An introduction is a writer’s chance to make a good first impression, to get things off on the right foot. It’s precisely because introductions matter that writing them can be intimidating. There’s too much on the line, and writers often get paralyzed by the enormity of not only beginning their project, but beginning in a way that’s focused, informative, and engaging.
As a last impression, a conclusion is also important. Although there's a time and place for the simple summary conclusion, using this tactic can be a waste of an opportunity—a chance to call the audience to action, to drive a point home memorably, or to give the reader a sense of satisfied completion.
There are several things you can do to make it easier for your students to produce good introductions and conclusions—and spare you from ever having to read another paper that begins “Since the dawn of time . . . .” and ends "In conclusion."
First, tell them what you expect of an introduction and conclusions, since different disciplines have different approaches. For instance, in high school students are often taught to open their essays with a surprising statistic or thought-provoking quotation—which is great for a feature article in a newspaper, but not always for a scientific journal. Provide your students with exemplary introductions and conclusions from journals in your field or from the type of writing you want them to do and discuss them together.
Second, specify an audience for them to address. Then, ask them to consider how much that audience already knows about the topic, what kind of tone will be appropriate, and what kind of information and evidence will catch and hold their readers’ interest. When students aren’t sure of their audience, they’re often tempted to cast too broad of a net with their introduction and to merely summarize with their conclusions.
Helping with Introductions
Skip to the “good” parts.
A useful tactic for writing better openings—and overcoming writer’s block—is to skip the introduction all together and start somewhere else. Let your students know it’s okay to jump into the middle of a project and begin writing whatever material they find most familiar or most intriguing. It’s far better to start writing something from the middle of the paper than stew for hours or days over crafting the perfect introduction. Getting something—anything—written can boost their confidence and help them find direction.
Save the first for last.
In some cases, writing the introduction last is really the only sensible option. That’s especially true if your students are using the writing process to help them discover their focus and refine their thinking. After all, you can’t really introduce your topic if you’re not sure what it is.
Begin before the beginning.
Have students start their papers before they start their papers. In other words: assign some low-stakes tasks, such as a reading or discussion journal or some in-class observations, that lay the groundwork for a later paper. Students often underestimate the value of these kinds of pre-writing activities, but you can build them into your syllabus. Then encourage students to review those earlier writings to get ideas for their more formal paper.
Make a placeholder.
Some students find it unsettling to proceed into the body of a paper without first writing an introduction. Encourage these students to draft the shell of an introduction and move on. For instance, a student might sketch out key points. (“I’ll begin with 2 or 3 sentences on the current use of standardized testing in elementary math and then discuss . . . .”) This kind of placeholder can free the writer up to move on to the meat of the paper. The only caveat is that the writer has to leave enough time to go back and flesh out the opening.
Take a running start.
Encourage students to take the plunge and simply start writing, even if what they write is simply awful. Give them “permission” to write a rambling, unfocused, messy introduction. (This is part of why you should require students to write more than one draft!) After they churn out their sloppy introduction, they may find that their real opening lines—the ones that feel like the start of something—are buried somewhere in all the mess, often several sentences or even pages into what they’ve written.
Helping with Conclusions
Reconsider those stale transitions:
in conclusion, in summary, in closing, etc. Although they may help the listener follow along in an oral presentation, they are cliché. Worse, they discourage writers from making substantive connections between what was just said and what is coming.
Restate the thesis, but also restate the main evidence.
Students are comforted by the easy restatement of the thesis, and some will copy it verbatim from their introduction. Creatively restating it means that they really have to understand it, so challenge them to be able to explain it their argument before they write the conclusion. Can they tie all their best evidence together in a chain of reasoning that leads (inevitably, or at least it should seem so) to the conclusion?
In many cases the conclusion can answer that age-old significance question. One way to get students to think about this is to ask them what the implications or applications of their ideas would be. Then ask them why their audience would care.
Tie the conclusion back to the introduction.
Require that students see their whole essay as one piece, which requires planning and prewriting. Start with a narrative or set up some historical context or problem in the opening, provide a tentative answer or related idea for the thesis and support, and end with the answer or the "end of the story." To pull this off, they have to keep thinking about how the end and the beginning frame the argument.
Bring in a little pathos, and address the audience
. It's easy to forget, but the conclusion is the last place to make a case, and it should be with the audience in mind. Ask students to issue a challenge or a call to action, invite the audience to consider the future or take a new point of view (based on the argument presented), or pose a rhetorical question that stimulates thought. Suggesting a course of action can also be effective.
Students may need a little extra help on introductions and conclusions; many writers find them the most difficult part of an essay to compose. Building a discussion of introductions and conclusions into the writing process, showing them models, and, more important, reminding them to revise and improve on their first-draft efforts should take them beyond the bland.