On the Importance of First Impressions: Or, Writing an Introductory Paragraph

By Jessica D’Onofrio

As the age-old cliché goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. In both life and writing, making a stellar first impression is crucial. As a result, students are often apprehensive when it comes to writing those ever-so-important first paragraphs.

To face some of those first paragraph jitters, let us first consider some of the important functions of an introductory paragraph:

  1. First, it is important to grab the attention of your readers so they are eager to continue reading and develop an investment in what you have to say. You might open your paper with a quotation or a broad statement they can relate to.
  2. While engaging your readers, you also want to establish some credibility by having a clear and active voice. Would you be inclined to trust someone who hasn’t taken the time to proofread her or his work for grammatical errors and typos? I certainly wouldn’t.
  3. Now that you’ve begun making a great first impression, it’s time to provide your readers with a sense of the paper’s direction. An effective introduction will function as a roadmap for the readers, informing them of what the paper is going to be about. You might think of your introduction as a spoiler alert, meaning your readers should know where you plan to take your discussion without any surprises later on in the paper. Telling your readers your plan for the paper usually manifests in the form of a thesis statement or claim, in which you assert your main argument.

Imagine you’re writing a paper on the political role of women and literature in nineteenth-century America. Your introduction paragraph might look something like the following:

It is believed that upon meeting renowned author and abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, President Abraham Lincoln exclaimed, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!” In nineteenth-century America, the role of women was traditionally relegated to the domestic realm, while issues of politics and economics were reserved for men to debate in public sphere. In 1852, using the conventions of the sentimental novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin and ignited the antislavery movement in antebellum America. An analysis of Stowe’s novel illustrates the ways in which women used literature to subvert the domestic realm and private sphere to not only infiltrate, but also influence, the political public sphere of nineteenth-century America.

Now that we understand the importance of an introductory paragraph (and have a model), let us consider some strategies for crafting an effective introduction:

  1. Visualize your introduction paragraph as an inverted triangle. You will begin broadly to grab your readers’ attention and locate your topic within a larger conversation or tradition. From there, you will steer your readers closer and closer toward your focus. Ideally, as you move through writing your first paragraph you will narrow down your focus to the point where it will reach its most specific: the presentation of your thesis statement. Thinking of the first paragraph visually is an easy and palpable way to remember the trajectory of the introductory paragraph.
  2. Think of your introduction paragraph as a work-in-progress. You should always assume that after you “finish” writing your paper, you will go back and revise your first paragraph (along with the rest of your essay). Ideally, by the time you finish your paper your topic has evolved and your ideas have developed. While further developing your research through the writing process is a wonderful thing, it also means that what you initially told your readers you were going to discuss, may not end up being what you wrote about. Thinking of your introduction as something you will go back to helps erase some of the jitters of getting started and removes some of the pressure of getting it perfect. If you begin writing a paper knowing that you will revise your introduction then you can use that space to get your ideas flowing and ease yourself into writing the body of your paper. Revisit and revise your introductory paragraph in the final stages of the writing process to ensure you are making a killer first impression on your readers.
  3. Don’t fret if you’re still apprehensive about beginning your paper. One alternative to revising your introduction after you have finished the rest of your paper is starting your introduction after you have finished writing the body of your paper. Logically it seems normal or expected to write an introduction first, since it’s the first part of the paper. Not so fast! The logic behind the importance of revising your introduction after writing the rest of your paper lends itself to the possibility of writing your entire introductory paragraph after you write the body of your paper. Perhaps when you began writing you weren’t entirely sure of your exact argument or maybe your argument took shape as you were writing your body paragraphs. Christopher Columbus set out to find a more efficient route to Asia and discovered the “New World.” In case you too discover a whole new world while writing your paper, consider writing your introduction later on in the process to ensure you are guiding your readers down the path your paper actually travels.

As you can see, there is a great deal of strategy behind making a good first impression or writing an impressive introductory paragraph. The good news is that a conclusion paragraph often parallels the introduction paragraph. Now that you know the function of an introductory paragraph and some strategies to writing one, you’re also on your way to writing an effective conclusion!

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