Writing Tips


Introductory paragraphs


Here are five common types of introductory paragraphs.  Although most follow the “funnel shape” we discussed of starting off with broader statements and leading into more specific ones, some of these do not.  All of them lead up to the thesis statement.

 Standard opening

            This opening paragraph starts with a broad statement and then proceeds to make narrowed and more specific statements, leading up to the narrow thesis.

       The environment is the world around us, and everyone agrees it needs a cleaning.  Big corporations gobble up the countryside and disgorge what's left into the breeze and streams.  Big trucks rumble by, trailing their fumes.  Everyone calls for massive action, and then tosses away a cigarette butt or gum wrapper.  The world around us is also a sidewalk, a lawn, a lounge, a hallway, the room right here.  But some people need strong incentive to keep their space clean.  Anti-littering laws should be strongly enforced in order to remind people that a clean environment begins with personal responsibility.


            This introduction relates an incident that demonstrates or exemplifies the thesis.  The anecdote or story is usually brief, feels informal, and leads up to the thesis.

       Thelma Gray and Lucy Taylor, both fifteen years old and known for their adventurous spirits, said goodbye to their mothers on a sunny morning in May 1976 and set out for the bus stop on the corner.  They had been invited to a picnic and swimming party at a park a few miles away.  Clutching their bathing suits and beach towels, they hurried toward a fun-filled day in the sun. Thelma and Lucy, however, never reached the park.  By nightfall their bodies had been found besides a seldom-used road in an isolated part of town.  Reconstructing the girls’ last day, police determined that they were two more on a growing list of girls who had decided to hitchhike and who paid the ultimate price for it.  People who accept rides with strangers run the risk of losing their lives, even when they take precautions.

 Comparisons and Contrasts

            This type of introduction relies on basing the first paragraph on a comparison or contrast in order to make an idea more understandable or interesting to the average reader.

          Most people assume that learning to ski is not extremely difficult.  They imagine the process consists of little more than strapping on two long boards, pushing off the top of a hill, and gliding gracefully and effortlessly to the bottom.  After all, gravity does all the work, doesn’t it?  In addition, those who have not skied often draw a connection to the times when they were young and sat on a sled or a garbage can top and then went schussing down a hill.  Finally, you get to have a lift take you back to the top at he end of your run – simple, no?  Learning to ski, however, is more difficult than people realize, requiring long hours of practice, extremely good physical condition, and a lot of determination.


          There is something simple and majestic about seeing pictures of natural moons or satellites as they orbit a planet.  Each has its own personality, based on its shape, size, and distance from the planet.  But moons do more than just float with little effort around a planet; they influence the conditions on their larger master, despite their relatively puny stature.  Think of a big, fat man trying to dance a Viennese waltz with a skinny girl: that’s something akin to the effect moons have on the planets they orbit.


            This introduction relies on physical description of a person, place, or situation to draw the reader in.  Once the reader is in, the thesis clarifies the point of the description.

        It is easy to pick Curtis Wilkie out of the lunchtime crew at the Class Reunion.  It is easy because everyone else in this small, cluttered Washington reporters’ bar had access that morning to a tie rack, steam iron, and some decent clothing.  But look at Curtis: the shirt that seems made of wrinkles, the jacket that hangs too big on him, the shoes with heels worn down.  The other journalists have been around a long time and are starting to make a decent salary – enough money to afford tailored shirts and a good meal.  Rookie reporters, however, make preposterously low money and work incredible hours just to keep their jobs.

Startling statement

            A strongly worded factual statement or an interesting and different quotation start the paragraph and lead the reader to the thesis.

          If you haven’t picked up that violin by age thirteen and expect to become a virtuoso, forget about it.  Brain research now reveals that the neural networks of violin prodigies older than 13 cannot catch up in complexity to those prodigies who started at an earlier age. [A few more sentences here…]  Potential prodigies should be identified and encouraged at a very early age in the fields of music, art, and athletics.


            Gun legislation is dead for another year.  As a result, if statistics are any guide, there's every likelihood that a lot of people now living will also be dead before the year is over.  There's no point in citing those statistics again; they may prove something, but they're not likely to prompt any concrete action. What is needed to produce results is passion -- and that's where the antigun-control lobby has it all over the rest of us.  Those who favor stronger gun control legislation can't hold a candle to the lovers of gun when it comes to zeal. 

Basic essay structure

When teachers talk about the basic five-paragraph essay, they do not mean that all good essays are only five paragraphs or that this is the only way to develop an 
essay.  But learning the structure of the five-paragraph will help you write longer papers and give you a structure to fall back on.  Longer essays are often just 
expanded versions of the five-paragraph essay.

The three sections of the basic essay are the opening paragraph, the body or supporting paragraphs, and the concluding paragraph.

Opening paragraph
The key in the opening paragraph is your thesis statement.  A thesis statement is the anchor around which your essay is developed; it tells the reader what the paper is about and what your perspective on the topic will be.  A strong thesis statement has two parts: a specific manageable topic and your perspective on that topic. A thesis should be debatable.  (“Columbus sailed in 1492” is not a thesis.) It is almost impossible to write a good essay with a weak thesis statement; a poor thesis practically dooms your paper.

Let’s look at some sample thesis statements:

Soccer is an interesting game.  (Not a good thesis statement.  First, it’s not a particularly compelling statement – it doesn’t make you want to read on.  Second, it’s too broad – could you fully cover this topic in just a few paragraphs?  Third, your feelings aren’t clear because the word “interesting” is so vague.)

Boo Radley is an important character in To Kill a Mockingbird.  (Not a very good thesis.  It doesn’t say much except that he’s an important character, which is kind of obvious.  
Whoopdedoo.  There’s also no sense of “you” behind this thesis.)  A better thesis along these lines might be this: Even though he is a bizarre loner, Boo Radley helps Scout and Jem mature more than some of the more normal people in town.  Why is this a better thesis?

By focusing only on hits and runs, most people miss the crucial strategies and battle plans when they watch a baseball game.  (A good thesis.  First, it’s specific enough 
to be covered in an essay.  Second, there is a point of view: the words “most people miss” imply that the writer thinks people are missing out on something important.  The writer has a point of view.  Third, phrases such as “crucial strategies” and “battle plans” draw the reader in.)

A typical place for a thesis statement is the last sentence in the first paragraph.  The first paragraph should start with broader ideas and eventually narrow to the 
thesis statement.  Think of the first paragraph as a funnel, from broad to narrow.  By ending with the thesis, your reader is catapulted into the body of the essay.

Body or supporting paragraphs

The thesis statement states what your case is going to be, like a lawyer’s opening remarks to the jury.  The body of the paragraph is where you make your case, and the success or failure of your case depends on the evidence you use.

Each supporting paragraph is designed to support your thesis.  The basic way to develop each supporting paragraph is to begin with a topic sentence.  The topic 
sentence relates back to the thesis and explains the evidence in the supporting paragraph.  Then you go on to gives details, examples, and supporting evidence.  
Generally, the more details and the better you explain your details, the stronger your essay will be.  Let’s use the baseball thesis we just had to develop a supporting paragraph:

One area people tend to ignore when they watch a baseball game is the stance of the batter at the plate.  Different types of stances influence not only where the batter wants the ball to go, but the way the pitcher will pitch to him.  Classic hitters are often home-run hitters, and they tend to stand straight up in the batter’s box. “Spray” hitters, such as Rod Carew, are looking to just make contact and tend to hit singles for a high most pitches.  Aggressive hitters like Rickey Henderson crowd the plate in 
order to throw the pitcher off and draw lots of walks.  Pitchers, in turn, like Roger
Clemens, may try to throw in tight to aggressive hitters in order to get them off the plate.

Notice a few things:  

> The topic sentence clearly relates to the thesis, but also indicated what the paragraph will be about (it doesn't have to go at the beginning of the paragraph, but that's usually the most effective place for it)

> The details support the topic sentence

>The more specifics and examples you use, the stronger your point it

> Explain your details; don't just list them

> Think of yourself as a lawyer in a courtroom.  The more evidence you present, the stronger your case is

> Arrange your body paragraphs in order of increasing importance.  If you leave your strongest argument for the end, you leave your reader with a sense of how persuasive you are

The closing paragraph takes the opposite structure of the opening.   Begin with a restatement of the thesis (not in the exact same words) and then develop broader ideas (think of an upside down funnel).  Here's a possible closing to our baseball essay:

        Who would have know that there was so much happening in a baseball game beyond a pitcher pitching and a batter batting?  If you think about the stance of the batter at the plate or the third-base coach giving signs to a runner or the defense shifting in the infield, you can seesome of the strategy at work.  There's almost a little war going down on the field, with the general (manager) directing this troops.  The next time we're int he stands, we can feel like spectators of some great enterprise -- while enjoying a hot dog.