VII. Organization (There are three pages to this unit on organization. The links to the other two pages are found at the bottom of each page.)
As an aspect of an essay's quality, organization involves more than just what order the main points are arranged in. For example, the effectiveness of both the introduction and the conclusion is part of the quality of an essay's organization. So too is the effectiveness of transitions between paragraphs and between sentences within a single paragraph.
Some rhetorical situations prescribe the form and function of an essay's introduction. The lab report, for example, requires that the introduction accomplish certain very specific things and contain certain specific elements. Some teachers in other subjects, including some English classes, also prescribe the form and content of an essay's introduction, and when that is the case, the student must adhere to those requirements if he hopes to earn a good grade.
But often there is no fixed introductory form that the writer can use as a model, and for many students, writing the introduction is the hardest part of writing an essay, so much so, that it can stymie the student's effort altogether. (I address the problem of introduction anxiety in my article
"Fear Not the Introduction.")
Aside from requirements imposed by outside forces, what exactly is it that an introduction should accomplish?
Think of the introduction as an invitation to the reader, as well as an aid in helping him enter into the "world" of the essay. As an invitation, it should engage the reader's interest as well as make, whether explicitly or implicitly, a promise about what he can expect if he takes the time to read further.
In the sort of essays students often have to write to fulfill course requirements, the essay is intended to summarize, explain, analyze, or argue a point. In most of these cases, an explicit statement of purpose at or near the beginning of the essay is needed, so the reader will know what he is about to read. A successful introduction will have a clear and focused
purpose statement. Sometimes, that is all that is really needed to introduce the essay.
Often, however, an indication of approach and methodology is also wanted. This indication can be implicit or explicit, and many teachers require that it be made explicit, in what I call the "roadmap" introduction, which lays out all the main points that will be covered and briefly states the approach that will be taken with them. Some formal academic reports, especially in the sciences, also require a roadmap introduction, and the form that takes is often prescribed by convention.
In a persuasive essay, it is sometimes effective to postpone the thesis statement long enough to open with a "hook"--an illustrative anecdote, an interesting or startling fact, or a rhetorical question, for example.
One commonly taught structure for the introduction is the "funnel introduction." The teacher will draw an upside-down triangle on the board. Then she will tell her students that their introduction should start at the general level (the widest part of the triangle) and move toward the specific, until it finally reaches its point--i.e., the thesis statement itself. The problem with the funnel introduction is that students will often start at far too general a level, writing such silly "big picture" opening statements as "From the beginning of time," or "Down through the ages," or "All through man's history. . . ."
I can imagine some essays that might logically begin at the beginning of time or history, but none of them are ones that students can be expected to write!
The most important thing to remember about writing an effective introduction is that you must adhere to whatever
textual conventions govern the rhetorical situation you are writing into, even if that rhetorical situation is defined by the requirements of a teacher who has her own rigid notions about what an introduction should look like.
If there are no pertinent textual conventions constraining your choice of introductory strategies, then what you should be doing is thinking about your audience. How can you capture their interest? How can you make it easier for them to enter into the "world" of your essay and to follow your explanation, analysis or argument?
And as I explain in "Fear Not the Introduction," often the best strategy is to put off writing your introduction until you have finished, or nearly finished, writing the essay itself, so that you will know where you are going with it and how you plan to get there. Then it will be relatively easy to point your reader in the direction he needs to go.