5. Introductions and Conclusions
An American newspaper editor once gave young journalists the following advice on how to write a newspaper article: “First you tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em. Then you tell ’em. Then you tell ’em what you just told ’em.”
It is not the most exciting advice in the world and, if taken literally, it could result in some fairly boring and repetitive articles. But there is an element of common sense here too. An article – or an essay – can be divided into three parts: a beginning, a middle and an end. The middle is where the main content will be and where the writer will succeed or fail in tackling the task he or she has been given. Why worry about an introduction and a conclusion, then?
Well, for one thing, it is human nature. Whether we are giving a speech or just having a conversation, we have a need to build up to what we have to say and to round it off afterwards. Not doing so would make both the speech and the conversation seem rather abrupt and even confusing. So, while introductions and conclusions are not essential for the content of an essay, they can be an aid to communication and a way of focussing the reader’s attention on what is being said.
It is important to emphasise that there are as many ways to introduce and conclude essays as there are essays, and that many successful introductions and conclusions do not stick to the guidelines described below. But many of them do tend to follow particular patterns, and being aware of these can help you to increase your own repertoire.
An essay’s introduction usually aims to do at least one of the following: 1) to gain the reader’s attention for what is come, 2) to whet the reader’s appetite or 3) to provide the reader with the necessary information to understand the main part of the essay. A good introduction will often do all three of these things.
One strategy for writing introductions is to go from the general to the specific. “The specific” in this case is what the task requires you to do, the central thesis or theme of the essay. “The general” means the broader perspective in which this task belongs. In other words, the introduction “zooms in” on the main focus. For example, if you are writing an essay on a particular historical event, your introduction might take as its point of departure the period of history in which this event belongs. If, on the other hand, it is a social issue, e.g. racism, that is the main focus of your essay, you might open with a reference to the historical context in which racism arose.
One tool that can be useful in this “zooming in” process is the anecdote or the quotation. The opening paragraph of this piece of writing is an example of that; the anecdote about the newspaper editor has obvious relevance to the topic of writing introductions and conclusions and places it in a wider context. Obviously, this tool will only be successful if the anecdote or quotation is apt (i.e. fits the topic well) and fairly short. Introductions should not be so long or complicated as to draw attention away from the main body of the essay.
Another strategy for writing introductions is the thesis statement. This is a statement that sets out clearly what you aim to achieve in the essay. Rather like the courtroom attorney telling the jury how you are going to prove that your client is innocent of any crime, you are informing the reader of your intentions. This strategy should be used with care. For one thing, your essay is usually a response to a particular task that functions as a heading. If your introduction simply repeats this task, it is pointless and will seem very mechanical. Secondly, you must make very sure that you actually fulfil the promises you make in this sort of introduction.
A third introductory strategy is to set out the basic facts or information which the main part of your essay will build on. You are often faced with a dilemma here; how much of the social or historical context should you suppose is familiar to your “imagined reader”? Or if, for example, you are writing about a short story, how much do you need to tell about the plot? How much of the background of the main character do you need to explain?
The answer to these questions will depend on the task in hand, but as a general rule we can say that you can imagine your reader to be someone with the same level of knowledge and insight as yourself. If you are writing about a short story, a short presentation of a text is all that is required and that detailed plot summaries should certainly be avoided.
The point of a conclusion is often: 1) to give your essay a rounded, finished form and 2) to refocus on the main thesis or intention of the essay. Thus a conclusion is very similar to an introduction, and this is mirrored in the strategies we can choose.
While introductions often take us from the general to the specific, conclusions often take us in the opposite direction: from the specific to the general. In other words, we “zoom out” to the wider perspective – social or historical – that we mentioned in our introduction. Gordon Brown’s article “We Need a United Kingdom” (p. 375-377) ends with a “zoom-out” conclusion, placing the issue of the unity of the UK in the wider perspective of the world in the 21st century:
More so than in any other century, the 21st century world will be characterised by peoples of different nationalities living closer to each other and having to find ways to live together. Other countries can learn from us getting the balance right between diversity and the strong common bonds that, at root, unify and bring us together. So, far from our Union being an anachronism or in its death throes, we can be a beacon for the world.
A conclusion of this sort functions as a signpost to the wider world and can use some of the same tools as a general-to-specific introduction, for example an anecdote or a quotation.
Similarly, the strategy of the thesis statement that we mentioned for introductions has its corresponding strategy for conclusions. To return to our courtroom comparison, the attorney now has to bring together the various threads of his/her defence in a summing up. As was the case for thesis statements, caution should be taken to avoid mechanical repetition. Do not follow the newspaper editor’s advice too closely and simply “tell ’em what you just told ’em”! You will need to rephrase your ideas and perhaps find a fresh angle. If you manage this, you will make your general argument all the clearer.
What you must avoid in a conclusion is introducing a new point that should have been included before. Avoid also using bombastic or emotional language (e.g. “All in all I thought this short story was absolutely fantastic!”) or banal expressions of hope for the future (e.g. “So if we all do our best, perhaps we can make the world a better place”). Even though you may be totally sincere, such language often strikes a false note.
Some final words of advice concerning both introductions and conclusions: Leave writing them until last. This is fairly obvious advice for conclusions, but the same goes for introductions. Alternatively, you should be prepared to go back and rewrite if necessary. The point is that essays often turn out rather differently than expected, since the process of writing often leads you in new directions and to new discoveries. This sometimes results in a lack of correspondence between the beginning and the end of an essay.
Below are the introductions and conclusions to two essays: Britain’s Cultural Role in the World Today and The USA’s Cultural Role in the World Today (both texts are taken from Access to English: Literature)
Britain’s Cultural Role in the World Today
During the 2006 Football World Cup in Germany a small town famous for its perfume manufacture saw an opportunity to market itself. They created a “trail of scent”, with a different scent for each of the participating nations. Mexico, for example, was represented by the smell of mangoes, Iran by the odour of saffron and France by its famous fragrance Chanel No. 5. Which smell do you think the English were represented by? The aroma of fish and chips generously covered in salt and vinegar? The smell of a freshly mown lawn on a summer’s evening? Or perhaps the suffocating stench of traffic in central London? Well, they chose none of these, but picked instead the sweet smell of After Eight chocolates.
How long “British culture” will retain a recognisably separate identity in an increasingly globalised and, some would say, Americanised world, remains to be seen. For the time being, at least, Britain continues to have a global cultural impact, often punching above its weight, to use a boxing metaphor. Like so much national stereotyping, the “after-eight factor” is part of a myth of Britain that, while it contains a grain of truth, is long out of date. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be – and if you look carefully at the box of After Eights, you will notice that they are made in Switzerland now.
The USA’s Cultural Role in the World Today
American + culture. Many people in the world believe these two words do not really belong together. The stereotype of the clueless and uncultured American runs deep - and not just abroad. It is part of American culture itself – a kind of “in your face” pride at being down-to-earth and everyday. The common man and woman with common tastes have been celebrated in America since its independence. At the same time, the sophisticated and “highfalutin” tastes of the upper classes have been viewed with satire and distain. That is why it is a bit of a paradox that American culture has become the world’s most widespread and influential today. Indeed, it has become so powerful and ever-present that some fear it may actually damage their own national cultures.
Or maybe this is the wrong perspective to view the question from. Perhaps the change will come in the opposite direction, with Europe and the world adopting American games. It has happened before. Basketball was invented in the US and is a global sport today. Come to think of it, there is now an American football league in Europe. Can baseball be far behind? Certainly the last sixty years have shown American culture in all its forms to be an extremely exportable commodity. With its vast resources, energy and ability to appeal to common tastes, American culture looks ready to remain “in your face” for many, many years to come. Baseball, anyone?
In the first part of this guide to essay writing (“The Social Studies Essay – An Introduction”) we set out an essay plan for an imagined essay on the British Empire. Read through it again and then write an introduction and a conclusion to the essay. Remember: you will need to vary your language so that you do not simply repeat yourself!