DO YOURSELF A FAVOR: Learn how to grab your audience in the first few sentences you write. A good introduction is an inspiration, like the deep breath before a plunge. Give your readers a moment to inhale, take in the importance of what you are about to discuss, and prepare to dive wholeheartedly into this new topic. But don’t let them hold their breath for long: The introduction sets your text in motion, which means being deliberate and succinct.
A short opening forces the author to get straight to the point, which in turn helps the reader engage. Visually, a small introduction detached from the body of text does marvels at saying: This is why you’re here, and why you’re going to stay. By contrast, a winding presentation of how a book project originated is best called a foreword. Lengthy developments belong to a first chapter, or to a first section in an essay. Just a couple of paragraphs typically suffice to reach that point where your argument or your story can get underway.
What must happen before that? In a nutshell, you are making a promise to your readers. I am going to prove a groundbreaking thesis that is relevant to you. I am about to illuminate, through my own unique perspective, an unfamiliar but fascinating topic I experienced for you. Better still, I have the key to a problem that concerns us all. Of course, this promise is made implicitly or at least in more modest terms, as you present your piece’s raison d’etre—what will resonate with your target audience. No need to elaborate: the introduction only outlines the picture your body will fill out.
The difficulty lies in striking the right balance of information. Too much will bog down your readers rather than propel them forward, while too little will leave them confused. Your first sentences transport the audience into the world you wish to show them—a place that is new and intriguing, but which they can nonetheless readily make sense of. Your starting point, therefore, must draw on simple language, recognizable concepts or metaphors, and background that the audience can be expected to know. Anything new—about the people, the organization or the issue you are going to talk more about—should be explained in accessible words. Give just enough context to bridge from conventional wisdom to the novelty you want to introduce readers to.
An introduction also serves a subtler purpose. Your opening conveys a certain tone—the atmosphere we are about to settle in. It also communicates the underlying theme of your piece, which is not exactly the same as its topic. For example, this text concerns introductions, but at a deeper level it is about how writing connects people. We make introductions almost in a literal sense: Reader, please meet this new subject, whose acquaintance will enrich you. The rest of the encounter flows from there.
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Illustration credit: A quack doctor selling remedies from his caravan by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.
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