Novelists often put a great deal of thought into their first sentences. They hope to strike a tone, set a mood, and immediately engage the reader. Consider a few examples from the American Book Review’s top ten all-time best first lines from novels. (For a full list of the top 100, click here.)
“Call me Ishmael.” – Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)
“A screaming comes across the sky.” – Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
Academic writers reach for similar goals in their introductions. You hope to capture your reader’s interest and make him or her continue reading the essay. “What grabs readers,” the authors of The Craft of Research adroitly point out, “is a problem they think is in need of a solution, and what holds them is the hope that you’ve found it.” Each of you has been thinking about a historical question, or problem, this semester. The challenge of the first paragraph of your essay is to effectively introduce that problem to readers and make them interested to see how you will solve it through the evidence you gleaned from the primary sources.
Effective introductions usually have three basic components:
- A contextualization of the background
- A statement of the problem
- A response to the problem
As you draft your introduction, consider whether it contains these three elements.
Writers often benefit from considering examples of others’ work. Read each of the following introductions and think about these questions.
- How does the author make an attempt to grab my attention or pique my curiosity? Is it effective? Why, or why not?
- What is the historical problem (or question) the author will examine in the rest of the essay?
- Does the author provide a response to the problem? Or is there an indication of at least one individual’s thoughts that might be examined in the body of the essay?
- Which of the three examples do you think is most effective? Why? Which was least effective?
- How might you use these as models for your own introduction?
Introduction Example 1
Introduction Example 2
Introduction Example 3
If you had to rank each introduction from best to worst, which would take top honors? Which would be second and third? I encourage you to share your rankings by posting a comment. Be ready to discuss these introductions in class.
 Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 222.
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