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Introductory paragraphs

If you think about introductions to formal communication (e.g., presentations, academic writing), you’ll likely find similarities: they begin with broad context that engages the audience; they proceed to explain why the topic is important to the speaker, author, and/or audience; and they finish by identifying the specific focus of the presentation or writing. I like to think of this approach as an inverted triangle:

In academic writing, the thesis statement identifies the specific focus of the discussion. For example, in the “Introduction to Academic Writing” video, I used this example thesis statement: “Royal Roads University is unique amongst post-secondary institutions on Vancouver Island because of its history, diversity of wildlife, Hatley Park, and educational programs”. Unless I provide some contextual information before that statement, a reader would have a difficult time understanding why I’m focusing on that topic in my discussion. However, using the triangle approach, I can provide background information that will allow my reader to understand why I think the topic is significant:

Broad context: Working professionals who want to pursue educational programs while remaining at home and in their jobs need flexible delivery models that suit their needs.

Why the topic is important: While there are many universities and colleges in Canada that offer programs intended for mature students, the decision to enroll in a program involves more than just deciding on a degree. Rather, prospective students are looking for both personally and professionally enriching experiences.

Thesis statement: Royal Roads University offers students a transformative experience that is unique amongst post-secondary institutions on Vancouver Island because of its history, diversity of wildlife, Hatley Park, and education programs.

With those three elements in place, I’ve given my reader sufficient context to understand the relevance of the topic as well as the specific focus in the rest of the document.

When deciding on introductory context, consider carefully what information is necessary as starting with an extremely broad statement requires the author to lead the reader through all of the connections to reach the thesis statement. For example, if I started my introduction at “Deciding to go to university is a major choice”, I would have numerous connections to make before I could logically get to “Royal Roads University offers students a transformative experience that is unique amongst post-secondary institutions on Vancouver Island because of its history, diversity of wildlife, Hatley Park, and education programs.” To employ an analogy, think about an athlete completing a long jump. The athletes use starting points that allow them to build maximum velocity before they jump, thereby giving them the optimum opportunity for distance in the jump. If the athlete first had to run around an entire track before starting his or her approach, the athlete would likely be exhausted when it came time to jump. Similarly, discussions that begin too broadly can make it difficult for the reader to understand how all of the details are significant. Introductions don’t need to be exhausting; instead, start at the point that will most effectively launch your reader into the discussion.

For more information on writing introductions, please see the links to resources in Paragraphs, and for information on writing effective thesis statements, please visit Thesis statements/Research questions.

Do you have any questions about this tip or any other writing matter? Please contact the Writing Centre as we’d be pleased to assist you.

Theresa Bell
Writing Centre manager

(Originally published in Crossroads September 26, 2017; also see "Concluding Paragraphs")

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