Whereas in the sciences there is a high probability of a consensus between the reader and the writer, writers in the humanities frequently address a situation in which there is little consensus. So, introductions should convince your reader to pay attention to what you are saying and add to the credibility of your argument.
You can "hook" your reader a number of different ways. You could engage your reader by presenting an exciting, controversial, or shocking piece of information that relates to your argument. For example "Canada's life expectancy is 81; whereas Malawi's is 48. This disparity points to the extreme consequences of disproportionate access to health care in developing countries."
Another strategy is to quote a well-known, respected authority in the subject area you are writing about; for example, "Richard Florida argues 'Access to talented and creative people is to modern business what access to coal and iron ore was to steelmaking.' In other words, culture and creativity are important to a functioning economy."
A third strategy is to state common claims, defined terms, or accepted positions on a topic and then challenge them. For example, "It is widely assumed that Edith Wharton wrote for the upper classes; her own status as New York socialite as well as the cultural milieu she represented in her novels is seen as a testament to this. However, when examining the tragic life of Lily Bart it is clear that her social criticism extends beyond the upper classes."
It is very important, however, to avoid grand or universal statements. An introduction provides an insight, but it should not be too broad or vague. And, importantly, this insight must be something that you can prove. Avoid the "Humankind has always needed…" or "Since the beginning of time…" statements. Unlike the earlier examples of ways to "hook" your readers – which are specific and focused on the specific essay topic, these statements are neither useful nor provable.
Context and key terms that allow the reader to follow your argument and initiate a thought process about the specifics that will be discussed in the essay.
You may include:
Again, be as specific and clear as possible. Notice the difference between the examples below. Example 1 is less specific and focuses on summarizing more than Example 2, which aims not just to introduce the topic but to make an argument about that topic.
Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie both travelled in Upper Canada during the early 1800s and wrote about their experiences. Their writing includes journals and letters documenting their travels and their struggles to survive in a harsh environment. Both Parr Traill and Moodie were born in England, and life in Canada took some adjusting to.
How Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie portray their voyages in Upper Canada reflects a popular medium of expression amongst pioneer gentlewomen articulated through travel narratives. These sources allow glimpses into the hardships and joys of women as they attempt to conquer the environment and adapt to social change within Canada. The writings of Traill and Moodie relay images of the early landscapes of rural and urban life in Upper Canada, while revealing the social differences forced upon these unprepared women.
While both examples introduce the geographical and historical context (Upper Canada in the 1800s), Example 2 moves beyond summarizing facts (Parr Traill and Moodie wrote about their travels) and introduces a critical interpretation of those facts (their writing reveals social differences).
Your clear, concise statement of what you are arguing and why it is important. The thesis directs the organization and supporting arguments of the paper.
Make sure it can be argued and that it answers the "so what?" or the reason why your argument is important to people who know something about your field. It is important to keep in mind that your thesis is an argument, not an observation. Try using the following examples to help form your thesis:
The detailed pioneer travel narratives of Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie reveal the transgression of female boundaries within Upper Canadian society, defying the image of the traditional domesticated British woman and challenging dominant Victorian ideologies of separate male and female spheres.
This thesis is specific enough to be effectively proven in an essay. It also considers implications of the argument: how the lives of two women lead to discussions of Upper Canadian society and Victorian ideologies.
A directive statement outlines the order of the points you will use to prove your thesis.
By describing women's changing roles within the home and their interactions with the land, Parr Traill's and Moodie's writing demonstrates that pioneer gentlewomen moved beyond the restrictive Victorian notions of femininity; that they did so was vital to their survival and to the success of the family unit in nineteenth-century Upper Canada.
This statement clearly outlines two points of focus within Parr Traill's and Moodie's writing—women's changing roles and interactions with the land—giving the reader a sense of what to expect in the paragraphs to follow.
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