This chapter is the second of three devoted to the drafting stage of the writing process. It dives more into that stage by zooming in on the introduction to academic essays.
Editor’s Introduction to the Chapter
Many students think of the introduction as a giant funnel: open by establishing the broader topic, then propose a thesis statement at the end that narrows the scope of the essay. For example, a “funnel” introduction about Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and the American Dream would open with a general discussion of the American Dream and then propose how Franklin’s text relates to that idea.
The problem with the funnel approach is that it places the burden on the reader to fill in missing information. A reader who isn’t in the same course as the student may be confused about why the American Dream is being discussed at this point in time. The topic just floats there, timelessly. Why should we care about it?
Introductions crafted for specific readers will provide enough background information so the reader can better understand how the writer’s essay participates in a more meaningful situation or conversation. Rather than funneling ideas, situationally-attuned introductions practice a context-to-thesis strategy. As the chapter on context explains, introductions are where a text’s “context” typically shows up.
In the article below about introductions, Stacie Draper Weatbrook carefully unpacks why a context-to-thesis structure is important and how to begin crafting one yourself. First Year Writers should note, however, that what “context” means will vary depending on the rhetorical situation, and some introductions may not have a thesis statement at all. How to open an essay or article requires the same critical reading strategies that pertain to other aspects of rhetorical savviness, especially an awareness of basic genre conventions. An introduction to a persuasive essay will look very different from the opening to a reflective cover letter, partly because the purposes are different.
Drive for the Road Conditions; Write for the Reader Conditions
by Stacie Draper Weatbrook
You can’t drive the same way all the time. You start and stop when you’re in traffic, and you can go 80 mph or more on the open Interstates. When you’re driving in the mountains, you don’t take curves at 50 mph. Instead, you slow down to avoid careening off the cliffs. In the rain, you reduce your speed to avoid hydroplaning. When driving in the snow, you reduce your speed, you keep a big distance between your car and the other cars, and you don’t break quickly so your car doesn’t slide out of control.
I know a couple who had great conflicts in their marriage in one particular area: the husband’s driving. He drove fast. He followed the car in front of him much too closely. He didn’t plan ahead and merged at the last minute. The wife, anxious and nervous about driving anyway, found his aggressive driving style more than she could handle.
Finally one day, the wife told him, “You need to drive for the conditions, and right now the condition is me.” Instead of fuming, holding a grudge, or giving him the silent treatment, she was able to explain what she needed. Because he loves her and wants her comfort, he changed his way of driving.
This couple is my parents, and they will soon celebrate their 50-year anniversary.
Much like considering road conditions, writers consider the rhetorical situation: the writer, the purpose, and the reader. In writing, as in driving, writers need to adjust for the conditions, the audience.
Awareness of your audience should determine how you write. Even when writing to an audience that’s knowledgeable about the topic, always err on the side of clarity. In other words, slow down so you make sure your audience is with you.
Here are some tips to write for the conditions.
Start Slowly With an Introduction and Then Build Speed
When you drive, you start at 0 mph and build up speed. It’s the same with writing. Your writing is not about showing off how much you know by being cryptic and esoteric and leaving your audience to guess what you mean. Considering your rhetorical situation means recognizing your purpose and communicating it in a way your audience can follow. A simple introduction can do wonders to help the audience see the information and why it’s important. You’ve got to ease the reader into your essay. Your audience could have been watching reruns of The Office, buying dog food online, attending yoga class, or any number or random tasks before reading your paper. The point is, your reader, even if they are intensely familiar with your topic, or deeply interested in your progress as a writer, needs a starting place, so take a page out of The Sound of Music, and start at the very beginning.
Most of our public and private discourse comes as a reaction to an event or statement. In other words, writing takes place in the context of what others are saying about events, statements, and research. Graff and Birkenstein explain in their book They Say I Say that having a clear thesis is not enough; it is the writer’s responsibility to show the larger conversation (20). They explain:
When it comes to constructing an argument, we offer you the following advice: remember you are entering a conversation and therefore need to start with “what others are saying . . .” and then introduce your own ideas as a response. Specifically, we suggest that you summarize what “they say” as soon as you can in your text, and remind readers of it at strategic points as your text unfolds. (20–21)
Give your audience enough background so they know what the issue is and why it’s important. At the same time, it’s essential to note that setting the context doesn’t mean overwhelming audiences with pages of explanations that leave the reader unsure of the paper’s purpose. When driving you don’t go 5 mph for the first ten minutes on the freeway just to warm up. Instead, you quickly build up speed so you can merge onto the freeway and get to your destination.
Here’s an example introduction from a paper about the causes of Celiac disease. Notice how it quickly gives context then asks a focusing question to set up the organization for the paper:
This introduction started with the idea that twenty-five years ago most people had no idea what gluten was, moved on to the idea that today you’re sure to have heard of it, and suggested maybe the audience knows someone with Celiac disease or has seen restaurant menus or offerings in the grocery store. Starting from the very basics (most people had no idea) and moving to the question What’s responsible for the increase in Celiac disease? ensures the audience can follow along.