Have you ever wondered why some authors are able to capture their audience’s hearts seemingly instantly while others struggle to keep their readers’ eyes open page after page? The secret lies in the introduction; simultaneously the most and least interesting part of an article.
Unless you’re writing heavily technical work for scientific publication, EVERY writer needs to know how to write an introduction. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a copywriter, a book author, or a weekend freelance blogger, if you don’t know how to captivate your audience within a few sentences, you’re not just losing money – you’re losing the potential to connect with an otherwise interested party.
Writing an introduction isn’t easy. I know this because I stare at the dreaded white emptiness of a blank page almost every day. Fortunately, I’ve been able to perfect the art of “getting into it” and I rarely suffer from writer’s block (my personal weakness is always the conclusion). However, before I created a creative formula, I had moments where it would take me up to a week to conjure some arcane way to introduce an idea.
READING an introduction isn’t easy either! Just look at your own reading habits: do you ever relish the idea of reading an introduction over and over? Probably not. In fact, if it feels too dreary, I usually skip right past the intro and dive right into the first chapter. Sometimes I even speed read the first chapter – I want to get to the good part as fast as possible. It seems like after a lifetime of being inundated by tiresome intro after intro, most readers hate reading the very first portions of a literary work. There are some exceptions to this that I will go over to perfectly illustrate the value of a well-written beginning.
Become the exception to the rule. Learn how to write the introduction well; in fact, make it your strong point. When you entertain your readers, arouse their curiosity, and spark their imagination, you begin having a conversation with them that can open doors.
Master the introduction and it will transform your writing career in ways you can’t yet imagine.
How To Write an Introduction
Robert Jordan, one of the most accomplished fantasy authors to have ever lived, was a genius when it came to writing a strong introduction. When I was younger, I obsessively read every single book in the Wheel of Time series. Here I was, a 13, 14, 15 year-old kid who would come home from school and immediately lock myself in my room for hours on end, vividly imagining the scenarios he would paint. One of my favorite parts, of course, was the way the books would begin:
The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.-Eye of the World, Chapter 1, Robert Jordan
Just like that, I was hooked. Every book began with a wind rising in some part of a world which at times bore a striking resemblance to our own planet’s distant past (or perhaps distant future). Either way, he knew how to make an introduction and some of my fondest memories from my youth come from the days I would spend dreaming about Saidin and Saidar.
Introductions are special beasts. Depending on your niche and the kind of content you produce for a living, what may work in one setting will spectacularly backfire in another. There are some important facets that every intro needs to have though.
- An introduction needs to familiarize your readers with your writing style.
- An introduction tells the reader what they will learn from your text.
- An introduction needs to establish some credibility.
Let’s go over all of these points in detail.
1. Familiarize Your Readers With Your Writing Style, Not Yourself
The temptation to introduce yourself in the intro to your work first is very strong. As a young child, we were taught writing by starting every homework assignment with “Hello, my name is Anta and I am 5 years old”, etc… My first few pieces of writing had my name in the first sentence, the top of the page, the bottom, and probably everyone else in between. Can you imagine my surprise when I found out that as an author, I am not the most important thing about my work? It takes a considerable amount of sophistication to override that impulse and draw your readers to you by the strength of your writing instead.
Of course you can be personal, but try to tell something about the subject of your book, thesis or report as well. A reliably good way to start an introduction is with a personal anecdote which is directly related to your writing. For example, tell us how your own interest in the subject arose, or when you had the idea to write your article, book or thesis. After that, you can then show something about yourself, but your first priority is to make the reader immediately enthusiastic about your story.
Take a look at this example:
In the early summer of 2004, I received a phone call from Steve Jobs. (…) We were talking about the Aspen Institute, a research institute and think tank where I had been employed a little earlier, and I immediately invited him to give a lecture during our summer campus in Colorado. He wanted to come, he said, but not to be on stage. Instead, he wanted to take a walk so we could talk. At the time, I didn’t know that taking a long walk was his way of having a serious conversation.-Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson
Through this brilliant anecdote, the reader immediately gets to know Isaacson a little. For example, even though you know what kind of work he does, the introduction is mainly about the subject of the biography: Steve Jobs. You also find out that Apple’s founder liked to take walks to discuss serious issues and consequentially immediately wonder: what serious matters did he discuss with Walter Isaacson?
In short: a relevant anecdote is a good way to start your preface. You can tell something about your subject and while simultaneously revealing something about yourself. In addition, you immediately draw the readers into your story. You make them curious.
2. Tell Your Reader What They Will Learn From Your Article, Thesis, Etc…
Don’t linger on the anecdote and your personal interest in the subject for too long. Try to get to the point quickly. People read an introduction or preface to determine whether they find your book or thesis interesting enough to read.
In an introduction, tell your readers as soon as possible what they are going to find out after the initial anecdote. What is the central question in your thesis or book? How did you build the story? From which perspective are you going to approach your subject?
For example, world-class writer Malcolm Gladwell started his book David and Goliath with the biblical story that is referred to in the title. He briefly wrote about how the giant and the shepherd boy ended up in a fight whose outcome everyone already knows. After that, he described in no uncertain terms what his book is about as well as the central question he was going to answer.
David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary people take on giants. By giants I mean strong opponents of all kinds: from armies and more powerful warriors to disability, misfortune and oppression. Each chapter tells the story of another person – famous or unknown, ordinary or genius – who faces a huge challenge and is forced to do something with it. Should I act according to the book, or follow my own instinct? Shall I persevere or give up? Should I retaliate or forgive?David & Goliath, Malcom Gladwell
The core of the introduction lies in its ability to prepare the reader for what they will encounter next. It needs to have a clear description of issues surrounding the topic(s) you will be covering, as well as a very obvious question you are trying to answer in-depth. Whether you’re writing a school paper or a simple blog like the one you’re reading, you MUST tell the reader what they are going to find when they read your text.
3. Establish Authority
Once you’ve made the reader curious with an anecdote and a central question, it’s time for accountability. Why are you the one who can answer this question? How did you proceed? And what have you achieved? This isn’t always necessary if you’re writing fiction, as an example, but if you’re a freelance writer working with clients that want to gain their customers’ trust, you will need to find a way to answer the aforementioned questions.
Let’s say, as an example, you are writing an autobiography. What makes you qualified to write it? You may start by listing all of your interactions with the person. You might also describe any interviews with the main subjects family, friends and acquaintances. While doing so, don’t give every juicy morsel out at once. Seduce your readers with small advances, tell them what they are going to find out and hint at salacious details they will encounter.
An article, book, thesis, or report always aims to give your readers at least one new insight – no matter how small – that will change the way they view their world. Whether it’s discovering trends in a stock price or exploring Middle Earth, writing always attempts to open the reader’s mind, however slightly, to a greater world. The main question you should ask yourself before you begin writing is: what insight are you going to give your readers?
When you know that, you are ready to write your introduction.