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Basic Introductory Structures of Academic Essays

EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Apr 22, 2009   #1
Introductions generally consist of four main elements:

- A hook

- Background information, including definitions of your key terms

- A thesis statement

- A summary of the points you plan to make

Only the last two of these elements are strictly necessary, and it is entirely possible to have an introduction that consists of only a thesis statement followed by a list of points, especially in essays where there is a fairly strict maximum word count and a lot of information that needs including in the body.

A hook can be any statement that catches the reader's interest. A shocking image, a line of dialogue, or a challenging question can all act as hooks. In most academic essays, this is actually the least important part of the introduction, and is often omitted. After all, if someone sits down to read an essay entitled "Anti-heroes triumphant: Iago as the real protagonist of Othello," he probably already has some interest in the topic to begin with. In application essays and in creative pieces, though, hooks become much more important. The author has to catch the readers' interest right away, or their work may be put aside by the reader, who will move on to some other, more promising text.

Background information is important if the reader needs to know certain facts before the thesis makes sense. For example, if the essay is a three page piece on the thesis "God exists," the author will first have to explain what he means by "God," and whether he has a specific God in mind or is merely referring to a generic deity. Defining key terms is especially important in academic essays, because many disagreements that seem to be about important issues are really only disagreements about definitions. For example, proponents of gay marriage and opponents of gay marriage who support the idea of civil unions don't really disagree about anything except the meaning of the word "marriage." To the former, it refers to a legal union that carries with it certain financial benefits and symbolic social approval. To the latter, it refers to a sacrament bestowed by God. In such cases, defining your key terms can prevent a lot of confusion.

A thesis statement is the heart and soul of an essay. For some reason, constructing a good thesis statement gives a lot of students a lot of trouble, but in fact thesis statements aren't too difficult to come up with if you know what characteristics they have.

A thesis statement must be debatable.

This means that following sentences wouldn't work well as thesis statements:

Water freezes at zero degrees Celsius.
Ants live in colonies composed of many thousands of ants.
Oliver Twist is about the struggles of an orphan to survive in a cruel world.
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.
The above sentences are all perfectly true, but they make horrible thesis statements because no one would ever bother disagreeing with them. There is no point in arguing something that everyone already accepts.

A thesis statement must be specific.

Life can only exist in the presence of water.
Ants are fascinating creatures.
Oliver Twist is a condemnation of industrial society.
Global warming is a threat.The above sentences meet the criterion of being debatable, but they are too vague and general to be good thesis statements. They do, however, make good starting points for finding a thesis. It just requires some questioning. In what way are ants fascinating? To whom is global warming a threat? What sort of threat is it?

A thesis statement must be focused enough for the scope of your paper.

Refining the global warming statement given above a bit more yields:

Global warming is a man-made phenomenon that will lead to environmental disaster.
This is debatable, and relatively specific. It might make a very good thesis for, say, a 300 page dissertation. It is unlikely to be a good thesis for a 3 page essay, though, because the author won't have enough room to make a solid case. Proving that global warming is a man-made phenomenon in 3 pages would be hard. Proving that it will lead to disaster would be next to impossible in such a short space. Trying to do both at once is doomed to fail. Again, the existing sentence can provide a starting point for finding a more suitable thesis. What is one way in which global warming could cause trouble for humans, regardless of what is causing it? Any answer to this question will lead to a more specific topic suitable for a smaller essay.

A thesis statement often includes, or is immediately followed by, a list or summary of the points you plan to make in support of it.

A summary of your points usually follows your thesis. Each point should prove your thesis or some element of it. In some cases, your teacher may want you to make them part of thesis, including the list in the same sentence. Normally, though, this is not necessary, and may in fact be impossible if some or all of the points are too complex to be summarized in a single, short clause.

Where do I put my thesis statement?

The answer depends on your teacher or professor, who may have a specific formula he or she wants you to use for your introduction. If you have a choice, the beginning or the end of the introduction both make excellent locations. Putting it at the end allows you to start with a hook, introduce any background information you need, and then move from the general to the specific. If the thesis is about a particularly controversial issue, though, it may act as its own hook. In which case, if you don't have any background information that you need to introduce, you might want to leap right in and make your thesis statement the first sentence in your essay. This is also useful if you have particularly complex points supporting your thesis, since you can use the rest of the introduction to outline those points fully.

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