The Mentor Education Guide to Essay Writing

Learning Tips

Writing an essay, in whatever context – be it during an exam, for coursework, or as part of regular term-time work – can seem daunting, but it needn’t be. Breaking the writing up into manageable chunks (and making sure that you’re adhering to some key rules) can help you turn the most ponderous prose into a pithy, well-considered argument.

In this, the first part of the Mentor Education series on composing an essay, we’ll grab the bull by the horns and grapple with the opening section of an academic piece. It’s easy to neglect the introduction, but you shouldn’t if you want your essay to be a success; though there’s nothing wrong with following traditional advice and leaving it until the end of the writing process, the introduction could be make or break when it comes to grabbing your reader’s attention. Don’t assume that your reader will be happy to wait until the body of the essay to find out what your piece is all about: your introduction should be direct and clear, identifying the main themes you’ll be discussing, providing context where necessary, and giving some indication of your perspective (this is sometimes called a ‘thesis statement’).  That’s it. Simple, right?

As PhD student Tim Squirrel put it (as quoted in the Guardian), “Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly. It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’”

Of course, no two essays are exactly alike, so there’s no precise formula to follow – but we have some general tips that will help you craft your introduction with confidence.

Don’t spend too long – or leave it too late.

It can be tempting to leave the introduction until last, and that’s fine. The danger with this, however, is that you’re so far along with your thinking by this point that it becomes impossible to compress your thoughts. An introduction should be clear and concise. To this end, it might be worth jotting some thoughts for the introduction down as you go along. When you decide it’s time to write the introduction, don’t spend too long agonising over it, either; it’s important to get it right, but it shouldn’t be a magnum opus! Your time may be better spent writing (or polishing) the rest of the essay, so give yourself a certain amount of time to complete your introduction, and don’t overthink it. Keep this mantra in mind: ‘Get to the point as soon as possible’. Though Mr Squirrel’s 100-word limit may be too short for some, generally speaking a paragraph should suffice.

Consider context.

In order to captivate your reader, you want to flesh out your argument in a pithy manner – and that means not only stating how you’re going to approach this topic, but why. What makes your chosen issue worth exploring – and what makes your paper worth reading? Quoting an expert at this stage can give authority to your writing – you’ve done your homework – as well as supporting your reasoning (why you’ve chosen this topic) and giving the reader a sense of context. If your piece is scientific or mathematical in focus, you may wish to provide some starting statistics or explain key concepts; if you are writing an essay on a piece of literature or a historical event, you may find it useful to give some background details (cultural, social or economic fact insights, for instance).

Additionally, you may find it beneficial to explain any pivotal technical terms or jargon at this juncture. This doesn’t mean providing a mini-dictionary, which would be overwhelming (not to mention dull!), but a brief exploration of any really key terms (a concept your essay hinges on, for instance). If you decide to do this, you’ll want to explore the term rather than simply state what it means, discussing its significance for your chosen topic.

Write truthfully.

This may sound like a strange notion, but what we mean here is: be true to yourself. It can be really tempting to try to sound impressive in your introduction, getting so carried away with hyperbolic language that your writing wanders, all at once losing focus (and the attention of any reader). Throw the thesaurus away. Seriously. Using lots of big words might make you feel more confident but they are not the key to a successful essay. Pick your words carefully, by all means, and if you are very familiar with a technical term and you feel it’s the best choice for capturing your meaning, use it: but don’t use over-complicated language to hide a shaky argument. Let your own personality shine through – sounding like you’ve swallowed a dictionary does not a good essay make!

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