- In today’s world …
- Throughout human history …
- Since the dawn of time …
These opening words are so common in student writing. One reason is that many students are asked to master the five-paragraph format, and that format usually uses the “funnel” introduction, starting very general and gradually narrowing to a specific thesis. As a result, students frequently write introductions for college papers in which the first two or three (or more) sentences are very obvious or too vague. This is the time for you to try something better.
Why? Well, for one thing, those kinds of introductions are often boring and empty of any important meaning. Even worse, these sentences are often wrong. For example, someone may write, “Since the dawn of time, people have tried to increase crop yields.” In reality, people have not been trying to increase crop yields throughout human history — agriculture is only about 23,000 years old, after all — and certainly not since the dawn of time (whenever that was). Finally, sentences that start so broadly, even when factually correct, could not possibly end with anything interesting.
So what should you do? Well, start at the beginning. Start by explaining what the reader needs to know to understand your thesis and its importance. For example, compare the following two paragraphs:
|Five-Paragraph Essay Version||Organic Essay Version|
|Technology existed since the beginning of time. It has always been helpful for everyone. For many years, humans have tried to use technology to improve their lives and make themselves more comfortable. But every technology has some challenge to overcome. Smart clothing is a new technology to benefit all human’s health. It can be very useful and even save lives, but it needs power, and that means it needs an electrical outlet. This is a problem for people on the go. New fashion designs can solve this problem by using wireless charging technology.||“Cut the cord!” was a familiar saying among the first fans of streaming services such as Netflix. The phrase encouraged people to leave behind traditional cable TV that relied on a physical cable. It reflected a shift to receiving entertainment by broadband internet connection. Today, even with high-speed wi-fi connections and cloud computing, there is still the ongoing problem of searching for an electrical power outlet to charge one’s smartphone or other mobile device. The same problem affects the newest addition to the family of mobile technology: smart clothing and, even more specifically, smart underwear. However, if fashion designers can effectively integrate wireless charging technology into their clothing designs, then their customers will always be dressed for success.|
In the first version, there are very general and vague statements. There is little context to understand the new technology, and far less to understand the problem and solution, or its implications. The organic version, on the other hand, compares today’s situation with that of an earlier generation. It offers more specifics about the technology, the problem, and the solution. It’s both informative and focused.
Students who stick to the five-paragraph theme format sometimes assume that such general and vague statements are needed to start and end an otherwise detailed paper. That is simply untrue. If you must write a vague “since the dawn of time” intro to get the writing process going, then go ahead. Just allow time to rewrite the intro once you have developed your clear thesis.
Here is another example of an excellent introductory paragraph written by former ESOL student Claudia Lorena Vargas. Note how (1) the first sentence has real substance, (2) every sentence is indispensable to setting up the thesis, and (3) the thesis is complex and generates interest to keep reading:
Dating back to about 1,600 B.C., an ancient Egyptian textbook on trauma, known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus, describes multiple cases of tumors or ulcers, although there was no known treatment at that time. Nowadays a cancer diagnosis at least gives a patient the choice between the acceptance of premature death or experiencing a variety of treatment side effects. Women, for example, need to take into consideration all the various treatments available to them for breast cancer, including surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. While each of the various treatment options carry their own risk associated with numerous potential side effects, statistics on chemotherapy will show, however, that in most cases the risks have been outweighed by the treatment’s successes. Assisted by the speed of science and technology, advances in cancer treatments are changing the outlook for the future.
Wait! If vague introductory paragraphs are bad, why were you taught them? Well, you were taught the form so that you could later use it to deepen your thinking. You’ve probably been taught to proceed from “general” to “specific” in your intro and encouraged to think of “general” as “vague”. At the college level, however, think of “general” as context: begin by explaining the conceptual, historical, or factual context that the reader needs in order to grasp the significance of the argument to come. In other words, it’s less general-to-specific and more context-to-argument.
Wrapping it up
Strong conclusions do two things: first, they bring the essay to a satisfying close and, second, they explain some of the most important implications, or possible consequences. You’ve probably been taught to re-state your thesis using different words, and it is true that your reader will likely appreciate a brief summary of your overall paper. That’s easy enough.
The second task, however, is a lot trickier. A lot of instructors describe it as the “So what?” challenge. You’ve proven your point about something. Great. So what? In other words, why was it important to think about that idea? You might imagine a friendly reader thinking, “OK, you’ve convinced me of your argument. I’m interested to know what you make of this conclusion. What is or should be different now that your thesis is proven?” In that sense, your reader is asking you to take your analysis one step further. That’s why a good conclusion is challenging to write. You can’t just relax and say “the end.”
So, what do you do? Remember the three-story thesis? Well, the third story of a three-story thesis connects your ideas to the bigger world. It presents the implications of your idea. If you’ve already articulated a thesis statement that does that, then you’ve already mapped out the conclusion. Your task then is to explain the implications you mentioned. For example, if the last sentence of your three-story thesis says that environmental justice really is the new civil rights movement, then what should people do about it? If your current thesis is a two-story one, then you may want to revisit it after you’ve developed a conclusion you’re satisfied with and consider including the key implication in that thesis statement. Doing so will make your paper stronger from the beginning.
Take a look at the conclusion paragraph of the research paper by former ESOL student Claudia Lorena Vargas:
With advancements in technology, those that have been diagnosed with cancer have many more options for treatment than patients years before them had. While treatment options can vary between minor surgery to complete breast removal, with the addition of radiation or even chemotherapy treatments, the opportunity for survival has increased dramatically. Although cancer has a very long history that is able to be traced back for thousands of years, technology has advanced so much in recent times that those who now have it not only have a better chance of fighting it, but a realistic opportunity of beating it altogether. While not without trials, today’s science and technology has at least given those that receive a cancer diagnosis options for them to consider, and possibly even the opportunity for them to choose how to move forward with the rest of their lives.
Can you see how she not only restated her thesis, but she addressed its implications? ESOL students are often advised to end with an opinion, suggestion, or prediction. Those are forms of implications, but the most effective statement will not be simply your casual observation; instead it will be an informed conclusion that grows from the thesis and is supported by all the information that came in the body of the essay.
Think about what you just read about introductions and conclusions. Then write one healthy paragraph with the two points below. Write in complete sentences. Remember to include a clear topic sentence, supporting details, and transitions that link your ideas.
- KNEW: Share something about intros/outros that you already knew.
- NEW: Share something about intros/outros that was new to you.
Text adapted from: Guptill, Amy. Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence. 2022. Open SUNY Textbooks, 2016, milneopentextbooks.org/writing-in-college-from-competence-to-excellence/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2022. CC BY-NC-SA