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Background In An Essay

2.3: Introductions

This resource was written by Jaclyn M. Wells.
Last edited by Allen Brizee on March 23, 2009 .

Summary:
This resource explains how to organize your essay's introduction.

Lesson 3: Development and Details

Choosing a main idea and subpoints, creating an outline, and producing a thesis statement and topic sentences are all great first steps to writing a successful GED essay. The solid foundation you make during the planning phase of your writing process is extremely important. But what comes next? Remember the third criterion that essay readers use to score your essay: development and details. While writing your essay, you must develop and support your ideas with details. This lesson provides tips for using details develop and support the main ideas you discovered during the planning phase and to expand the outline you created while planning.

Writing a Developed and Detailed Introduction

You know your introduction needs a clear thesis statement. But what else do you put in the paragraph? To answer that question, think about the purpose of an introduction:

  • Introduce your topic
  • Create interest
  • Provide necessary background information
  • Identify your main idea
  • Preview the rest of your essay

Your thesis statement will identify your main idea and preview the rest of your essay. Remember that this can be either one or two sentences. You will probably place your thesis at the end of your introduction paragraph. You can use the other sentences in your introduction to introduce your topic, create interest, and provide necessary background information.

Let's look again at the sample essay topic from Lesson 1 and Lesson 2.

Sample Essay Topic

What is one important goal you would like to achieve in the next few years?

In your essay, identify that one goal and explain how you plan to achieve it. Use your personal observations, experience, and knowledge to support your essay.

The paragraph below is an example introduction for this topic. As you read, think about what each sentence does within the paragraph. What sentence(s) introduce the topic and create interest? What sentence(s) provide background information? What sentence(s) identify the main idea and preview the rest of the essay?

"Making goals for myself and working toward them keeps me on my toes and makes my life interesting. There are many goals that I would like to achieve throughout my life. I have begun working toward many of them by looking into going back to school and thinking about what I’d like to do for a career. One major goal I would like to accomplish in the next few years is getting a better job. My plan to get a better job is to finish school, prepare a resume, and then search for jobs."

Notice how the first two sentences introduce the topic and create interest in it. The third sentence provides some background information for the reader. Although this background information might not be absolutely necessary, it gives the reader some background for the essay and also creates interest in the topic. The final two sentences identify the main idea and preview the rest of the essay. Notice also the movement from general to specific in this paragraph. When you read carefully through the paragraph, you’ll notice that each sentence is a bit more specific than the last. It’s a good idea to move from general to specific like this in your introduction.

Now try writing your own introduction. Use the sample essay topic, the brainstorming, and the outline work you completed in Lessons 1 and 2 to help you. Remember to include two or three sentences that introduce your topic, create interest, and provide necessary background information. Finally, include one or two sentences that identify your main idea and preview the rest of your essay.

Writing an academic essay means fashioning a coherent set of ideas into an argument. Because essays are essentially linear—they offer one idea at a time—they must present their ideas in the order that makes most sense to a reader. Successfully structuring an essay means attending to a reader's logic.

The focus of such an essay predicts its structure. It dictates the information readers need to know and the order in which they need to receive it. Thus your essay's structure is necessarily unique to the main claim you're making. Although there are guidelines for constructing certain classic essay types (e.g., comparative analysis), there are no set formula.

Answering Questions:  The Parts of an Essay

A typical essay contains many different kinds of information, often located in specialized parts or sections. Even short essays perform several different operations: introducing the argument, analyzing data, raising counterarguments, concluding. Introductions and conclusions have fixed places, but other parts don't. Counterargument, for example, may appear within a paragraph, as a free-standing section, as part of the beginning, or before the ending. Background material (historical context or biographical information, a summary of relevant theory or criticism, the definition of a key term) often appears at the beginning of the essay, between the introduction and the first analytical section, but might also appear near the beginning of the specific section to which it's relevant.

It's helpful to think of the different essay sections as answering a series of questions your reader might ask when encountering your thesis. (Readers should have questions. If they don't, your thesis is most likely simply an observation of fact, not an arguable claim.)

"What?"  The first question to anticipate from a reader is "what": What evidence shows that the phenomenon described by your thesis is true? To answer the question you must examine your evidence, thus demonstrating the truth of your claim. This "what" or "demonstration" section comes early in the essay, often directly after the introduction. Since you're essentially reporting what you've observed, this is the part you might have most to say about when you first start writing. But be forewarned: it shouldn't take up much more than a third (often much less) of your finished essay. If it does, the essay will lack balance and may read as mere summary or description.

"How?"  A reader will also want to know whether the claims of the thesis are true in all cases. The corresponding question is "how": How does the thesis stand up to the challenge of a counterargument? How does the introduction of new material—a new way of looking at the evidence, another set of sources—affect the claims you're making? Typically, an essay will include at least one "how" section. (Call it "complication" since you're responding to a reader's complicating questions.) This section usually comes after the "what," but keep in mind that an essay may complicate its argument several times depending on its length, and that counterargument alone may appear just about anywhere in an essay.

"Why?"  Your reader will also want to know what's at stake in your claim: Why does your interpretation of a phenomenon matter to anyone beside you? This question addresses the larger implications of your thesis. It allows your readers to understand your essay within a larger context. In answering "why", your essay explains its own significance. Although you might gesture at this question in your introduction, the fullest answer to it properly belongs at your essay's end. If you leave it out, your readers will experience your essay as unfinished—or, worse, as pointless or insular.

Mapping an Essay

Structuring your essay according to a reader's logic means examining your thesis and anticipating what a reader needs to know, and in what sequence, in order to grasp and be convinced by your argument as it unfolds. The easiest way to do this is to map the essay's ideas via a written narrative. Such an account will give you a preliminary record of your ideas, and will allow you to remind yourself at every turn of the reader's needs in understanding your idea.

Essay maps ask you to predict where your reader will expect background information, counterargument, close analysis of a primary source, or a turn to secondary source material. Essay maps are not concerned with paragraphs so much as with sections of an essay. They anticipate the major argumentative moves you expect your essay to make. Try making your map like this:

  • State your thesis in a sentence or two, then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim. Indicate, in other words, what a reader might learn by exploring the claim with you. Here you're anticipating your answer to the "why" question that you'll eventually flesh out in your conclusion.
  • Begin your next sentence like this: "To be convinced by my claim, the first thing a reader needs to know is . . ." Then say why that's the first thing a reader needs to know, and name one or two items of evidence you think will make the case. This will start you off on answering the "what" question. (Alternately, you may find that the first thing your reader needs to know is some background information.)
  • Begin each of the following sentences like this: "The next thing my reader needs to know is . . ."  Once again, say why, and name some evidence. Continue until you've mapped out your essay. 

Your map should naturally take you through some preliminary answers to the basic questions of what, how, and why. It is not a contract, though—the order in which the ideas appear is not a rigid one. Essay maps are flexible; they evolve with your ideas.

Signs of Trouble

A common structural flaw in college essays is the "walk-through" (also labeled "summary" or "description"). Walk-through essays follow the structure of their sources rather than establishing their own. Such essays generally have a descriptive thesis rather than an argumentative one. Be wary of paragraph openers that lead off with "time" words ("first," "next," "after," "then") or "listing" words ("also," "another," "in addition"). Although they don't always signal trouble, these paragraph openers often indicate that an essay's thesis and structure need work: they suggest that the essay simply reproduces the chronology of the source text (in the case of time words: first this happens, then that, and afterwards another thing . . . ) or simply lists example after example ("In addition, the use of color indicates another way that the painting differentiates between good and evil").

Copyright 2000, Elizabeth Abrams, for the Writing Center at Harvard University