How to … write an introduction

readiness is all
‘the readiness is all’  Hamlet V.ii

It’s that time of year again.

OCR A Level English Literature (paper 1):  Thursday, 23 May, 13:30hrs

AQA GCSE English Literature (paper 1):  Wednesday, 15 May, 13:30hrs

as well as mocks for Y10 and Y12 students … and the most daunting thing of all is starting your answer. (For tips on how to end your essay, click here)

“Do I need an introduction?  Why?  What should be in it?”

My teacher says I don’t need one.  Why should I bother?

Because of the power of first impressions.  I mean, who doesn’t know Slim Shady?  Because attention spans are reducing.  Because society seems to favour snap judgements – changing your mind based on new information is increasingly viewed as a kind of weakness …

Ask yourself, “What is an exam?

No, seriously, ask yourself that.  It’s a single opportunity to persuade a disinterested stranger to give you a decent mark.  Not massively dissimilar to a job interview.  And unlike other exams, in English Literature there are no right answers (subject to my Continuum of Plausibility™), which means that the marker’s opinion is – to a degree – subjective.


The rest is fine-tuning.  So introductions (and conclusions – subject-matter for another post) are vital.

But isn’t it just wasting time?

If you’re still reading, you’re at least partly persuaded that they’re important. You’re right to worry about time.  But I never said an introduction should be long

OK, so what should I put in it?

Hi, I’d like you to meet my A* Grade answer …

Imagine going home at the end of exam day and being asked what your question / extract was.  You’re tired and stressed, and possibly don’t want to talk about it.  You might answer in a sentence or two, to a non-student, what it was about and what your answer said.  At the most basic level, and dressed up with some exam vocabulary, THIS is your introduction.

I repeat: in 3 sentences, maximum, demonstrate that you understand the task, and outline your response / approach to it.  Then get on with proving what you’ve said.

Before I give you some examples later in the post, here are ten tips:

  1. DO make it clear you understand that the play is a fiction, and that you are here to talk about Shakespeare’s intentions and deliberate technique;
  2. DO use evaluative adverbs – as long as they are not complimentary.  ‘Subtly’ is fine; ‘brilliantly’ sounds like artificial gushing.  No extra marks for pretending to actually like Shakespeare, I’m afraid;
  3. DO, on an extract question, consider talking briefly about where the extract comes in the play, or its importance to the overall plot – example: in this extract, Shakespeare does X in order to set up Y later;
  4. DO use some of the key words from the question;
  5. DO consider any other Assessment Objectives.  At GCSE, you might want to acknowledge the importance of context (AO3: 20%); for the second A Level question, acknowledge the different ways in which the play can be interpreted (AO5: 50%)’
  6. DON’T sound too tentative.  Again, I’m going against what some teachers will tell you, but too many qualifiers (might, could, etc) makes you sound unsure of your ideas, and lacking confidence;
  7. DON’T waste time on lengthy synopsis.  Your question, if extract-based, always tells you – and the marker – roughly what’s going on;
  8. DON’T make statements which could apply to any text.  Like point 6, you sound like you don’t really know what you’re talking about, and they only infuriate markers.  Example? If the question is ‘How does Shakespeare use language for dramatic effect?’ do not, for the love of God, tell me that ‘Shakespeare uses alliteration for dramatic effect’.  Well, duh.  He wouldn’t be using it to plaster walls.  Be explicit about the dramatic effect is he trying to achieve;
  9. DON’T rewrite the question, in first person.  ‘In this essay I am going to …‘ Erm, I know what you are going to try to do; and
  10. DON’T DON’T DON’T spell Shakespeare incorrectly.  Or other key character names.  They will be on the question paper … would you excuse someone who got your name wrong even if it was written down for them?


GCSE: Macbeth: using the opening scene (the witches on the heath) as the extract given

Question:  Starting with this moment in the play, explore how Shakespeare presents attitudes towards the supernatural.

Answer:  Shakespeare deliberately exploits contemporary fears of the supernatural in this scene.  As the opening of the play, it highlights how important the witches will be, as well as generating the tension and dark atmosphere that never really goes away until Macbeth is killed.

A Level extract:  Richard III: using Richard’s soliloquy after his final, pre-Bosworth dream as the extract given

Question:  Discuss the following passage, exploring Shakespeare’s use of language and its dramatic effect.

Answer:  In a very different manner to earlier soliloquies, Shakespeare uses this extract as Richard’s moment of tragic anagnorisis.  It’s vital that this passage re-establishes an empathic or sympathetic connection with the king after his recent monstrous actions, so that the audience will truly feel catharsis when he dies.

A Level whole-text question:  Richard III

Question:  ‘Man is not truly one, but truly two‘ – RL Stevenson.  Using your knowledge of the play as a whole, show how far you agree with this view of Richard.

Answer:  Arguably, there are two Richards in the play: at the same time that we see the monster, Shakespeare hints at the human he could have been had the world treated him differently.  Our connection to this potential Richard varies wildly in the different interpretations of the script given by Olivier (1955), Loncraine (1991), and  Cooke (2016).

OVER TO YOU … what are YOUR top tips for essay introductions?

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

One thought on “How to … write an introduction”

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