Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun


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On writing essay introductions

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.