How to write a good introduction

By Matt Burdett, 3 March 2019

This article is about how to write a good introduction to a Geography essay.

How useful is this introduction?

“The question of whether water consumption is increasing worldwide is an important one for humanity. Water consumption is defined as the amount of water used by people per year in cubic metres. Water consumption may be high or low depending on many factors which will be discussed in this essay.”

Answer: it’s not very useful. This article will suggest another way that gets your introduction done quickly and painlessly.

Weak introductions

Lots of students think the best thing to do in an introduction is to do the following:

  • Restate the question in your own words
  • Define each key term in the question
  • Ask a rhetorical question

Sure; your teacher might like that. But in the exam, when you have about 30 minutes to write a three side essay, it’s not a very effective way of introducing your essay.

But first – what’s the point of an introduction? Why bother? Introductions are the ultimate in signposting. Signposting is when you tell the reader where you’re going next. It helps them to understand how your ideas are organised. The introduction should inform the reader of the main points that you will discuss in your essay.

So, what’s wrong with that first type of introduction?

  • Restating the question is a waste of time – the examiner has probably already read fifty of these, so they don’t really need to know what the question is
  • Defining key terms often takes a long time, and doesn’t introduce what you’re writing about
  • Asking a rhetorical question is great for debate club, but it doesn’t add to your essay

Improving introductions

How can we switch these things to be more effective?

  • Instead of restating the question, interpret the question. For example, if the question states ‘development’, you could show that you are interpreting it as ‘economic development’ or ‘multidimensional human development’
  • Instead of defining key terms, only define debated or new key terms. For example, there’s no need to define ‘settlement hierarchy’ because it’s an accepted term with little ambiguity. But the term ‘sustainability’ could be defined because there are lots of types of sustainability – such as environmental sustainability, nexus thinking, social sustainability, economic sustainability and so on. What you mean by sustainability is up to you, and it’s worth defining because someone else might define it differently.
  • Instead of asking rhetorical questions, try to briefly include the thesis statement of each body paragraph. For example, ‘xxx may be justified through the long term improvements in infrastructure and healthcare, but these must be balanced against the environmental consequences’. Each of the words in italics is the thesis point of a body paragraph.

Even better: three points for a perfect introduction

Now that we’ve improved a bit, let’s think about what would make the examiner even happier. What should you include in an essay introduction? Remember these three points for a perfect introduction:

  • The focus of the essay (your interpretation of the question) plus any important definitions (remember – define only words that have some debate about them!)
  • Case studies
  • Signposting of your body paragraphs

Here’s an example of a good introduction:

‘Water consumption may be agricultural, domestic or industrial, all of which are likely to show increases in the future. The experiences of two countries at different levels of economic development – the USA and South Africa – show that consumption is increasing due to population growth and economic development, although conservation attempts may be made especially within agricultural consumption.”

What’s better about it?

  • It’s clear that the author interprets water consumption in all main sectors i.e. domestic, industrial and agricultural
  • The introduction indicates that consumption is increasing…
  • …but only says ‘likely to’ which shows that they aren’t attempting a conclusion yet
  • The case studies are really clear – it’s obvious there will be a comparison between the USA and South Africa
  • The main reasons are stated clearly i.e. population growth and economic development – these make good body paragraph points
  • There is a counter-argument included i.e. conservation attempts in agriculture
  • There was no definition. It’s not needed because it doesn’t show where the essay is going

This introduction gives the examiner a very clear idea about what to expect.

A final point: many people believe that an essay introduction should captivate the reader and make them want to read on. However, you also need to consider the audience for your essay. Your audience is an examiner. They have no choice: they have to read your work! An examiner is looking for clarity – which means they want to quickly read your work and easily find where to give the marks. Short, sharp introductions with focus, case studies and signposting will brighten your examiner’s day.

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