September 5

Six steps to a great intro paragraph

Authors often mistakenly believe that they sit down to write a piece, they have to start with the introductory paragraph. That misconception is paralyzing. You want to start your paper, so open the Word document…. and stare… completely unsure of how to begin. Time is precious, and you let it slip through your motionless fingers while you struggle to find words that are as powerful as Herman Melleville's classic words at the beginning of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” *

Yes, your introductory paragraphs are vital. It is in the first paragraphs that you grab the reader's interest, establish your piece as important and worthwhile, and communicate your main points clearly.

The trouble is that, when you're in the midst of the writing process, you don't know exactly what your main argument will be. You have a topic and perhaps some points that you want to hit in the piece, but you often discover your most powerful points as you write.

starting athleteSix steps to a great intro paragraph

Here's the process I recommend for making a hard-hitting introductory paragraph:

    1. Write a quick intro paragraph, just to get started with the writing process. Know that you'll go back to re-write this, though, so don't get hung up on the “perfect” first sentence. There are a thousand ways you could start, many of them good, none of them perfect, so just start!
    2. Flesh out your main points in the body paragraphs and sections. Write the “meat” of your paper, where you really delve into your arguments. (Literature, Theory, Methods, Results, Findings)
    3. After you have fully elaborated all of your arguments, create an outline or a map of the piece's structure. Write down all of the major points your piece makes. Alternatively, you could describe your main points to a friend or colleague, verbally, and write them down as you go.
    4. Choose the most salient, poignant, over-arching, important point. Now, craft a few sentences that concisely explains your point.
    5. Go back to your original introductory paragraphs. You can probably just delete them in full. (I usually do.)
    6. NOW, you can re-write the introductory paragraphs

Three things your Intro should accomplish

  1. Convince your reader there is a problem. Identify the community, the problem the community has, and how no one has fully fixed/identified/studied the problem.
  2. Demonstrate that this piece is an important step toward solving that problem. Don't be too shy or reserved here. Your reader will only take you as seriously as you take yourself.
  3. Insert those sentences that you carefully crafted earlier, which powerfully and concisely contain your main argument in the piece. You won't be able to cover every argument, just stick to your most salient points for now, the points that pique the reader's interest and bring them further into the paper, to discover the rest of your points.

Three Common Intro Pitfalls

  1. Do not begin with “In this paper, I will…” or any lame variation of that phrase. Such formulaic writing signals to the reader that she's in for a long, boring ride, and you definitely don't want to do that!
  2. Do not let your introductory sentences stretch for more than 40 words. That's a rough estimate and based on my own preferences as an editor, really. In Word, you can highlight one sentence and click “Tools,” then “Word Count.” A box will pop up, showing you how many words are in that sentence. For particularly long sentences, check their word count. If a sentence has more than 40 words, see if you can cut it down or break it into several, shorter sentences. Short sentences generally have a higher impact, and particularly in the introductory paragraphs, you want short, concise, powerful sentences.
  3. Do not put jargon in your introductory sentences. You have the rest of the paper to use jargon. If you use pretentious language at the beginning, you will probably slice your readership in half. If you can grab the interest readers who are new to the field, they'll be more likely to read on and have patience with your jargon later in the paper.

The most important take-away here is this: Always write your introductory paragraphs last! I believe that many of us know, in theory, to write our introductory paragraphs last, but we don't always leave time to re-write them. You absolutely must leave time to re-write your introductory paragraphs.

If you don't grab your reader's attention at the beginning, you might as well not write the paper or book in the first place!

What about you? Do you have a favorite method, tip, or trick to writing a great introductory paragraph? OR what's your favorite first line of a paper or book? Leave a comment below!

* (Side note: My personal favorite opening line is in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice ” It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”) Makes me laugh every time and gives great insight to the book's topic and why pursuit of marriage is worth talking about for 416 pages).


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