Introductions and Conclusions

What is an Introduction? Why is it Important?

As the opening of an essay, the introduction is your opportunity to make a good first impression, indicate why your essay is interesting or important, and to clearly set out what you will argue and how you will proceed to argue it. It is also your first opportunity to control the way the essay will be received. An introduction should:

  • Discuss larger concepts in which the thesis argument or objectives are situated
  • Define or state a problem or issue you will address
  • Clearly outline exactly what the paper will argue or explore in relation to this problem or issue

How Should the Introduction be Organized?

The majority of introductions situate your argument or exploration within a larger discourse and provide a rationale for the ensuing argument. As such, your introduction provides an opportunity to limit the scope of your discussion by contextualizing a specific argument within a larger discourse; in other words, it informs your reader of where your essay fits in the larger context of the field, novel, study, or philosophy you are addressing. Simultaneously, it limits your field to a workable subject.

Beyond this basic format, however, each discipline will have specific expectations of introductions.

Introductions in the Sciences

An introduction to a scientific paper should achieve three things: first, it should identify the specific area you will address. Second, it should focus on the rationale for undertaking the work. Third, it should place this rationale in context by providing the reader with the necessary background to understand the question(s) addressed in an experiment as well as identifying the 'gap' in our understanding that this experiment is meant to fill.

To achieve these aims, start by introducing the area of science that your report addresses and then identify the specific questions your experiments attempt to answer. For example, if you are writing a paper on the effectiveness of prosthetic valves in heart surgery, you may start by describing the science of implantable devices and then focus on your specific experiment or report.

Try to anticipate your peers' or professors' responses and reactions by providing them with the information needed to situate your experiment and your findings. Be sure to explain the key concepts or theories that are necessary to understand your experiment. Keep in mind that, unless instructed otherwise, you can assume that your reader has a basic understanding of your field of science and you only need to explain specialized terms or ideas.

These explanations will help to provide a context for your hypothesis and situate your work in relation to previous work in the same area. If you are not asked to provide an actual "Background" section in your report, you can provide a systematic review of the relevant literature when discussing the specific questions your experiments address; this will also situate your work in the field. (***Be sure to give credit to researchers through appropriate citation.***) In other words, the introduction provides the background information that the

reader needs in order to understand the procedures and objectives involved in your experiment.

You can finish your introduction by clearly stating the hypothesis or objectives of your research. Some of the phrases you can use to do this are:

  • The main purpose of the experiment reported here is to…
  • The purpose of this study is to explore…
  • In this paper we give preliminary results for…
  • It the aim of this paper to determine…

Alternatively, studies published in peer-reviewed academic journals usually include a brief description of the methods used in the study and an outline of major findings. This helps the reader to assess the evidence for them as she or he reads. For example "To determine the change in expression of CD35 we used qRT- PCR."

Remember, when writing an introduction to a science paper, your audience is more likely to be convinced of your results if you are clear about where your claim comes from and how it was reached. As such, you should not set out to persuade your audience as much as to communicate clearly and simply what research you are reporting, how you set up your experiment, and the results that came from it. There is, however, a difference between writing an introduction to a lab report and a research paper or proposal. In lab reports the introduction should allow your reader to be able to replicate your experiment and trace the background research you did to set up the experiment. In a research paper or proposal, the introduction should reinforce the validity of the claims you have reached, researched, or the work you propose to do.

Introductions in the Humanities

Whereas in the sciences there is a high probability of a consensus between the reader and the writer, writers in the humanities frequently address a situation in which there is little consensus. So, introductions should convince your reader to pay attention to what you are saying and add to the credibility of your argument.

You can "hook" your reader a number of different ways. You could engage your reader by presenting an exciting, controversial, or shocking piece of information that relates to your argument. For example "Canada's life expectancy is 81; whereas Malawi's is 48. This disparity points to the extreme consequences of disproportionate access to health care in developing countries."

Another strategy is to quote a well-known, respected authority in the subject area you are writing about; for example, "Richard Florida argues 'Access to talented and creative people is to modern business what access to coal and iron ore was to steelmaking.' In other words, culture and creativity are important to a functioning economy."

A third strategy is to state common claims, defined terms, or accepted positions on a topic and then challenge them. For example, "It is widely assumed that Edith Wharton wrote for the upper classes; her own status as New York socialite as well as the cultural milieu she represented in her novels is seen as a testament to this. However, when examining the tragic life of Lily Bart it is clear that her social criticism extends beyond the upper classes."

It is very important, however, to avoid grand or universal statements. An introduction provides an insight, but it should not be too broad or vague. And, importantly, this insight must be something that you can prove. Avoid the "Humankind has always needed…" or "Since the beginning of time…" statements. Unlike the earlier examples of ways to "hook" your readers – which are specific and focused on the specific essay topic, these statements are neither useful nor provable.

Once you have "hooked" your reader you should include the following in your introduction:

  1. Context and key terms that allow the reader to follow your argument and initiate a thought process about the specifics that will be discussed in the essay. You may include:

    The time period and geographic area examined.
    The paradigm, models or theories used.
    The name, title, and date of work examined (novel, play, artwork, etc.).
    Definitions of terms which you will use often, even if the words are common. Consider whether you are using the terms differently or in a specific way, whether they have multiple definitions, or whether defining them will allow for more critical thinking about the essay argument. For example, words like technology or feminism may have different meanings in different contexts.

    Again, be as specific and clear as possible. Notice the difference between the examples below. Example 1 is less specific and focuses on summarizing more than Example 2, which aims not just to introduce the topic but to make an argument about that topic.

    Example 1: Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie both travelled in Upper Canada during the early 1800s and wrote about their experiences. Their writing includes journals and letters documenting their travels and their struggles to survive in a harsh environment. Both Parr Traill and Moodie were born in England, and life in Canada took some adjusting to.

    Example 2: How Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie portray their voyages in Upper Canada reflects a popular medium of expression amongst pioneer gentlewomen articulated through travel narratives. These sources allow glimpses into the hardships and joys of women as they attempt to conquer the environment and adapt to social change within Canada. The writings of Traill and Moodie relay images of the early landscapes of rural and urban life in Upper Canada, while revealing the social differences forced upon these unprepared women.

    While both examples introduce the geographical and historical context (Upper Canada in the 1800s), Example 2 moves beyond summarizing facts (Parr Traill and Moodie wrote about their travels) and introduces a critical interpretation of those facts (their writing reveals social differences).

  2. Thesis:
    Your clear, concise statement of what you are arguing and why it is important. The thesis directs the organization and supporting arguments of the paper.

    Make sure it can be argued and that it answers the "so what?" or the reason why your argument is important to people who know something about your field. It is important to keep in mind that your thesis is an argument, not an observation. Try using the following examples to help form your thesis:

    This paper will argue by demonstrating that .
    By examining it will become clear that .

    For example: The detailed pioneer travel narratives of Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie reveal the transgression of female boundaries within Upper Canadian society, defying the image of the traditional domesticated British woman and challenging dominant Victorian ideologies of separate male and female spheres.

    This thesis is specific enough to be effectively proven in an essay. It also considers implications of the argument: how the lives of two women lead to discussions of Upper Canadian society and Victorian ideologies.

  3. Directive statement: outlines the order of the points you will use to prove your thesis.

    For example: By describing women's changing roles within the home and their interactions with the land, Parr Traill's and Moodie's writing demonstrates that pioneer gentlewomen moved beyond the restrictive Victorian notions of femininity; that they did so was vital to their survival and to the success of the family unit in nineteenth century Upper Canada.

    This statement clearly outlines two points of focus within Parr Traill's and Moodie's writing—women's changing roles and interactions with the land—giving the reader a sense of what to expect in the paragraphs to follow.

What to Avoid in an Introduction

  • Including information that does not relate to your thesis
  • Not explaining the link between the information and your thesis. (If everything in your introduction is relevant and relates to your thesis, it will set up a clear, strong argument for your essay.)
  • Using generalizations that cannot be supported. Using words like all, throughout, always, and never, or phrases like "since the beginning of time" are often difficult to prove. If you suspect your claim might be too general, try asking yourself what kind of evidence would be needed to support it; if the answer is beyond reasonable expectations, then your claim is too general
  • Asking questions that you do not answer. Instead of asking a rhetorical question such as "How could women survive in a harsh physical environment if they were also bound to strict tenets of dress and manners?" turn these kinds of questions into statements, such as "In a harsh physical environment such as the Canadian wilderness, it was infeasible for women to adhere to the strict tenets of Victorian dress and manners."

What is a Conclusion? Why is it Important?

Not all papers have a formal conclusion, but most will have a paragraph or two that reinforces the argument.

In both the sciences and the humanities, the conclusion is the last section of an essay, where the argument and supporting points are reiterated and solidified for the reader, but most importantly where the wider implications of the argument are discussed. A conclusion should extend outward; it should:

  • Summarize the argument and supporting points
  • Give a sense of completeness and clarity
  • Indicate why your paper was important or interesting by linking it to, or evaluating it in, a greater context or significance
  • Indicate what has been learned

How Should the Conclusion be Organized?

Unlike the introduction, the conclusion should begin by reiterating what is most specific: your thesis and supporting points. It should move beyond this to discuss the thesis argument in a larger context. The elements of a conclusion should follow this order:

  1. Restatement of thesis: using different words, remind the reader of what your essay argued.
  2. Summary of supporting arguments: review how you proved your argument.
  3. The significance of the argument in a larger context: link the essay to an importance beyond the limits of your essay. You may want to: Discuss how your thesis argument contributes to a wider context. This could be the context of the course or discipline as a whole. Indicate what can be learned from the essay
  • Suggest other possible approaches or solutions
  • Suggest where further research should happen
  • Refer back to a metaphor or quotation used in the introduction and discuss its implications
  • Try to address the question "If what I have argued is true, then what does this mean?"
  • Ending: indicates to the reader that the essay has come to an end. Make sure your final statement flows logically from the rest of your conclusion. Do not leave the reader expecting more

    For example:
    Regardless of class, Upper Canada represented a new society beyond the ordinary comprehension of the British citizen. Thus when 655,747 people left the shores of Britain between 1831 and 1841, many had no idea what awaited them in the New World. Those strongly influenced by the sensible and liberal moralities of the Victorian era were shocked at the primitive Canadian society that greeted them off the ship. While some hurried back to Britain when life in Upper Canada proved hard, many families fronted by strong women such as Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie stayed to take their chances in the liberating isolation of the backwoods. "Let [women] at once cast aside all vain oppositions and selfish regrets and hopefully look to their future as to a land of promise," Parr Traill proclaimed in The Canadian Settler's Guide. Indeed, Parr Traill and Moodie represent a larger movement of strong women who challenged Victorian gender ideologies and to lead to the establishment of a new society in Upper Canada.

    This example discusses of the significance of the argument in a larger context, placing the lives of the two women examined in the paper in a greater historical context of the migration of a group of British people to Canada. It ends by mentioning the future, which suggests that the event discussed was part of a larger process and led to further outcomes, and indicates a sense of completion.

What to Avoid in a Conclusion

In order to make sure your conclusion is effective, be sure to watch out for:

  • Providing only a summary. The conclusion should do more than simply restate the thesis. It should continue to make the reader think
  • Rhetorically rich, but meaningless statements. For example, "Critical and conflicting research highlights that there is a lot of information yet to gather and analyse before we can fully understand this topic." This sentence does not actually tell your reader anything
  • Introducing new evidence. This requires more explanation and analysis, and makes it difficult to give a sense of completion