How to write an intro paragraph for an academic essay

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Back when I was in AP U.S. History, we were told to use something called the “flashlight method” to write the introductory paragraphs of our exam essays. The idea was to start with something broad and then narrow it down to something specific, kind of like the way a flashlight beam narrows as it gets closer to the light source. I don’t know if they call it the flashlight method anymore, but students are still taught to write intro paragraphs using this method.

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“Eveready flashlights and batteries ad” by dok1

As just about any humanities professor will tell you, this is the WRONG way to structure an intro paragraph. It encourages people to write unhelpful and inaccurate banalities like “Since the beginning of history…” or “Across the globe everyone…”. Profs consider these sorts of introductory sentences cliched and the sign of a novice writer. They’re also not very effective at hooking readers and keeping their eyes on your piece.

When I teach writing—like I will this spring in my Philosophy and the Philosophy Senior Seminar— I encourage students to use a different sort of template for their introductory paragraphs. Instead of moving from general to specific/broad to narrow, this format moves from concrete to abstract.

I made an infographic of this template, which you can find here and use at your disposal with attribution. I’ll also briefly outline it below:

How to structure an intro paragraph for an essay or college paper:

  1. Here is a Thing
  2. Here is why this Thing matters
  3. Here is what I am saying about that Thing
  4. A brief roadmap of the paper

This structure hooks readers with concrete, relatable description and keeps them hooked by making it clear why they should care about the thing you described to them. Also, by starting with something concrete, it makes the abstract dimension of your argument a lot easier to understand. Focusing on something concrete also makes it easy to avoid false or over-generalization (one of the main pitfalls of the flashlight intros).

I also use this template in my own writing. This article is a good example of how I apply that structure.

The template I outlined above is just one way to move from concrete to abstract in an intro paragraph—you can experiment with other ways. The main thing to remember is that arc from concrete to abstract.