In today’s world …
Those opening words—so common in student papers—represent the most prevalent misconception about introductions: that they shouldn’t really say anything substantive. The five-paragraph format that most students mastered before coming to college suggests that introductory paragraphs should start very general and gradually narrow down to the thesis. As a result, students frequently write introductions for college papers in which the first two or three (or more) sentences are patently obvious or overly broad. Charitable and well-rested instructors just skim over that text and start reading closely when they arrive at something substantive. Frustrated and overtired instructors emit a dramatic self-pitying sigh, assuming that the whole paper will be as lifeless and gassy as those first few sentences. If you’ve gotten into the habit of beginning opening sentences with the following phrases, firmly resolve to strike them from your repertoire right now:
In today’s world …
Throughout human history …
Since the dawn of time …
Webster’s Dictionary defines [CONCEPT] as …
For one thing, sentences that begin with the first three stems are often wrong. For example, someone may write, “Since the dawn of time, people have tried to increase crop yields.” In reality, people have not been trying to increase crop yields throughout human history—agriculture is only about 23,000 years old, after all—and certainly not since the dawn of time (whenever that was). For another, sentences that start so broadly, even when factually correct, could not possibly end with anything interesting.
So what should you do? Well, start at the beginning. By that I mean, start explaining what the reader needs to know to comprehend your thesis and its importance. For example, compare the following two paragraphs:
Throughout time, human societies have had religion. Major world religions since the dawn of civilization include Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Animism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These and all other religions provide a set of moral principles, a leadership structure, and an explanation for unknown questions such as what happens after people die. Since the dawn of religion, it has always been opposed to science because one is based on faith and the other on reason. However, the notion of embodied cognition is a place where physical phenomena connect with religious ones. Paradoxically, religion can emphasize a deep involvement in reality, an embodied cognition that empowers followers to escape from physical constraints and reach a new spirituality. Religion carefully constructs a physical environment to synthesize an individual’s memories, emotions, and physical actions, in a manner that channels the individual’s cognitive state towards spiritual transcendence.
Religion is an endeavor to cultivate freedom from bodily constraints to reach a higher state of being beyond the physical constraints of reality. But how is it possible to employ a system, the human body, to transcend its own limitations? Religion and science have always had an uneasy relationship as empiricism is stretched to explain religious phenomena, but psychology has recently added a new perspective to the discussion. Embodiment describes the interaction between humans and the environment that lays a foundation for cognition and can help explain the mechanisms that underlie religion’s influence on believers. This is a rare moment where science and religion are able to coexist without the familiar controversy. Paradoxically, religion can emphasize a deep involvement in reality, an embodied cognition that empowers followers to escape from physical constraints and reach a new spirituality. Religion carefully constructs a physical environment to synthesize an individual’s memories, emotions, and physical actions, in a manner that channels the individual’s cognitive state towards spiritual transcendence.
In the first version, the first three sentences state well-known facts that do not directly relate to the thesis. The fourth sentence is where the action starts, though that sentence (“Since the dawn of religion, it has always been opposed to science because one is based on faith and the other on reason”) is still overstated: when was this dawn of religion? And was there “science,” as we now understand it, at that time? The reader has to slog through to the fifth sentence before the intro starts to develop some momentum.
Training in the five-paragraph theme format seems to have convinced some student writers that beginning with substantive material will be too abrupt for the reader. But the second example shows that a meatier beginning isn’t jarring; it is actually much more engaging. The first sentence of the second example is somewhat general, but it specifies the particular aspect of religion (transcending physical experience) that is germane to the thesis. The next six sentences lay out the ideas and concepts that explain the thesis, which is provided in the last two sentences. Overall, every sentence is needed to thoroughly frame the thesis. It is a lively paragraph in itself, and it piques the reader’s interest in the author’s original thinking about religion.
Sometimes a vague introductory paragraph reflects a simple, obvious thesis and a poorly thought-out paper. More often, though, a shallow introduction represents a missed opportunity to convey the writer’s depth of thought from the get-go. Students adhering to the five-paragraph theme format sometime assume that such vagueness is needed to book-end an otherwise pithy paper. As you can see from these examples, that is simply untrue. Some student writers begin with a vague, high-school style intro (thinking it obligatory) and then write a wonderfully vivid and engaging introduction as their second paragraph. Other papers have an interesting, original thesis embedded in late body paragraphs that should be articulated up front and used to shape the whole body. If you must write a vague “since the dawn of time” intro to get the writing process going, then go ahead. Just budget the time to rewrite the intro around your well developed, arguable thesis and ensure that the body paragraphs are organized explicitly by your analytical thread.
Here are two more examples of excellent introductory paragraphs written by undergraduate students in different fields. Note how, in both cases, (1) the first sentence has real substance, (2) every sentence is indispensable to setting up the thesis, and (3) the thesis is complex and somewhat surprising. Both of these introductory paragraphs set an ambitious agenda for the paper. As a reader, it’s pretty easy to imagine how the body paragraphs that follow will progress through the nuanced analysis needed to carry out the thesis:
From Davis O’Connell’s “Abelard”:2
He rebelled against his teacher, formed his own rival school, engaged in a passionate affair with a teenager, was castrated, and became a monk. All in a day’s work. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Peter Abelard gained the title of “heretic” along the way. A 12th-century philosopher and theologian, Abelard tended to alienate nearly everyone he met with his extremely arrogant and egotistical personality. This very flaw is what led him to start preaching to students that he had stolen from his former master, which further deteriorated his reputation. Yet despite all of the senseless things that he did, his teachings did not differ much from Christian doctrine. Although the church claimed to have branded Abelard a heretic purely because of his religious views, the other underlying reasons for these accusations involve his conceited personality, his relationship with the 14-year-old Heloise, and the political forces of the 12th century.
From Logan Skelly’s “Staphylococcus aureus”:3
Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is causing a crisis in modern healthcare. The evolution of multi-drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus is of particular concern because of the morbidity and mortality it causes, the limited treatment options it poses, and the difficulty in implementing containment measures for its control. In order to appreciate the virulence of S. aureus and to help alleviate the problems its resistance is causing, it is important to study the evolution of antibiotic resistance in this pathogen, the mechanisms of its resistance, and the factors that may limit or counteract its evolution. It is especially important to examine how human actions are causing evolutionary changes in this bacterial species. This review will examine the historical sequence of causation that has led to antibiotic resistance in this microorganism and why natural selection favors the resistant trait. It is the goal of this review to illuminate the scope of the problem produced by antibiotic resistance in S. aureus and to illustrate the need for judicious antibiotic usage to prevent this pathogen from evolving further pathogenicity and virulence.
If vague introductory paragraphs are bad, why were you taught them? In essence, you were taught the form so that you could later use it to deepen your thinking. By producing the five-paragraph theme over and over, it has probably become second nature for you to find a clear thesis and shape the intro paragraph around it, tasks you absolutely must accomplish in academic writing. However, you’ve probably been taught to proceed from “general” to “specific” in your intro and encouraged to think of “general” as “vague.” At the college level, think of “general” as context: begin by explaining the conceptual, historical, or factual context that the reader needs in order to grasp the significance of the argument to come. It’s not so much a structure of general-to-specific; instead, it’s context-to-argument.
In conclusion …
Even for academics, conclusions are hard to write. By the time the project is being finalized, writers are often fatigued with the project and struggling to find something new to say that isn’t a departure into a whole different realm. Another issue writers find in this section of that paper is that they have become so immersed in the subject that it may seem like anything they have to say is absurdly obvious.4 A good conclusion is a real challenge, one that takes persistent work and some finesse.
Strong conclusions do two things: they bring the argument to a satisfying close and they explain some of the most important implications. You’ve probably been taught to re-state your thesis using different words, and it is true that your reader will likely appreciate a brief summary of your overall argument: say, two or three sentences for papers less than 20 pages. In papers that are long (20 pages), it is perfectly fine to use what they call “metadiscourse” in this summary; metadiscourse is text like, “I have argued that …” or “This analysis reveals that … .” Go ahead and use language like that if it seems useful to signal that you’re restating the main points of your argument. However, in shorter papers, that metadiscourse is typically avoided and you can simply reiterate the main point: for example, “What began as a protest about pollution turned into a movement for civil rights.” If that’s the crux of the argument, your reader will recognize a summary like that without signaling what you are doing using metadiscourse. Most student papers have no problem accomplishing this task in the concluding paragraph.
The second task of a conclusion—situating the argument within broader implications—is a lot trickier. A lot of instructors describe it as the “So what?” challenge. You’ve proven your point about the role of agriculture in deepening the Great Depression; so what? Some scholars don’t like the phrase “so what” because they believe it has the tendency to put writers on the defensive which can do more to inhibit the flow of ideas than to draw them out. To avoid that, you can also think of the “so what?” question as your reader asks you this instead: “OK, you’ve convinced me of your argument. I’m interested to know what you make of this conclusion. What is or should be different now that your thesis is proven?” In that sense, your reader is asking you to take your analysis one step further. That’s why a good conclusion is challenging to write. You’re not just coasting over the finish line.
So, how do you do that? Your thesis situates should be an arguable claim within broader implications. If you’ve already articulated a thesis statement that does that, then you’ve already mapped the terrain of the conclusion. Your task then is to explain the implications you mentioned: if environmental justice really is the new civil rights movement, then how should scholars and/or activists approach it? If agricultural trends really did worsen the Great Depression, what does that mean for agricultural policy today?
Let’s look at the concluding counterparts to the excellent introductions that we’ve read to illustrate some of the different ways writers can accomplish the two goals of a conclusion:
Victor Seet on religious embodiment:5
Embodiment is fundamental to bridging reality and spirituality. The concept demonstrates how religious practice synthesizes human experience in reality—mind, body, and environment—to embed a cohesive religious experience that can recreate itself. Although religion is ostensibly focused on an intangible spiritual world, its traditions that eventually achieve spiritual advancement are grounded in reality. The texts, symbols, and rituals integral to religious practice go beyond merely distinguishing one faith from another; they serve to fully absorb individuals in a culture that sustains common experiential knowledge shared by millions. It is important to remember that human senses do not merely act as sponges absorbing external information; our mental models of the world are being constantly refined with new experiences. This fluid process allows individuals to gradually accumulate a wealth of religious multimodal information, making the mental representation hyper-sensitive, which in turn contributes to religious experiences. However, there is an important caveat. Many features of religious visions that are attributed to embodiment can also be explained through less complex cognitive mechanisms. The repetition from religious traditions exercised both physically and mentally, naturally inculcates a greater religious awareness simply through familiarity. Religious experiences are therefore not necessarily caused by embedded cues within the environment but arise from an imbued fluency with religious themes. Embodiment proposes a connection between body, mind, and the environment that attempts to explain how spiritual transcendence is achieved through physical reality. Although embodied cognition assuages the conflict between science and religion, it remains to be seen if this intricate scientific theory is able to endure throughout millennia just as religious beliefs have.
The paragraph first re-caps the argument, then explains how embodiment relates to other aspects of religious experience, and finally situates the analysis within the broader relationship between religion and science.
From Davis O’Connell:6
Looking at Abelard through the modern historical lens, it appears to many historians that he did not fit the 12th-century definition of a heretic in the sense that his teachings did not differ much from that of the church. Mews observes that Abelard’s conception of the Trinity was a continuation of what earlier Christian leaders had already begun to ponder. He writes: “In identifying the Son and Holy Spirit with the wisdom and benignity of God, Abelard was simply extending an idea (based on Augustine) that had previously been raised by William of Champeaux.” St. Augustine was seen as one of the main Christian authorities during the Middle Ages and for Abelard to derive his teachings from that source enhances his credibility. This would indicate that although Abelard was not necessarily a heretic by the church’s official definition, he was branded as one through all of the nontheological social and political connotations that “heresy” had come to encompass.
O’Connell, interestingly, chooses a scholarly tone for the conclusion, in contrast to the more jocular tone we saw in the introduction. He doesn’t specifically re-cap the argument about Abelard’s deviance from social norms and political pressures, but rather he explains his summative point about what it means to be a heretic. In this case, the implications of the argument are all about Abelard. There aren’t any grand statements about religion and society, the craft of historiography, or the politics of language. Still, the reader is not left hanging. One doesn’t need to make far-reaching statements to successfully conclude a paper.
From Logan Skelly:7
Considering the hundreds of millions of years that S. aureus has been evolving and adapting to hostile environments, it is likely that the past seventy years of human antibiotic usage represents little more than a minor nuisance to these bacteria. Antibiotic resistance for humans, however, contributes to worldwide health, economic, and environmental problems. Multi-drug resistant S. aureus has proven itself to be a versatile and persistent pathogen that will likely continue to evolve as long as selective pressures, such as antibiotics, are introduced into the environment. While the problems associated with S. aureus have received ample attention in the scientific literature, there has been little resolution of the problems this pathogen poses. If these problems are to be resolved, it is essential that infection control measures and effective treatment strategies be developed, adopted, and implemented in the future on a worldwide scale—so that the evolution of this pathogen’s virulence can be curtailed and its pathogenicity can be controlled.
Skelly’s thesis is about the need to regulate antibiotic usage to mitigate antibiotic resistance. The concluding paragraph characterizes the pathogens evolutionary history (without re-capping the specifics) and then calls for an informed, well planned, and comprehensive response.
All three conclusions above achieve both tasks—closing the argument and addressing the implications—but the authors have placed a different emphasis on the two tasks and framed the broader implications in different ways. Writing, like any craft, challenges the creator to make these kinds of independent choices. There isn’t a standard recipe for a good conclusion.
Form and function
As explained, some students mistakenly believe that they should avoid detail and substance in the introductions and conclusions of academic papers. Having practiced the five-paragraph form repeatedly, that belief sometimes gets built into the writing process; students sometimes just throw together those paragraphs thinking that they don’t really count as part of the analysis. Sometimes though, student writers know that more precise and vivid intros and outros are ideal but still settle on the vague language that seems familiar, safe, and do-able. Knowing the general form of academic writing (simplified in the five-paragraph theme) helps writers organize their thoughts; however, it leads some student writers to approach papers as mere fill-in-the-blank exercises.
Instead envision paper-writing as a task of working through an unscripted and nuanced thought process and then sharing your work with readers. When you’re engaged with the writing process, you’ll find yourself deciding which substantive points belong in those introductory and concluding paragraphs rather than simply filling those paragraphs out with fluff. They should be sort of hard to write; they’re the parts of the paper that express your most important ideas in the most precise ways. If you’re struggling with intros and conclusions, it might be because you’re approaching them in exactly the right way. Having a clear, communicative purpose will help you figure out what your reader needs to know to really understand your thinking.
- The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina also offers excellent advice on writing introductions and conclusions.
1 This example is slightly adapted from a student-authored essay: Victor Seet, Embodiment in Religion , 11 (2012). Discoveries is an annual publication of the Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines of Cornell University which publishes excellent papers written by Cornell undergraduates.
2Davis O’Connell, “Abelard: A Heretic of a Different Nature,” Discoveries 10 (2011): 36-41.
3Logan Skelly, “Staphylococcus aureus: The Evolution of a Persistent Pathogen,” Discoveries 10 (2011): 89-102.
4 A lot of people have that hang-up: “If I thought of it, it can’t be much of an insight.” It’s another good reason to get others to read your work. They’ll remind you that your points are both original and interesting.
5Seet, “Embodiment in Religion.”
6O’Connell, “Abelard,” 40.
7Skelly, “Stapholococcus aureus,” 97.
84.2 (except where otherwise noted) was borrowed with minor edits and additions from Writing in College by Amy Guptill which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License