactic, because, as we have discussed in a related article, introductions and abstracts have different purposes. As we say, abstracts are spoilers not teasers, because they give your audience a condensed version of your whole article: what your claim is, why it matters and how you will conduct your argument for it. Introductions, by contrast, are teasers that soon stop teasing. The tease comes with the hook, the construction of the opening for your argument, and ends with the full expression of the I, the articulation of your thesis statement or statements.

Order of composition. We have all heard the advice that one should write the introduction last. But as with most rhetorical matters, one size does not fit all. “Intro last” can be good advice when you’re writing an argument with many moving parts, and you need to write in some detail about all the parts before you are ready to craft your hook and I. “Intro first” can be good advice when you recognize that you need to do for yourself the kinds of things that we’re recommending your introduction needs to do for your reader. Beginning to write by constructing the opening you want to fill and how you want to fill it can be a productive way to guide your whole argument.

Two-way traffic between the introduction and the rest of the argument can also be an effective strategy. In such cases, the draft of the introduction guides the conduct of the argument, and then the details and directions of the argument lead you to revise that draft. And so on for as many rounds as you need to make everything as clear and compelling as possible.

Choosing a strategy. As for the issue of how to choose among viable strategies, again we say that there’s no one right answer. In other words, for most scholarly arguments more than one strategy can be adopted in the service of a strong introduction. Thus, you can try out different strategies in order to decide which one will be most likely to help you to convince your audience of the significance of your answer to the “So what?” question.

Introductions are often difficult to write. Some of the difficulty comes with the territory: writing an effective introduction requires you to have a thorough grasp of your own argument and why it matters for your audience. But we hope we can lessen that difficulty: our ideas about the underlying purposes of introductions and about the various ways to achieve those purposes aim to show you that good introductions are neither random nor mysterious. There are principles and patterns to follow, even if there’s no magic formula. We hope that your work with those principles and patterns can help you construct introductions that both you and your readers will regard as strong and appealing.

Bio

James Phelan is Distinguished University Professor of English at Ohio State University and has been editing Narrative since 1992. Faye Halpern is an associate professor at the University of Calgary and co-editor of ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature.

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