Introductions and Conclusions
The hardest part of writing any academic paper seems to be either the introduction or conclusion. When we first learn about these things, we are told they are one paragraph only, that the introduction should contain our main idea and our conclusion should restate what we've already said in the essay to "sum up." However, that seems to always fall like a dead weight at the beginning and the end of our essays. Below are some helpful definitions, tips, and pitfalls of writing introductions and conclusions.
It is the job of the introduction to:
- give the reader a reason to read the paper (get them interested!)
- offer background information the reader may need (for literary analysis, the full title of the book(s) and authors' names, a brief summary, a discussion about the genre the book(s) belong to, etc.)
- boil down (as if moving down through a funnel of general to specific) to an effective thesis statement
If all you do in your introduction is offer the thesis in two or three sentences, your introduction falls like a dead weight onto the reader's lap. There are a number of different strategies to use for an introduction, including (but not limited to):
- Choosing an appropriate quote from the text or about the text, author or thesis you are exploring. For example, starting with a quote from C.S. Lewis about the Christian symbolism in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe would be a strong first line for an introduction to a paper that discusses that symbolism in LWW.
- Relaying a personal anecdote (not always appropriate for academic papers, but sometimes works as long as the anecdote is short and will add insight to the subject and thesis of your paper)
- Offering background information in the form of a brief summary of the text(s) that will be discussed
- Moving from a general statement about the genre of writing or another wider consideration of the topic (i.e.: if a paper will be about the morality lessons of the Christian symbolism in LWW, one might point out other moments of comparable "lessons" from other children's texts.) to your specific thesis (in the same example, this would be specifically about how these lessons are described in the text).
In other words, your introduction has to let the reader know why it's important for him/her to read the paper/essay, why it's important to do this analysis, and what you're going to do to achieve your goal.
Pitfalls to writing introductions:
- Writing thesis only. As I said, dead weight. This is too blunt, and the reader is likely to mutiny and stop reading altogether. You must engage the reader with more than a blunt statement.
- Trying to fit your thesis in one sentence. This can make your thesis seem way to general or convoluted. Use as many sentences as you need without being repetitive.
- Saying "In this paper/essay I will…" This brings undue attention to the fact that you are writing a paper. That is obvious, and there are other ways to phrase your thesis in a more interesting and descriptive way.
- A page and a half of summary before you get to the point of why you're summarizing. You've got to give the reader the context he/she needs, but you also have to keep your summaries applicable to your thesis. Remember the 25-word summary exercise? This is a good exercise to practice using in an introduction.
- Not mentioning the authors' full name or the full (and correct and underlined) titles of the book(s) to be discussed.
In contrast, when we write conclusions, we have already given birth to a big baby, and barely have anything left to give! This is when we revert and simply restate what we've already said before. Sometimes we even start to conclude before our concluding paragraph even begins, and then we're being redundantly repetitive!
A conclusion's job is to:
- "Hammer home the importance of the topic" (Shannon 98). Consider your reader one last time.
- Restate the thesis in new, more specific language
- Summarize the important moments of support
- Shed new light on the subject
When you "shed new light," you are not bringing in new evidence of support for your thesis. This would make your conclusion more support, not a conclusion. Shedding new light on the subject is to take into consideration what the reader has learned from your essay, and to apply it to something greater. For example, if you were writing about the theme of love in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, you might choose to comment on the contemporary role love plays in our modern dramas and movies.
Some strategies for developing a conclusion:
- Look back through your draft. Chances are there are some sentences that are in paragraphs that are doing "bigger" things than adding information to that support paragraph. These can help form an effective conclusion.
- Repeating a quote that seemed especially important to the paper and the thesis (consider also where you get your title from).
- Connecting the ideas expressed in the paper to something contemporary outside the texts that are discussed.
- Occasionally, personal experience can be used in a conclusion… but remember, it must not take away from the purpose of the essay.
- One last "pitch" to your readers that tells them why this is an important topic to discuss.
Pitfalls to Conclusions
- Starting to state opinion about the assignment or the text that doesn't relate to the thesis. This tends to use informal language that doesn't get to the heart of analysis. So don't do this: "While this book had many interesting themes, I was really confused by the time shifts in it…."
- Using overused end-phrases such as "In conclusion," "Finally," "To summarize," etc.
- Repeating verbatim (word for word) your thesis from your introduction-dead weight.
- Saying "I learned…."
- Offering new support to the thesis
- Repeating topic sentences from each moment of support. Only use the important ones, or the ones that you want to stand out to your readers.
- Only summarizing your paper. Something more has to happen in a conclusion (see above definition and strategies)
Whether you are writing an introduction or a conclusion, your main consideration should be your audience. They are the reason you are presenting this information, and how they understand the importance you place on this subject is important to how the whole essay is received. It certainly isn't an easy job, but with practice and enough consideration and preparation, your introductions and conclusions can be just the thing to "stick the landing" for your essays. In a way, you are a host at your own essay party. You must invite your guests in, provide the food, music, and entertainment for them to have a great (clear understanding) party experience, and you must also show them the door with a plate of leftovers and an echo of the evening's experiences.
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