I probably spent about three hours today writing a 450-word introduction for a 15-page paper due next Thursday. This isn’t the first time that it has taken me so long to write an introduction. For longer papers, I usually start with a key scene in the text that demonstrates my argument. French literature tends to love the mise-en-abyme narrative technique, so I often know what passage to start with. Still, it takes me forever to determine the structure for my introductions. How should I transition between the scene and the thesis statement? What exactly does the scene show? In the paper I’m currently writing, I will be referencing the face-to-face philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. In the novel, the face is the locus of orientalist discourse. French and Algerian companies exploit images of Idriss’ face to sell products. La goutte d’or by Michel Tournier hits you over the head with its anti-orientalist message. I’ve been told that Tournier wanted to be a philosopher.
Introductions are hard because they are so important. The first few paragraphs of a paper are the most important because they set the tone. They help prepare the reader for what’s to come. The introduction is also important because it must grab the reader’s attention. In graduate school, the reader is the professor. She may or may not read the entire paper before giving it a grade, so the introduction matters a lot.
Finally, introductions are hard to write because arguments are hard to formulate. What am I trying to show in this paper? Why should the reader care? Questions such as these are hard to answer in a few sentences.
I was reminded today that I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about even though I had marked many important passages and had identified key themes. I knew the basics of Levinas’ philosophy and could apply it to certain scenes in Tournier’s novel, but I couldn’t explain why it mattered in the context of the book’s overarching message. I wrote and deleted sentences for hours before settling for an argument that I think is acceptable. I will probably revise it again after writing the body of the paper.
Good introductions signal good papers. They also remind the writer to stay on point. A professor once told me that it often takes him weeks to write a strong introduction. Well, I certainly don’t have weeks to write this paper, but I don’t regret spending three hours to write a decent introduction. I’m sure the rest of the paper will be easier to write, now that I know my argument.