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Crafting the Introduction: Writing

Overview of crafting introductions

The introductions to most academic essays will combine some or all of the following elements:

  • Opening context, which eases the reader into the essay.
  • An aim statement, which expresses the essay's specific intentions and relates closely to the title.
  • The thesis statement, which concisely conveys the essay's central argument.
  • An essay map, which briefly presents the essay's structure or 'main beats'.

Explore the tabs above to learn more about each of these elements, or writing conventions.

You can also watch one of our recorded workshops on writing introductions and conclusions. One is for typical academic essays, and the other provides guidance specific to dissertations. You'll find these below.

What is the opening context?

To begin an essay, you should 'ease in' the reader by providing a sense of the relevant context around your writing topic.

What qualifies as relevant varies greatly from one assignment to the next, so learning from authors in your field is a great way to hone this skill. When you read an academic article, does the writer first give you some historical background? A summary of market trends? A synopsis of industry goals?

The key aims of your opening context sentences are to situate the reader and pave the way to your thesis and/or aim statement(s).

The funnel or 'inverted pyramid' model

Inverted pyramid with broadest top section labelled 'Context' and narrower bottom labelled 'Focus and Aims'.

Although the thesis statement is arguably the most important feature of a traditional academic introduction, it will usually appear towards the end of the paragraph rather than at the start. This is because the central argument (i.e., the thesis) will read with greater clarity and strength if you first take a few beats to orient the reader.

Imagine the introduction as a funnel: it's broadest at the top and then grows narrower.

The content of most introductions is shaped similarly. You open by situating the reader in the broad context, and from there you narrow down to the essay's specific focus and aims.


How 'broad' is too broad?

Funnel shape with cavemen using tools at top and 3D printer at bottom. Text attached to cavemen reads 'Too broad'.

This is a good question, and finding the answer can take some trial and error as you draft and edit. For example, imagine you are writing an essay that explores how 3D printing is revolutionizing machine tooling in factories. As you type up your very first draft, you write...

Since the dawn of history, humans have used tools. They originally used tools found in their environment, such as sticks and rocks, but began to craft tools for specific purposes as the centuries wore on [...].

If those sentences help you start writing your rough draft, great! But for the assignment aims, that opening context is far too broad, so you will edit to tighten the scope.

In the second draft, your context sentences might provide a brief overview of other industries affected by the invention of 3D printing, then narrow the focus to machine tooling, specifically. Alternately, your context sentences might briefly summarize traditional technology for machine tooling, then narrow to the arrival of 3D printing.

Top tips 

  • Learn from writers in your academic discipline. When you read articles, pay attention to how the writers 'set the stage' for you as a reader by providing context at the start.
  • Picture your introduction as a funnel or inverted pyramid: start with broad context, then narrow to your essay's specific focus.
  • Don't worry about being 'too broad' in your first draft: you can edit later to enhance the relevance.

What is the thesis statement?

The thesis statement is the central argument clearly stated early in an essay. This should appear in your introduction and tends to consist of a single sentence. In a longer or more complex work, however, the thesis statement might comprise a few sentences working together to articulate the argument.

Your thesis statement should be the cornerstone of your essay – a central focus that you consistently refer back to when developing your argument.

NOTE: If you are writing an assignment that doesn't call for a central argument, you might have an aim statement in your introduction, but no thesis statement. Aim statements are discussed in the next tab of this guide.

Refining the thesis statement

Take the time to refine your thesis statement. 'Refining' entails both reflection and action. You should reflect on the nuances and precise nature of your stance; then, take action by continuing to edit or rework your thesis until it captures your intended meaning.

  • Be succinct. Again, most thesis statements will be a single sentence.
  • Choose the verb(s) carefully. Are you arguing? Discussing? Analysing?
  • Be specific with important adjectives and nouns. Try to avoid vague or imprecise words.

Examples of editing a thesis

Consider this example of the first draft of a thesis statement:

The British prison system has a negative impact on inmates.

This is a fine start because it at least suggests a stance, or argument, but that stance isn't clear enough due to word choices. For example, by 'British prison system', does the writer mean sentencing practices, conditions of the prisons themselves, or something else? In the second draft, the writer begins to refine their thesis:

The current conditions in British prisons have a negative impact on inmates.

This is an improvement, as we now know the writer is referring to conditions within the prisons themselves. However, 'negative impact' remains vague, so the writer should take more time to reflect on the nuances or specifics of their argument. After thinking it through, the writer produces a third draft of their thesis:

This essay argues that the current conditions in British prisons are having a detrimental impact on the mental health of inmates.

Another improvement! The reader will now understand that the argument centres on harm to inmates' mental health, specifically.

Three basic illustrations of an essay and pencil gradually coming into focus, with text reading 'Draft, Reflect, Refine'.

The 'thesis' as 'hypothesis'

As you draft the body of your assignment, you might look back at your thesis statement and realise it no longer 'matches' the essay you have produced. Don't panic if this happens! Throughout the writing process, our thinking may evolve as we discover new information and forge connections between ideas.

Due to this, some writers find it helpful to frame their thesis statement as a hypothesis statement until the essay is closer to completion. Just as a scientist tests a hypothesis through experimentation, a writer can test their hypothesis statement by considering the available research/evidence and applying critical thought.

If you spot a mismatch between your (hypo)thesis statement and the essay's body, the solution will depend on why the mismatch came about.

  • An evolution of thought - This occurs when you expected to demonstrate or support one stance, but your thinking and research begin to suggest a different stance is more viable. In other words, the initial hypothesis has been disproven.
    • Solution - Edit your thesis statement to reflect the new (and stronger!) argument.
  • Getting off track - This occurs when you have included claims and evidence that stray too far from the paper's central focus. In this scenario, the initial hypothesis hasn't been disproven; instead, you have added content that neither proves nor disproves the hypothesis.
    • Solution - Be ruthless in editing the body of your essay. Remind yourself of the central argument, and cut anything that lacks a clear connection.

Top tips 

  • Write the thesis statement as clearly and simply as possible.
  • In order to focus your mind on a central idea/argument, write the thesis at the top of your plan or outline
  • Make connections between your body paragraphs and the thesis statement as a way of developing your central argument and maintaining your essay’s focus. This should happen in the analysis section of your paragraphs.
  • If you detect a mismatch between your thesis statement and the essay's body, take time to diagnose the problem and edit accordingly. Treating the thesis as a hypothesis during drafting can help some writers.

What is the aim statement?

The aim statement helps you transition from the broader opening context to the specific focus and goals of your assignment. As the name suggests, the aim statement tells the reader what you aim to do, or what you will set out to achieve, in the essay.

The aim statement will not present your argument: remember, that is the thesis statement's job. You can think of it this way: the aim statement says what you intend to do, and the thesis statement conveys the argument you will make as a result of that 'doing'.

Crafting the aim statement

In many cases, the aim statement is simply a rewording of your essay's title. For example, imagine Omar has written an essay titled 'Gee Willikers: Colloquialisms as Horror in the Novels of Stephen King'. Omar's aim statement for the essay might read...

By analysing the language used in three Stephen King novels, this essay aims to explore the relationship between King's 'folksy' colloquialisms and the audience's experience of horror.

As you can see, the aim statement relates directly to the essay title. Note, too, that the aim statement doesn't articulate Omar's argument. It says what he will do: he will 'analyse' and 'explore'. However, it doesn't say what he will conclude, or argue, as a result of that analysis and exploration. Omar will therefore follow the aim statement with a thesis statement that presents his argument.

Example of refining an aim statement

Your aim statement should be specific, clear and achievable. You might need to rewrite your aim statement a few times to improve its focus and specificity.

Imagine Xander is writing a nursing paper. Xander has confirmed via their rubric that using the first-person 'I' is acceptable for this assignment. Their first draft of the aim statement looks like this:

I aim to figure out the best way to communicate with patients.

Reading this, we know the paper will focus in some way on patient communication practices, but it isn't clear what Xander will do. Will they analyse a case study? Present the results of an original survey? Conduct a systematic review? Xander reflects on their writing purpose and produces this second draft of the aim statement:

I will determine which existing model for patient communication is the best.

This is an improvement because we now understand Xander is talking about existing models or frameworks for communication. However, it still isn't specific enough. Additionally, labelling one model 'the best' likely isn't an achievable aim; their analysis will surely be more nuanced than 'the best' versus 'the worst'. Xander refines their aim statement some more to produce this third draft:

I will compare three prevalent models for patient communication to assess their relevance and efficacy within an urgent care setting.

Now we're talking! This final revision is clear about what Xander will do: 'compare' and 'assess'. Xander has improved the specificity, too: we now know they aren't examining every communication model, but just three of the most prevalent models. Finally, limiting the analysis to urgent care settings will make their discussion more achievable.

Top tips

  • Reflect and refine to make your aim statement clear, specific, and achievable.
  • Use the aim statement to move from broader context to the specific goals and focus of your assignment.
  • Play with verb choices to accurately convey what it is you will do. Will you analyse, define, survey, consider, explore, juxtapose, etc.?

What is an essay map?

Introductions will universally provide the reader with an understanding of where the essay is headed. In some contexts, it makes sense to include an essay map that explicitly states the 'steps' the paper will take. Put another way, the essay map presents the paper's 'main beats' in order.

An essay map is helpful because it provides the reader with an organised understanding of the work they are about to enter. The map will often directly precede or follow the thesis/aim statements, though in some cases the map contains those statements, as we'll explore below.

Styles and examples of essay maps

We're using essay map as a blanket term to describe the moves made in the introduction to signal the shape or path of the writing to follow. However, that mapping can take different forms depending on your needs and preferences. We will share two of the most common styles of mapping, below.

Presentation of themes/subtopics

This style works in tandem with the thesis statement, presenting (in order) the major subtopics or themes that will be explored. Consider this example, with the essay's main subtopics highlighted:

THESIS→ While the implementation of no-fault policy has succeeded in removing many outdated barriers to divorce, court fee costs remain prohibitive to those with lower incomes; thus, this essay argues for the introduction of an income-contingent (or 'sliding scale') system of court fees. ESSAY MAP→ The proposed system will be justified through comparisons with relevant international law, a demographic analysis of UK divorces, and an examination of how sliding scales function in other contexts.

In this example, the writer is arguing for an amendment to UK divorce law. Their essay map signals to the reader that the main argument will be defended using three strategies. The reader now knows to expect those three lines of support (in the order stated) in the body of the essay.

GPS travel line showing start and finish. Arrows labelled 1, 2, and 3 run length.

Sequential by the writer's 'moves'

This style of essay map charts in order what the writer will do. In other words, it lines up the writer's rhetorical moves, often using a 'first > then > next > finally' style that reflects the essay's structure. The thesis statement sometimes (but not always) appears within the mapping when using this style. Here is an example with the overt 'mapping words' highlighted:

ESSAY MAP→ In this essay, I first outline the reforms to divorce law that became active in April 2022. Next, I define the concepts of 'fault' and 'discrimination' through several legal perspectives. THESIS→ Using that foundation, I argue that the abolition of court fees is the next step necessary to ensure equal and nondiscriminatory access to divorce in the UK. ESSAY MAP→ Finally, I recommend realistic actions the government could take to finance the suggested abolition of fees.

This writer's argument is similar to the one above, yet they have chosen a different mapping style. Paying attention to the choices made by other writers in your discipline can help you build a range of mapping techniques, and then choose the best technique for the writing context at hand.

Drafting and revising essay maps

Even a tentative essay map can be a helpful tool while drafting your essay: you can look back at the map to check if you're 'staying on course', so to speak. Remember, though, that your stance and thinking may evolve during the production of your first draft.

For example, imagine that Jameela first envisions using ideas A, B, C and D to illustrate the merits of a viral marketing strategy that she has designed. Her essay map looks like this...

[...]. By adopting this marketing approach, the company will see benefits including A, B, C and D.

But as Jameela continues writing, she starts to feel like idea B is weaker than the others. She also comes up with another merit, idea E, that she didn't think about during her initial planning. Finally, she realises it makes more sense for the reader to hear idea C before idea A. This is all great: it shows Jameela is refining her work and embracing the recursive nature of writing. She therefore edits her final essay map to look like this...

[...]. By adopting this marketing approach, the company will see benefits including C, AD and E.

Remember, then, that you should build in time to edit and proofread your introduction (including the essay map) AFTER you have completed your entire rough draft: this will let you account for any changes to the original plan.

You might also need to edit your essay map to accommodate style conventions for your discipline or assignment. For example, are you writing in a context that prefers first-person pronouns ('First, I will...') or third-person voice ('First, this essay will...')? You can use what feels most comfortable in your rough draft, but you should edit the final draft to adhere to expectations in your field.

Top tips

  • Pay attention to mapping techniques in the introductions of papers you read: emulate the methods that you find most helpful as a reader.
  • Theme/subtopic mapping can be used with different numbers of themes/subtopics: just make sure you aren't listing so many subtopics that the essay map becomes confusing. If it's too long, try grouping similar subtopics together.
  • The body of your essay might develop each theme/subtopic in more than one paragraph: you aren't limited to a single paragraph per theme.
  • The map itself can be more than one sentence, especially if each subtopic is complex and can't be neatly summarized within a one-sentence list.

Bringing it all together

  • Introductions usually contain some mixture of these common conventions: opening context, thesis statements, aim statements and essay maps.
  • Introductions use the above conventions as means to orient the reader, letting them know what to expect of the piece of writing that follows.

An example

The below example shows all four of the common introductory conventions in play:

OPENING CONTEXT→ Films and television shows set within versions of the zombie apocalypse frequently feature storylines of migration and escape. Characters might embark of their own volition in search of a cure, or they might be forced to flee by the arrival of malicious strangers. Generally, films portray these characters as travelling by foot or car, but not by bicycle. AIM STATEMENT→ This essay aims to explore how films help to marginalise the bicycle as a viable alternative to transport requiring oil-based fuels. THESIS STATEMENT→ This paper argues that the absence of bicycles in such films reflects the importance of oil in contemporary society. ESSAY MAP→ This paper first introduces the role of transport in several source films: The Road, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, and Zombie Land. It then argues that there is no clear reason in the context of the films why the characters would not use bicycles. Finally, the lack of bicycles in zombie films will be shown as reflective of a marginal status for this form of transport in ways that demonstrate the power of oil business over pop culture.

Remember, these four conventions can be adjusted to suit your needs. For example, a thesis statement without an aim statement will suffice for some papers. If writing a very short assignment, you might discover an essay map isn't as valuable (and indeed, it could be a poor use of a truly limited word count!).

Disciplinary differences

  • The requirements of introductions across assignments and/or disciplines can vary, so pay attention to...
    • The language used, and expectations conveyed, in the assignment prompt;
    •  The 'moves' authors in your field make near the beginning of academic articles.
  • With time, you will learn to 'mix and match' the elements that best suit the needs of the writing context at hand.
  • Check with your teaching staff if unsure about pronouns and passive/active voice.
    • Some assignments call for a passive voice and avoidance of the first-person 'I/my' (e.g. 'An experiment was conducted', not 'I conducted an experiment').
    • However, an active voice that embraces the first-person 'I/my' will suit other assignments (e.g. 'I interpret this as a positive development', not 'The development was interpreted as positive').

First position = final edit

ALWAYS return your editorial eye to the introduction after editing the rest of your essay. Why? In short...

  • You must ensure the introduction reflects what you actually did and not what you thought you would do.

Because the intro comes first, it sets the marker's expectations of your intentions. A mismatch between the statement of your intentions (i.e., the intro) and the content itself causes confusion, and such a mismatch will lose you marks even if the essay's body is well developed and compelling.

Again, make sure to return to your introduction at the end of your editing and proofreading work. It's worth the effort!

Video workshops

To explore the ideas presented in this guide in video format, please check out the workshop recordings, below.