Common Mistakes in Introductions

1. The overly general introduction
Sexism is a major problem in the world today.

Throughout history, people have written poetry.

Inexperienced writers often start their papers with bland, sweeping, and all-too-obvious statements. Believing that an introduction must start at the highest possible level of generality, they make grand but lifeless pronouncements about the world at large or all of human history. They then struggle to narrow their focus to the specificity of a thesis. You can avoid this problem by offering a more limited context, appropriate to your thesis, in your opening sentence — a context that you'll be able to explore in meaningful depth.

Here are two promisingly specific beginnings:

Female executives continue to encounter a "glass ceiling" as they seek advancement to the highest administrative positions.

During World War I, soldier poets became major figures in Britain's literary culture.

If you must set a very general context for your paper, at least make it sound interesting:

From Beowulf to Byron to Broadway's Cats, poetry has enjoyed considerable variety throughout history.

Alliteration of plosives (the "b" and "p" sounds) provides some bounce to this sentence, and the references to specific poetry indicate that the author is knowledgeable about this subject.

2. The dictionary introduction

The Encarta Dictionary defines bilious as "nauseatingly unpleasant to look at."

While definitions can be very important to the precision of an argument, they make unexciting introductions. Usually, you should define important terms in a paragraph following the introduction or as they arise in the paper. If you do explain a particular word in your introduction, give the reader a nuanced, contextual understanding of the word and its practical applications, not a dry, dictionary definition.

3. The off-topic introduction

As you work on your paper, check every now and then to make sure that the introduction still matches up with the rest of your argument. Papers often change focus (seemingly of their own accord) as you write and develop your ideas. Such change is natural, but it can render your original introduction oddly off-topic.

Do not, however, simply discard off-topic introductions. Ideas that are out of place in an introduction may prove appropriate for a conclusion. Watch for reusable ideas and you'll likely save yourself some time and thought later.

4. The introduction that goes too far

You can usually tell when you haven't provided enough context in your introduction, but when have you provided too much? If I have hit upon some truly interesting background for my argument, my natural zeal for exposition often propels me to write more introduction than I should. "Too much" is, of course, a subjective measure. Nevertheless, an introduction that takes up much more than half a page may be pushing towards excess. Don't get bogged down in unnecessary details, and don't let your introduction steal content from your arguments. Keep it short and punchy. Not starting with an extremely general view of your subject (see above) will help keep things brief.

On the other hand, just as a thesis can consist of more than one sentence, an introduction can consist of more than one paragraph. A multi-paragraph introduction can be particularly appropriate if you want to tell a story that presents an issue, and then make a clear transition to your thesis. Of course, a long introduction would be inappropriate in a two-page paper, and might be excessive even in a five-pager. But if you make sure that each sentence is worth reading, your audience probably won't even notice the length.

The Introduction

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