Fear Not the Introduction

by Tina Blue
December 28, 2001

          Students have to write papers all the time--all sorts of papers, in all sorts of classes.  After a while, you'd think they'd get over their deer-in-the-headlights panic at the sight of a blank sheet of paper or a blank computer screen.  But most of them never do.  Even if they can write fairly comfortably once they get started, most students continue to find that getting started is the hardest, scariest part of writing.

          I have a quick, easy cure for that problem: Don't start.

          No, no, no--I don't mean you shouldn't write whatever it is that you are supposed to write.  You have to do that.  What I mean is skip the introduction, at least for a while, and maybe even until everything else is already written. 

          I have seen students waste 30 minutes or more of a 50-minute class period trying to write the introduction for an in-class essay or for an essay question on an exam.  Obviously, this leaves almost no time to actually write the essay, much less answer the rest of the questions on an exam.

          Even on take-home essay assignments, students will repreatedly bump head-first into an intractable introduction and then give up on the essay--until the night before it's due, at which point they usually write a rushed, half-baked paper that is nowhere near as good as what they could have written if they had not put the essay off until the last minute.

          Except that they often are not actually putting it off to the last minute.  In fact, they may have started trying to work on the paper the same day it was assigned.  But if every attempt is stymied by their inability to get an introduction down on paper, then they do end up inadvertently leaving the actual essay, the
of the thing, until the last possible minute.

          Take a lesson from film-makers.  They don't always shoot the scenes of a movie in order.  In fact, they almost never do.  The scenes are shot according to convenience, depending on what actors, what seasonal settings, what lighting or sets are available at a give time.  If two scenes require the same actors or sets, they will be shot back-to-back, even if they are an hour or more apart in the actual movie.

          Now, if you have a fairly good, workable outline, you have the equivalent of a director's storyboard.  You know what "scenes" you must produce, and what order those "scenes" will need to be arranged in. That being the case, you should be able to write up virtually any discrete section of your essay without even worrying about the other parts. 

          I say write the easy stuff first.  Doing so will give you momentum, the same way that trying to write the hardest part first inevitably kills your momentum.  In other words, just as repeatedly trying and failing to write your introduction can completely block you from working on the rest of your essay, trying and quickly succeeding with one part of the essay can help you to keep going on the other parts. 

          Even if you don't use an outline (of course, most of you probably should), you can still get past the problem of the introduction by just plunging into the part of the essay that would follow the introduction.  You might be able to get virtually the whole paper written without having done the introduction yet.  And once your essay has gotten to wherever it is that it was heading, writing the introduction becomes a heck of a lot easier, since the whole point of the introduction is usually to aim your reader in the direction of your conclusion.

          Of course, in some classes, the form of the introduction is preset. For example, many teachers require a standardized introduction of the sort that I call the "roadmap" introduction.  I'm not crazy about such formulaic introductions, because I find them clumsy and boring, though if such an introduction is
required, you must produce it. But even then, your task is greatly simplified if you've already taken the rest of the essay to its conclusion. Think how easy it is to say, "In this essay I am going to do this, this, and this," when you've
already done this, this, and this. Knowing exactly where your essay goes means that you can provide your reader with an accurate roadmap to that destination.

          If, on the other hand, you are free to write a less formulaic introduction, then that also is made easier if you've already written the rest of the essay.  Again, once you know exactly where you are taking your reader, it becomes quite a simple matter to figure out how to use your introduction to point him in the appropriate direction. 

          And on in-class writing assignments, you are likely to get far more credit for an essay that is substantially complete, even if the introduction is weak or missing altogether, than you will for an introduction, however polished, if you never got around to writing the rest of the essay.

          So here's my advice:  Don't bother introducing your essay until you have already written all or most of it, at which point you will have a much better idea of how it should be introduced.

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