Teaching How to Write an Introduction

Right now in the class I teach, we’re reading The Great Gatsby. This is the second semester I’ve included Gatsby on my syllabus, and I do so for three reasons: 1) Usually about half the students have already read it, and this gives them a bit more confidence in class (participation tends to jump during Gatsby classes and stay that way after), 2) The story has a little extra meaning since it takes place on Long Island, and I can incorporate local geography and history into the lesson, and 3) It’s just an all-around great book, and many students attest that it changes each time they read it.

This semester, I decided to teach writing strategies through The Great Gatsby. If student confidence boosts while reading it, my hope is that their confidence in their writing will also boost. At the beginning of class this morning, I went around and asked each student rate their confidence in writing a college-level essay on a scale of 1-5. (Asking each student for a simple, one word answer at the beginning of class is a technique I picked up last semester from a colleague who attended a workshop on teaching strategies. Having each student verbalize an answer at the beginning demands an investment that they’ve committed to, and it also takes away the anxiety of breaking your own silence during class. I highly recommend this technique.) There was only one 5, a handful of 4s, one 1.5, but most students gave a 2 or a 3. This was about what I’d expect from a class of mostly science students, and it was also what I was hoping for. In a class of 25, to have only one person near a level-1 confidence level is encouraging. To me, a 1 could indicate a sense of defeat or hopelessness, but a 2 likely indicates enough confidence to be willing to challenge oneself. In the same way, a 5 may be overly confident and less eager to learn new ways. So I was happy that almost everybody placed themselves in a “middle ground” (a phrase I’ve been using a lot since reading Richard White), and knowing the student who ranked himself as a 5, I already know he’ll be doing all he can to make himself a out of 5.

We transitioned into writing by discussing Nick, Jordan, and Myrtle as characters: what are their personalities like, their bodies, their class, their sexuality, their morality? I saw as the class began to perceive the differences between Jordan and Myrtle, and we honed in on a few passages that were particularly illuminating. Ultimately, after about seven minutes of discussion, I asked them what they thought about Nick’s sexuality: queer, nonqueer, bisexual, asexual, etc.? Answers varied, but the real purpose behind this discussion was to spark interest as we moved toward a session on how to write a good introduction and how to perform a close reading.

I should say, before anything else, that “a good introduction” or any “good writing” is hard to define, but my main goal was to give a better option than the one that most college students (myself included, at that age) were handed in high school. So I explained the two-triangle theory, as I’ve dubbed it.

In high school, most of us were taught to start an introduction with a broad, overarching statement, and then narrow our focus sentence by sentence until we reached a thesis. This is the “upside-down triangle” method. Imagine an equilateral triangle with one point at its base and two points in the air, so that, moving from top to bottom, we begin with grand generalizations and move toward a thesis. If we weren’t taught this, it at least became a habit for many. I see it in my own essays from years ago, and I consistently see it in 100-level student essays. The Comp/Rhet Community is actively battling this, along with the 5-paragraph essay, on a day-by-day, semester-by-semester, year-by-year basis.

The other triangle has its point on top, so that the introduction starts with something very specific from the text. I always suggest a catchy, particularly illuminating or problematic quote. Then the writer would move on to contextualize the quote and briefly explain its significance in relation to his/her thesis, which comes next. The thesis, I always stress, should lead to something bigger than the simple bubble of characters in a fictional world: what does it tell us about the novel’s contemporary time, about social issues, political issues, etc.? After that, one could either move right into the first body paragraph or briefly list the different areas of the text that one will examine to prove the thesis. Below is a visualization of these concepts:

This is the "Upside-Down" Triangle approach to an introduction. At the very least, students should eliminate the first two parts.

This is the “Upside-Down” Triangle approach to an introduction. At the very least, students should eliminate the first two parts.

This is a sample based on The Great Gatsby.

This is a sample based on The Great Gatsby.

Here is a visualization of the “new” style:

"Pointy-Side-Up" Triangle Approach

This is the introduction that my class came up with today for a mock essay on The Great Gatsby.

This is the introduction that my class came up with today for a mock essay on The Great Gatsby.


I’m going to save the lesson on the close reading for my next post. I hope that these visualizations are useful to some of my readers out there. Again, there is no “right” way to write an introduction, but this is, perhaps, a “better” way. I also want to emphasize that a big part of today’s success (and the success of the last class I used this method and example with) is the interesting, risque material. Students were eagerly participating and following along as I was teaching how to write an introduction and how to perform a close reading, which aren’t normally the most exciting subjects! I’d love to hear your feedback and I’m always open to suggestions.

Until next time!

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