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Compass-vs The introductory paragraph

The introductory paragraph is the most important in the whole essay. It gives the all-important first impression. By the end of the first paragraph, your tutor may have already made up their mind about how good your essay is likely to be. The introductory paragraph has to do three things:

  1. indicate the overall topic of the essay.
  2. indicate that you are a reliable authority on the subject.
  3. indicate the thesis that your essay will argue and prove.

As an example, read the first paragraph (abridged) from an article on Henri Matisse by Francis Gooding. Look especially at the first two sentences and the last sentence. What do they do?

Black Light
Francis Gooding

In 1914, Henri Matisse makes a painting, La Porte-fenÍtre. The Matisses had spent the early part of the summer in their home in Issy-les-Moulineaux, just outside Paris; after the outbreak of war on 4th August, they went to stay in their villa on the coast at Collioure. Matisse attempted to enlist for military service, and was rejected; they arrived at Collioure on 10th September. La Porte-fenÍtre was painted some time during this summer. […] Matisse had painted open windows before, at Collioure and elsewhere; they are a common subject through his oeuvre. La Porte-fenÍtre of 1914 is unlike all others.


The first two sentences of the introduction

The first two sentences make clear what the rest of the article will be about: the work of Henri Matisse. They also give some context of time and place, and, most importantly, they suggest that the writer knows what he is talking about.

Applying this to your work:
The beginning of your essay must make clear what you're talking about and convey the feeling that you are an authority. For this reason, sound like a professional writer. Avoid lame openings like: “This essay will … ” or “In this essay I will …" You might want to use such a phrase later, but it makes a very dull start.

The final sentence of the introduction

The final sentence implies what the rest of the essay will be about. It will compare this particular painting, La Porte-fenÍtre of 1914, with other paintings of open windows, to show the ways in which it is unique in Matisse's work.

Applying this to your work:
This is a very deft way of indicating the thesis of the essay. It would be much clumsier to say: "This essay will compare this painting with Matisse's other paintings of open windows." Try to write your thesis in a similarly skilful way. For example, it is often good to indicate in your thesis three aspects of a subject that your essay will deal with.

For more examples of professional introductory paragraphs, go here.

The rest of the essay

If you get the first paragraph right, the rest of the essay will flow relatively easily. If your thesis indicates three aspects of the subject that your essay will address, you can deal with them in turn. Each main paragraph will develop your argument, and you may return to your thesis at the end, before rounding off in an interesting, provocative or even humorous way.

Contact me if you would like help with writing a particular essay.

If you read a few journal articles related to your topic, you will see how this all works. You will also see how to do your referencing, a topic that we’ll consider in more detail here.


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