Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

On writing essay introductions

11 Comments

I’ve just spent a week endlessly marking exam scripts and this has prompted me to write something about how to approach philosophy/political theory essay introductions.

The vast majority of undergraduate essays I have seen either skip an introduction altogether or, more commonly, look something like this:

Philosophers have disagreed about whether theory X is a good theory for n period of time. In this essay I will consider theory X. I will examine some arguments in favour of X before looking at some arguments against X.

Please, if you are writing an essay, do not begin like that! I’m beginning to get cramps in my hand from writing the same comment alongside every introduction I read (perhaps I should buy a stamp?). Whilst the quality of your introduction will not make a huge difference to your overall mark it does a) provide a valuable first impression, and b) help you organise your own thoughts. So, how should you approach the introduction? Here’s what your introduction should do:

  • Lay out your key claims.
  • Tell the reader what reasons you plan to give in support of your conclusion.
  • Outline any reasons against your conclusions and say how you will overcome them.
  • Define any key terms.
  • Signpost to the reader how your essay will be structured.

Note, these rules are of course there to be broken, but it’s better to wait until you’re a good writer before you start doing so. When you define your terms, it’s OK to do so briefly in the intro and then give a fuller definition later. Also, avoid making the intro a long list of such definitions. The most important thing you can do is to say what your claims are and what premises they rest upon.

Once you’ve introduced your essay, use the main body of your essay to show that the reasons you give in support of your conclusion are a) true or likely to be true, and b) lead logically to your conclusion (i.e., that if the premises are true, then so must the conclusion be).

Here are a couple of examples:

 Q. Are Jaffa Cakes better described as cakes or biscuits?

A. In this essay I will show that Jaffa Cakes are better described as cakes than they are biscuits. A biscuit is a small baked product, either savoury or sweet, whereas a cake is a bread-like, sweet, baked dessert. In the first part of my essay I will offer fuller conceptualisations of the terms cake and biscuit, before moving on to demonstrate that the physical characteristics of Jaffa Cakes mean that they are most properly conceived of as cakes. The latter part of my essay will be devoted to addressing two common objections to the claim that Jaffa Cakes are cakes. These objections are: first, that Jaffa Cakes are too small to be cakes, and second, that Jaffa Cakes are more commonly eaten like biscuits than they are cakes. In response to the first objection, I will demonstrate that a particular size range is not a necessary condition for correct ascription of the term cake, and in reply to the second objection, I will show that although desserts usually conclude a meal, it is not necessary that they always do so. Finally, before concluding, I will consider the claim that biscuits are a form of cake, meaning that Jaffa Cakes can correctly be called either cake or biscuit. Although I concede that all biscuits are cakes, I argue in turn that it does not follow that all cakes are therefore biscuits.

 Q. Is Manchester United a better football team than Manchester City?

A. In this essay I defend the claim that Manchester City is a better team than Manchester United. I begin defining what makes a football team good, focussing on: team spirit; trophies won; recent and current league form; financial stability; quality of strip; player haircuts and tattoos; managerial tactics; and who has the best supporters and chants. I argue that Manchester City is a better team because a) its supporter chants are better, and b) it is a richer club. Further, I claim that the difference between United and City is negligible in most of the other categories listed above. In response to the claim that current league form and number of trophies should be weighted more heavily than haircuts and bank-balance, I will respond by claiming ‘Who are ya? who are ya?’. I conclude with a two-fingered salute.

So, to conclude, don’t just tell the reader that you will do X, make sure that you also tell them how you will do X. Doing so will enable the reader to follow your argument more easily and will force you to clearly structure your essay, it will also save me from marking-induced insanity.

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Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

11 thoughts on “On writing essay introductions

  1. Great advice Steve! In total agreement about the standard essay introduction – a few flowery but empty of content sentences that usually begin with “Justice is a concept that philosophers have debated for centuries….” (Disclaimer: this was the sentence I began my undergraduate dissertation with, for shame).

    This is the rather cheesy and cliched advice I give all my students about essay writing:

    An essay is a journey. You are taking the reader on a journey to a destination. It’s essential that before we set out, you tell me exactly where you’re taking me, and how we’re going to get there – the points we’ll be stopping at along the way.

    The introduction should be a map to the essay. First of all, tell me what our destination is: “In this essay I am going to defend the claim that Jaffa Cakes are best understood as cakes, and not biscuits”. Then you should tell me what points we’re going to stop at along the way in order to reach this destination: “first, I offer fuller definitions of the terms ‘cake’ and ‘biscuit’; second, I demonstrate that the physical characteristics of Jaffa Cakes mean that they more closely fit the definition of cake, rather than biscuit; finally, I address some common objections, and conclude that despite the fact that Jaffa Cakes are typically consumed in the same manner as biscuits, this is insufficient to warrant the ascription of the label ‘biscuit’.

    This introduction serves as a map not just for your reader, but also for you as you are writing your essay. You then proceed to follow the map you have laid out, stopping at each of these points in turn, and at each one, signposting the reader back to the overall thesis you are trying to defend, explaining how this stop along the journey is helping us to get towards our final destination. (This goes to support my thesis that Jaffa Cakes are a type of cake, not a biscuit, because…) This signposting is essential, as it is this that turns a series of disconnected observations into an essay with a clear and coherent argument, acting as a strong narrative thread pulling all the various points together.

    Don’t make any detours. Don’t stop at any points that don’t help us to get to our destination. For everything you tell me, ask yourself – how does this help me to advance my overall argument? How does stopping at this way point help me to get the reader to our destination? If it doesn’t, then don’t tell me it. It’s a useless detour, and we haven’t got time to take the scenic route.

    If you do this, then by the time we get to our destination, there should be no surprises. You shouldn’t need to tell me anything new in the conclusion at all, because you’ve told me all along the way where we’re going, and what progress we’re making getting there. So the conclusion only needs to be a couple of brief sentences wrapping up, telling me where we are now (I don’t think you need to recap how we got there – I know this, I just read your essay!)

    This “Essay is a Journey, the Introduction is a Map, Keep Signposting along the Way” metaphor is probably very cheesy and cliched, but I have had lots of students tell me it really helped them to think of it this way, and helped to make the important points you’ve made stick in their minds.

    • That’s good advice and a good metaphor, thanks. I try to repeat ‘ no surprises in the conclusion’ as often as I can as that’s another fairly common mistake I see – the reader should know what’s coming.

      • I think it happens because they haven’t followed the other steps – they haven’t made enough use of signposting along the way, or developed a strong, clear and positive argument throughout the essay. The main body of the essay in a mediocre essay says:

        “Here are all the arguments in favour of thinking Jaffa Cakes are cakes – blah blah blah;
        Here are all the arguments in favour of thinking Jaffa Cakes are biscuits – blah blah blah”.

        Then they get to the end and realize they haven’t argued anything yet. So then out of the blue in the conclusion they say:

        “In conclusion, I believe Jaffa Cakes are cakes!”

        And it comes as a complete surprise.

        Perhaps this is also caused by starting to write the essay without actually planning it, so that as they are writing, they have no idea what they want to argue, and the conclusion is as much of a surprise to them as it is to the reader.

      • Ha! That’s almost certainly it, that and the desire to make sure nothing of potential mark-bearing weight is left out.

  2. A good piece, thanks, and seeing as I’m in the midst of marking end-of-term examinations, I feel your pain regarding the formulas we often encounter.

    (Whispers: it’s also best to avoid contradictions in your introductions – “In this essay I defend the claim that Manchester City is a better team than Manchester City”.)

  3. I am currently in the middle of essay marking and think I’ll just stick a link to this post at the bottom of every person’s feedback sheet.

  4. Great post, Steve! (Long time no e-speak, by the way – and I’m delighted that everything has turned out nicely for you!)

    My only question is: why are you writing advice on exam scripts? Unless things have changed since I was at Manchester, students will never see your comments.

    Anyway, I’ll borrow some of your and Becca’s advice for future essay-writing guidance for my students – great tips here.

    • Hi Adrian – good to hear from you, thanks for the comments, and nice to discover you’re blogging too.

      I write on scripts for three reasons 1) for the benefit of anyone moderating my marking, 2) to help my own train of thought, and 3) because the students, as far as I know, are entitled to ask for their script back and on the off-chance that they do I like to include very brief comments.

      • That’s extremely professional!

        My own view, for what it’s worth, is that reason 1 won’t usually be necessary, reason 2 will become less necessary the more you mark, and reason 3 is so rare that you would increase utility more by spending the same amount of time writing guidance which would benefit all students as opposed to the very few who ask for their script back.

        As regards 3, this year I provided an “examiner’s report” on the previous year’s exam in the new reading list, e.g. highlighting common errors. You won’t be surprised to learn that most students simply didn’t notice this part of the reading list at all. Next year I might take out the equivalent of a full-page ‘ad’ in the reading list to draw their attention to it, e.g. a picture of me and the slogan ‘Adrian wants YOU to read the advice on the next page’.

        More generally, it is very hard not to write on exam scripts, especially when something really odd has been written – I feel like I don’t want the second-marker to think I haven’t seen it! I therefore force myself not to write anything on the script, and I would recommend this to anyone marking exams. Assessed essays, by contrast, are a totally different matter.

      • You’re right, it is really hard not to write on the scripts, the margins of mine usually have exclamation and question marks at all the points where students have made odd, erroneous, or dubious claims.

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