The introduction to an essay has three primary objectives:
- Explain the context of the essay
- Give the answer: the response to the question or the overall focus of the essay (the thesis statement)
- Describe the structure and organisation of the essay
These aims can be given more or less emphasis depending on the length and type of essay. In a very short essay (less than 1000 words), for example, there is not much room to give a full and detailed context or structure. A longer essay has room for greater detail.
Essays are usually written for an intelligent but uninformed audience, so begin with some context: the background of the topic, the topic scope, and any essential definitions.
- Introductions often begin with a broad opening statement that establishes the subject matter and background. Don't make it too broad (“Since time began…”), but identify the relevant topic and sub-topic (e.g. human resource management, early childhood development, animal behaviour…).
- To establish the scope, answer basic questions: Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? Is the essay limited to a particular time period, a particular group of people, a particular country?
- Definitions are often established after the introduction, so only include them here if they are absolutely essential.
Answer / focus
The most important part of the introduction is the response to the question: the thesis statement. Thesis statements are discussed in detail here: thesis statements.
An introduction often ends on the thesis statement. It begins with a broad statement and gradually narrows down until it directly addresses the question:
This order of introduction elements is not set in stone, however. Sometimes the thesis statement is followed by a breakdown of the essay's structure and organisation. Ultimately, you must adapt the order to suit the needs of each particular essay.
Strong introductions tell the reader how the upcoming body paragraphs will be organised.
This can be as easy as outlining the major points that your essay will make on the way to the conclusion. You don't need to go into much detail in the introduction: just signal the major ‘landmarks.’
It can help to identify how all of the paragraphs are organised:
- Do the paragraphs deal with the issue from earliest to most recent (chronological)?
- Are the paragraphs grouped by broader themes (thematic)?
- Does the essay answer several related questions one after the other (sequential)?
- Do the paragraphs describe two elements and them compare them (contrasting)?
The essay will be much more readable once the reader knows what to expect from the body paragraphs.
See sample essay 1 and sample essay 2 for model introductions.
Page authorised by Director, CTL
Last updated on 25 October, 2012
Context Essay Structure – VCE EnglishBy Lauren White in Study
14th of July 2016
The Context Area of Study in English is what I like to call the Vegemite part of this subject. You either love it or hate it, there is no in between!
Speaking as one of the students who hated it back in Year 12, I know how frustrating it is to have to write pieces with such vague guidelines. Plus, having teachers tell you to just ‘work it out yourself’ or ‘do what you think works best’ isn’t all that helpful.
To counteract this, I’m going to take you through some tips for structuring your expository essays. Note that this is not the only form available to you as part of the Context AOS; you may prefer to write imaginatively or persuasively instead. There’s also the ‘hybrid’ style that involves combining two or more other forms, which is also a great option for those looking to write more unique pieces.
However, regardless of your preferred style, you should learn how to write a decent expository piece! Why? Well, the expository style is the best back-up option for Context pieces, especially in the exam. It means you don’t have to mess about with imaginative storylines for your creative narratives, or a persuasive purpose for your speech. Rather, you can just concentrate on explaining your ideas using evidence, which is exactly what expository writing lets you do.
That said, there is no single, definitive way to structure a Context piece. There are many “right” ways of doing things, and your teacher may have their own preferences. You may also want to try something slightly ‘hybrid-y’ as the year goes on, especially if you find the expository style a bit dry.
Your priority here should be to address the prompt as quickly and as clearly as possible! Some people like to write introductions that gradually progress from talking about the context, to the prompt, to their contention. But in my opinion, it’s best to steer away from the reeeeally generic opening sentences like ‘Conflict affects people in many ways’ or ‘Identity is a multifaceted concept’ because they kind of just make the assessors roll their eyes. If you’re going to do something general, make it quick, and then just start fleshing out the prompt.
Note that you do NOT have to signpost! (i.e. go through each of your sub-arguments or topic sentences one by one) unless you want to. Again, some students choose to do this anyway because it gives them a nice, clear structure to follow, but it’s not a formal requirement. It can also make the intro feel a bit ‘list-y’ if you’re just like ‘Firstly… Furthermore… Moreover… However…’ So instead, concentrate on unpacking the prompt in general terms, and delve into the questions/ideas you want to explore in your piece.
When you get to the end of your introduction, it’s a good idea to sum up your contention with a sentence like ‘Although…, ultimately…’ I’m a huge advocate for this because it automatically gives you a decent stance in that it ensures you’re not completely agreeing or completely disagreeing.
Constructing your stance
For instance, let’s say we had a prompt like: ‘Our view of the world is affected by other people’. Firstly, you’d have to consider whether you mostly agree or mostly disagree; then:
If mostly agreeing:
• explain why you mostly agree, and use this as your ‘ultimately…’ statement.
• explain why you don’t completely agree, and use this as your ‘although…’ statement.
(e.g. ‘Although we do have a limited amount of control over our perception of the world, ultimately external forces have a profound impact on our overall perspective.’)
If mostly disagreeing:
• explain why you mostly disagree, and use this as your ‘ultimately…’ statement.
• explain why you don’t completely disagree, and use this as your ‘although…’ statement.
(e.g. ‘Although external forces can have some effect on our perspective, ultimately, individuals have a far greater control over their own views of the world than other influential factors do.’)
A neat little wrap-up sentence like that can make things nice and easy for your assessor. It also means there’ll be no doubt as to what you’re focusing on. As such, you’ll have solidified your marks for relevance, and your stance will be clear and concise.
Having said all that, it’s worth thinking about ways to make your introduction stand out a bit more. This conventional kind might get you over the line, but doing something interesting like opening with an example, a quote, or an anecdote can make things much more engaging.
Context Body Paragraphs
Next up, and arguably most importantly, we have your body paragraphs. This is where you’ll be spending the most time, and it’s where most of the marks are up for grabs. Yes, the introduction and conclusion are important first and last impressions, but the body paragraphs are vital components. Typical expository essays will have three to four paragraphs, though this is fairly flexible. You could write as many as five or six if you’re especially quick (but quality > quantity, remember). Furthermore, whilst you want to aim for roughly equal paragraph lengths, even this requirement is less stringent in Context. To keep it simple, though, break apart your paragraphs evenly, and distribute your ideas between them. This will also ensure you can construct your paragraphs appropriately.
Here, your task is to make to focus of your body paragraph as clear as possible to the assessors. If you manage to set things up well at the beginning here, it not only puts your marker in a great mood, but it can help shape your content too.
But, if you want to be clever about things, don’t give too much away in your topic sentences! A brief overview of what you are going to explore is sufficient; try not to delve too far into your ideas too quickly. If you summarise your whole argument, your paragraph will end up feeling repetitious and it leaves very little for your final sentence to accomplish.
Clear and concise topic sentences work best, so aim to provide a clear TOPIC of discussion without telling us too much about your argument. For instance, your topic sentence might explain that ‘Changes in the world around us can have a significant impact on our self-image.’ Notice that I haven’t said what that impact is, or why this is the case? All this sentence does is give us a general idea of what kind of things we’re going to explore – and that’s all it needs to do!
Body Paragraph Content
Now we get to the good stuff! The actual content of your body paragraphs is often where VCAA separates the mid-range from the upper-range students. Basically, it’ll come down to two things: your examples, and your discussion. BOTH of these things are crucial in crafting an effective expository piece, and you can’t have one without the other.
If your paragraph is all examples with no discussion, then you won’t be communicating enough in relation to your Context. But, if it’s all discussion and no evidence, then any conclusions you reach will feel shaky and unsupported. So you need the examples to help you build up to those ideas, but you also need the discussion to turn your examples into useful Context content.
Examples vs. Discussion
A great place to start, if you’re concerned with the balance of evidence to discussion is to take two coloured highlighters and annotate accordingly. Let’s say… yellow for examples, green for discussion. So how much green do you have for every bit of yellow? Are you cramming the start of your paragraph with yellow and then discussing it all at the end? Are you spending way too long explaining a bit of evidence and running out of time for green discussion? If you’re struggling with expository writing, aim for a 50/50 ratio of evidence to ideas. You can change this balance later once you’re more confident, but for now, 50/50 should do. This will ensure you know how to demonstrate both of these core skills.
Your examples will be partly based on your set text (which you should look at in-depth for at least one body paragraph in a typical expository response) and partly based on external sources. These could be literary, political, historical, philosophical, sociological, psychological – whatever you like! You can even use current affairs, or anecdotal/ personal evidence, so long as it’s sophisticated enough to warrant mentioning. It can also be worth finding examples that link to one another (or to the set text) so that you can combine your discussion to incorporate multiple sources.
The discussion is a little bit more complicated, but so long as you’re spelling out the significance of your examples, you should be fine. For any piece of evidence, explain how it supports your ideas and arguments. The clearer this explanation is, the better. Ideally, this will aid your thought process as well because you’ll need to consider each of your examples very carefully. Then, you just have to demonstrate that same thinking in your actual paragraphs.
Lastly, to wrap up your paragraphs, you’ll need a decent concluding sentence. Now’s your chance to showcase that connection to your arguments we talked about earlier! If your topic sentence sets up an idea, your concluding sentence is your chance to say ‘and THIS is why this idea matters!’ Structurally, try and set up this sentence using the right kinds of ‘zooming-out’ words, like:
• Therefore, this shows that…
• Hence, we can conclude that…
• Ultimately, what this reveals is…
• To this end…
Then, just link these ideas to your overarching contention, and hammer home your points. What’s the connection between the discussion you’ve just conducted, and your stance on the prompt? Why have you brought up these points? In what way do they help you? If you can answer these questions in your final sentence each time, you’ll end up with highly effective paragraph endings.
If it helps, keep asking yourself questions like ‘why?’ or ‘so what?’ This is a great way to zoom out and broaden the scope of your discussion when needed.
As the final part of your essay, the job of your conclusion is to not screw anything up! It’s your chance to make a good final impression on your reader, and to end on a high note. Where the introduction ‘zooms in’ from general ideas to your specific argument, the conclusion ‘zooms out’ to those ideas again.
If you’ve done something creative in the introduction, you may want to bring this up again to conclude. For instance, if you’d referenced an example in your intro, you could hark back to it in your conclusion as a way of rounding things off nicely. This is commonly known as ‘bookending’ (i.e. because you’ve got something on either end of your piece as a framing device to hold it all together) and is especially impressive when it’s relevant to the prompt. It’s perfectly fine to memorise some potential bookends and reuse them often – just make sure they’re relevant!
Other than that, make the last few sentences of your conclusion as ‘mic-drop-ish’ as possible. The more impactful and profound those statements are, the easier it is to impress your assessors. If you find this difficult at first, don’t worry. Often these revelations are the kinds of things you’ll acquire after having written a couple of pieces, or after having studied the context for a couple of months. Ultimately, so long as you end in a satisfying manner, your conclusion will have done its job!
If you want to try this out, stop by our prompt thread for some essay topics. You can also chuck your essays up here for some feedback!