WRITING INTRODUCTIONS & CONCLUSIONS
Even when you know everything about your paper's topic, it's hard to know how to create a "hook" that makes a reader want to read it. And how in the world do you end satisfactorily? The fact is that many of us anguish over our intros and conclusions. The problem of introductions and conclusions is really one problem. They are linked, not only in anguish but in content; they are almost mirror images of each other.
First, however, there are two common misconceptions to dispel. Your thesis is
not an introduction. An introductory paragraph starts with a "hook," which leads into the thesis. You do need an introduction as well as a thesis. Second, a simple restatement of your thesis is not a conclusion. To create that satisfying sense of finality in your conclusion, you must revisit the stuff of your introduction. If you start with a story, return to the story. If you start with a definition, return to the definition, even if only to contradict it.
From the TIP Sheet "How to Start (and Complete) a Research Paper," you already know to start writing your paper in the middle, with the thesis statement and body. When you are ready to finish with the introduction and conclusion, choose from several strategies:
- Illustrate: Show instead of tell.
- Challenge: Raise reader expectations.
- Quote: Make use of the wordsmiths.
- Compare/contrast: Evoke familiarity by comparing or create tension and expectation by contrasting.
- Define: Define-or redefine in a unique way.
- Make a provocative statement: Offer an amazing statistic or personal insight.
An illustration can be as simple as a personal story or anecdote. It's natural to think of a personal anecdote as an introduction to a personal narrative, but stories and anecdotes can be effective introductions to any kind of paper. The following anecdote introduces a research paper on vegetarian and vegan diets. The conclusion returns briefly to the story:
We took our sons fishing in the spillway next to the dam one moonlit night. In the hush of the night, one of them hooked a small trout. But when the landed fish screamed aloud, my son fled the scene in horror and has never eaten flesh since.
People adopt vegetarian and vegan diets for different reasons, not all of them out of horror, as my son did. Whatever their reasons, they are finding more options in grocery stores, restaurants, and cookbooks than ever before.
An example taken from local or world news events is another kind of illustration. This is the introduction and conclusion to a paper on urban growth problems in California:
The Chico city council recently approved six hundred new homes to go in on the east side of the city. The impacts this development will have are likely to be extreme, illustrating the problems all California cities face in managing growth.
How well Chico will cope with the increased traffic, pressure on schools, and impacts to the watershed is yet to be seen. But Chico is not alone in having to find solutions soon.
A composite illustration is a fiction that you create in order to make a point. (Composite means including a bit of this and a bit of that.) The advantage of a composite illustration is that it can be perfectly crafted to fit your point. A composite can illustrate extreme examples that are possible though not likely ("Suppose that..."), or distant consequences that are possible but not yet observed.
An analogy is an extended comparison between one thing and another (the development of a balanced state budget compared with a shopping list, perhaps). If you come up with an apt analogy, it can be very effective; however, a so-so analogy is better abandoned sooner than later. You are better off with a good story than with a mediocre analogy. For more on analogies, see the TIP Sheet, "Writing an Analogy."
A challenge raises reader expectations and creates tension. A challenging opening statement is effective for a thesis that calls for changes to be made in public policies or personal actions, such as in persuasive essays and argument or analysis papers:
Chances are, if you live outside city limits in any of California's twenty-one rural counties, you couldn't use public transportation if you wanted to. There isn't any.
Sure, Californians need to get over their love affairs with their cars, but having a better system of public transportation in place would help. Then, perhaps, I could get from rural Durham to rural Oroville, where I live, without putting yet another car on the road.
A question is another type of challenge:
Does it make sense to prohibit minors from carrying calamine lotion with them at school without two kinds of written permission, and yet allow them to leave campus without parental knowledge or consent for invasive medical procedures?
Even more than many of the zero-tolerance laws in place in our schools, this one should be ditched. Does it make sense? Clearly it doesn't.
Note that a question is an introductory strategy, not a thesis statement. A thesis statement should answer the question, and in some detail-not just "yes" or "no."
Make good use of the wordsmiths of history. Online quotation banks, usually searchable by topic, are a great source for quotations on practically any subject. You have some latitude in how you choose a quote for an introduction; it can be offbeat or unexpected. In the following example, an unusual quote by Albert Einstein is used to introduce an essay on restricting cell phone use while driving:
Albert Einstein once said, "Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves."
It doesn't take an Einstein to realize that cell phones are not the first, nor will they be the last, driving distraction. We don't need more restrictions on cell phones; we just need better drivers.
Song lyrics or familiar sayings sometimes make good introductions, but avoid clichés such as "Haste makes waste." If a familiar saying draws on jargon or sayings familiar only to a particular group, you have to provide the context for those who are unfamiliar with that group:
Computer programmers have a saying: "Garbage in, garbage out."
The next time you read the results of the latest poll, consider the polling method, the sample, and the source, and remember, "Garbage in, garbage out."
Compare or contrast
Comparison shows similarities and creates a sense of familiarity. Contrast shows differences and creates tension and expectation. You do not have to be writing a compare/contrast paper to use this as an introduction strategy. For example, this is a contrast intro to a personal narrative:
When I was seven, I thought my father was all-powerful and could do no wrong. When I was seventeen, I thought he was a jerk.
My father wasn't the god he seemed when I was seven, but he was sure a lot better and wiser than I thought he was when I was seventeen.
A definition can make a good introduction. You don't have to be writing a definition paper to use definition as an introduction strategy. You can use a standard dictionary if you want, but consider using books of quotations or online quotation banks for more interesting definitions:
Here is how Ambrose Bierce defines a conservative: "Conservative. noun. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a liberal, who wishes to replace them with others."
In the matter of agricultural subsidies, we are better off sticking with existing evils than replacing them with others that promise far worse results.
Another interesting use of definition is to use it as a starting point to re-define something in your own terms:
Webster says friendship is mutual feelings of trust, affection, assistance, and approval between people. However, I say friendship sometimes is knowing when to walk away.
Walking away that day was the biggest favor Mai ever did for me.
Make a provocative or startling statement
If the provocative statement is someone else's, treat it as a quotation. If the provocative statement is statistical, make sure you cite the source. If you have a way with words or an insight all your own, by all means use that:
It is ridiculous and immoral to allow congressmen to give themselves pay raises.
Restricting the ability of congressmen to vote themselves raises would go a long way to restoring morality and a sense of public service to public servants.
As you can see, introductions and conclusions are closely linked. Once you decide on a strategy, try simply over-writing the introduction (as one student we know regularly did) and then split off part of it to use as the conclusion. When you begin to think of introductions and conclusions as two pieces of a single puzzle, you will probably find them much easier to write.
Sometimes when we write an essay we forget that we're speaking to someone (a reader). We also forget that the beginning of our essay is technically the first impression that we make on the reader, while the conclusion is our last chance to get the reader's attention. Rather than focusing on writing an essay that is simply "correct" (in terms of grammar, following your assignment requirements, etc.) good writers also consider whether or not they've left a lasting impression on their reader.
Think about it: the movies you've seen and the books you've read, the ones that really stand out in your mind, probably had an intriguing opening and a compelling ending. Your essay topic may not be as exciting as your favorite movie, but that doesn't mean you can't make sure that your ideas stand out in the reader's mind.
If you're not sure how to begin and end your essay, consider using what's often called the "hook" technique. The idea behind this method is that if you hook your audience (get their attention) in the beginning of the essay, they'll want to continue reading so that they can find out how everything will turn out in the end.
For example, to use the hook technique you might begin by saying: Students are often surprised to know that many of their instructors were not high-ranking students in their own graduating classes. In fact, one of the most well-respected Composition instructors here at Madeup University flunked Freshman English not once, but twice!
Then, you might conclude your essay by saying: Any student at Madeup University will tell you that the teachers who once struggled in their subject area are the most helpful. Remember that Composition teacher who flunked Freshman English twice? That was Mrs. Somebody--a popular Composition teacher and well-liked tutor in the Writing Center on campus. The best guides are those who've experienced the struggle themselves; these teachers truly help students climb toward academic success.
Remember, it is not enough to hook your audience in the beginning. You also have lead them on a journey that comes back around in your conclusion. There is no such thing as “next season” in papers- so NO CLIFF HANGERS!
Making the RIGHT Impression
Simply put, your introduction and conclusion are the first a last chance you have to grab your reader. They are crucial in the development of trust, likability and agreement.
Below are some helpful hints to get you on your way towards becoming an impression master!
- Write the body paragraphs before you write the introduction and conclusion
- People often get hung up on how to begin their papers, and this means more time staring at a blank screen getting discouraged. Instead try writing your thesis and your body paragraphs first. Once you have written your body, go back and read over it asking yourself, “What is it I really want to say?” or “How do I want my reader to feel about my topic?”
- Save one or two interesting quotes or insights for your introduction and conclusion
- Be careful here. Quotes are great, but the reader wants to hear what you have to say about the topic. Sometimes it’s better to find a great quote that goes against your position/topic. That way you set yourself up as a real scholar, and you create and interesting “conflict” for your reader from the beginning.
- Catch the reader's attention by beginning with a "hook," then conclude or resolve that concept in your conclusion.
- Remember, readers aren’t going to be interested just because your name is at the top of the paper. The hook is how you show your personality to your audience, and resolving that hook is how you show your intelligence. Like a good person, a good paper should be well- rounded!
- Think about your audience! Demonstrate that you care about their interests, opinions, and ideas in your introduction and conclusion
- No one cares about someone who doesn’t care about them. A carefully thought out introduction shows readers that you as a writer care about their enjoyment and understanding rather than just pontificating ideas.
Introduction and Conclusion Checklists
A good introduction should…
A good conclusion should…
Describe what you plan to write about
Remind the reader of the main ideas that were discussed in the essay
Give the reader some idea of how you plan to discuss or approach your topic
Tie up any loose ends by resolving any unresolved questions, statements, or ideas
Give background information on your topic (when appropriate)
Discuss what can be done about your topic in the future (when appropriate)
Include a clear, concise thesis statement
Offer suggestions on ways that the reader can get involved with your topic/cause (when appropriate)
Establish a connection between the writer and the audience
Try, one last time, to convince the reader to agree with you (when appropriate)