How to Write a Great Introduction
- Keep your first sentence short.
- Say something unusual.
- Don’t repeat the title.
- Keep the introduction brief.
- Use the word “you” at least once.
- Dedicate 1-2 sentences to articulating what the article covers.
- Dedicate 1-2 sentences to explaining why the article is important.
- Refer to a concern or problem your readers might have.
- But ... be careful telling stories.
There's a lot of material out there about writing great headlines. Hey, getting someone to click on your article is a critical part of your blogging strategy. But what about writing introductions?
Compelling readers to actually read the article is an art form in and of itself -- and if you don't do it well, then you're denying yourself potential promoters, subscribers, leads, and even paying customers.
Take a look at the following graph from Schwartz to see what I mean. It shows where people stopped scrolling in an experiment covering many articles across the web. Every time someone landed on an article, Chartbeat analyzed that visitor's behavior on a second-by-second basis, including which portion of the page the person was currently viewing. Each bar represents the share of readers who got to a particular depth in the article.
Image Credit: Slate
Of everyone who landed on an article, 10% never scroll down.
So how do you get more people to scroll? One way is by writing a powerful, compelling introduction.
So, let’s see about making it better now, shall we? In this post, I'll share with you how to write powerful introductions that turn casual browsers into readers. Article introductions matter, and here’s how to make them count.
9 Tips For Writing Stronger Introductions
1) Keep your first sentence short.
I’m a big fan of short sentences. I love them because people can understand them easily. There's an insane amount of value in short sentences that are readable, digestible, and punchy.
But often, writers get so caught up in the stress of their introduction that they come out with long, garbled sentences. The problem with long, garbled sentences is that it makes readers work hard. Readers don't want to work hard to understand your article -- especially at the beginning. Lead off your introduction with a bite-sized sentence or two.
2) Say something unusual.
You've probably heard advice like "create a hook" and "grab the reader's attention." But what kind of stuff actually grabs someone's attention? I can think of a lot of things, actually, but they probably wouldn’t be appropriate for an introduction.
What these oft-repeated phrases boil down to is this: say something unusual. Something unexpected, even. If your very first sentence is odd enough to make people want to read the next one, then you've done a good job. If you start off with something boring or expected, you might lose potential readers.
3) Don’t repeat the title.
Assume that the reader already read the title. You don’t need to write it over again. Instead, take advantage of your chance to reinforce that title and to set the stage for the remainder of the article.
4) Keep the introduction brief.
There is no definitive answer for how long an introduction should be. But, like the Slate study told us, readers have short attention spans. They're impatient to get to the meat of the article. Your readers are looking for information, so don't bury it deep in your article. Cut to the chase.
5) Use the word “you” at least once.
The word “you” is a powerful word. It tells the reader that you, the author, are writing the article with them in mind. You empathize with them, you care about them, and you want your piece to resonate with them. It's a simple trick that establishes a crucial connection with your reader.
Here's a great example from CloudPeeps' Shannon Byrne:
6) Dedicate 1-2 sentences to articulating what the article covers.
Your English teacher would call this the "thesis." This is where you tell the reader what the article is about. What will you be discussing, in order? What will the reader learn? Lay it out to help set the reader's expectations and help her decide whether she wants to read the article in full, scroll to different parts, or not read it at all.
Don't be afraid of writing, literally, "This article is about X" or "In this article, I'll talk about Y." Here are some variations on this theme to get you started:
- “You’re about to find out why sea turtles always lay their eggs on the beach.”
- “And, if you’ve ever wondered why sea turtles lay their eggs on the beach, here's everything you need to know.”
- “This article explains the 17 reasons why these amazing creatures lay their eggs on beaches.”
- “Fascinating, funny, and shocking, these are the reasons why sea creatures lay their eggs on the beach.”
7) Dedicate 1-2 sentences to explaining why the article is important.
It may be obvious to you why the content of your article is important to your readers, but it may not be obvious to them. Let them know loud and clear why it's important for them to know the information you cover in your article. You might compel readers who would otherwise have bounced to keep on reading.
In the introduction to this particular article, you'll recall the following sentence:
If you don't [write introductions] well, then you're denying yourself potential promoters, subscribers, leads, and even paying customers.
My goal here was to connect the topic of blog post introductions to the broader issues of readers, customers, and revenue.
8) Refer to a concern or problem your readers might have.
If you can pull a pain point into the introduction, even better. Everyone in every field has their set of problems. You should have some listed already from when you created your buyer personas. Communicate your awareness of those problems in your introduction and you're more likely to gain a sympathetic reader.
Here's a great example from Buffer's Alex Turnbull, whose intro here is a story format with a problem twist:
People want to solve their problems, and articles that explain how to do this will help you earn readership.
9) But ... be careful telling stories.
A lot of people will tell you that you need to write a story in the introduction. Stories can work, as in the example above, but there are good and bad ways to tell stories in your intro.
Do use storytelling to spark the reader's curiosity and empathize with her. But don't get carried away and write a long-winded story that loses readers along the way. Remember the tip about keeping introductions short? That still applies when you're telling a story.
Here's an example from one of my own QuickSprout blog posts:
Notice that I highlighted the "empathy" section -- the first sentence. Here, I helped form a connection with my readers. Then, I told a short story about my own experience. After that, I finished the introduction with "what's next."
If you do begin your article with a story, here's a tip: Don't reveal the conclusion until the reader is deeper into the article, or even until the very end.
The next time you write an article introduction, think about what kind of introduction would make you want to read the article.
Would a long, wordy first sentence make you want to read more? No. You might find yourself thinking, Yikes, is this what the rest of the article's going to be like? and bounce from the page. What about a story or question that doesn't really apply to you? No, probably not.
To compel you to read past the introduction of an article, you want to read something unique, fresh, and engaging. You want to hear about yourself and your problems. You want to be put in a position where the remainder of the article is a must-read experience that will help you solve those problems and change your life.
Introductions are hard, and writing effective ones take time and practice. Sometimes, you might find yourself having to re-write them several times before you're satisfied. Remember, it's all worth it if it means keeping the attention of a few more of your readers.
What are your tips for writing great introductions?
A Step-By-Step Process for Writing a Killer Introduction
Let’s face it, writing introductions can suck. We think of introductions as that annoying thing we have to write that simply summarises the main points of our essay/paper.
If we’re feeling adventurous, we might add a few flourishes to set the scene — perhaps a nice quote or a couple of dates. We then dive into something along the lines of “this essay will discuss…”
But, despite introductions being a pain in the arse, they’re extremely important.
These days, most people don’t read your paper from start to finish.
Instead, most people just read the introduction and results sections in depth, while skimming over the rest of your paper.
Yes, I know it’s shocking that people don’t spend hours reading the paper you’ve (hopefully) spent weeks slaving away at. But sadly, that’s the reality.
With this in mind, we need to make sure our introductions are clear, succinct and convey as much information as possible.
It’s the first thing that a reader sees, so a good introduction should present a coherent overview of your argument and how your argument either adds to/resolves ongoing debates over your topic.
The role of the academic writer is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand your argument.
This is a pretty important point so let me say it again. Your role, as an academic writer, is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand your argument.
So how exactly do you write an introduction?
There’s a formula for writing introductions
I spoke to a number of academics about how they write introductions and they all told me that they have a formula for structuring their introductions.
The structure of your introduction will vary depending on what discipline you’re in, so the first step is to ask your professors to recommend a few published academic articles which they believe have good introductions.
From there, you should read these articles to identify the structure of their introductions.
Once you’ve been able to identify this, you can deploy the structure in your own essays.
So what does this look like in practice?
Let me walk you through an example introduction from the field of Public Policy. The example paper I’ll be using is “Politics and Investment: Examining the Territorial Allocation of Public Investment in Greece” by Rodríguez-Pose A., Psycharis Y. and Tselios V.
(A note on the methodology: the article is a quantitative study which uses statistical data to test a hypothesis.)
Now, the articles you’ll write may not adopt this type of methodology, but the key takeaway is that you can find similar structures in articles related to the type of study you’ll be writing.
Deconstructing Rodríguez-Pose et al.’s paper:
(1) Setting up the straw man
“Public finance theory has argued that public sector intervention in the economy is primarily motivated by the principles of efficient allocation of resources, equal distribution of wealth and stabilization of economic activity over the business cycle (Musgrave, 1959)”
Here, the authors set up a ‘straw man’. This is an argument which they believe is incorrect and which the paper will proceed to challenge.
(2) Other authors’ critiques of the straw man
“A growing body of research has questioned this ‘benevolent’, ‘efficient’ and ‘equitable’ role of the state in allocating public investment (e.g. Besley and Coate, 1998 Besley T. and Coate S. (1998)).
[some academics argue that] public investment decisions have been easily the most political of all economic policy decisions taken by governments.”
They then move on to demonstrate how other authors have challenged the straw-man argument. The point of this sentence is to indicate that the first quote we looked at is now an antiquated belief.
(3) Making your critique different to existing critiques
“However, while the political influence on the allocation of public spending across space is well-documented in the literature, less is known about the exact political mechanisms which govern it.”
Here, the authors attempt to set their own critiques apart from those which are outlined above in (2).
We, as readers, can therefore begin to see that their argument will be an original take on the topic.
(4) Introduce research question, method and case study
“this paper sets out to test empirically the relationship between electoral results and regional public investment spending in Greece for the period 1975–2009.
The authors then introduce the main elements of their paper:
- The research question: ‘what is the relationship between electoral results and regional public investment spending?’
- The method: ‘empirical testing’ using econometric techniques
- The case study: Greece for the period 1975–2009
(5) The hypothesis
“The paper explores whether decision over centrally controlled public investment allocation in Greece had been driven by ‘pork-barrel’ politics. More specifically, it addresses four different aims…”
Next, the authors succinctly state what their hypothesis is — i.e. that ‘pork-barrel politics’ have been responsible for the majority of public investment in Greece.
It’s not important for us to know what ‘pork-barrel politics’ is (I’ve got no idea), however for our purposes, we can see how the authors clearly introduce the hypothesis they will be testing in the paper.
(6) An overview of the results
“The analysis intends to make several contributions to the literature on the interface between politics and economic policy such as….”
The authors then provide an overview of the results they’ve found.
This is a step most students hate doing because they’d prefer to keep the reader in suspense until they ‘unveil’ their results towards the end of their paper.
This is a mistake.
As I said at the begin, the job of the academic writer is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand your argument.
Therefore, you should provide an overview of your findings in the introduction. This will allow your reader to more easily follow the argument you set out in your paper.
(7) Provide a brief summary of your argument
“Summing up, the main contributions of the paper relate to…
Here, the authors take great pains to make it clear what they’re arguing.
They do this by providing a summary which reiterates their argument and restating why their paper provides an original take on their topic.
(8) Outline the structure of your paper
“The paper is structured as follows…”
Now comes the part which all of us students associate with introductions — summarising the structure of the paper.
This is probably the easiest part of writing an introduction.
It might look something like: “the first section provides an overview of the existing literature, the second section outlines the data and methodology used, the following section provides the results, and the final section concludes”.
In summary, the structure of this introduction resembles the red boxes below:
So there you have it, an easy and step-by-step process to writing an introduction that’s on par with those used in the top academic journals.
The key message is that there is a strict structure and formula to writing these types of introductions.
If the example provided above isn’t relevant to your discipline, then I encourage you to spend about an hour identifying the structure used in academic articles related to your field of study.
*This article has been adapted from a lecture I gave to students from the London School of Economics.