Before you read anything, you need to know what you’re reading: what’s the topic here? What am I going to find out? If you don’t know that, you quickly become frustrated. At best, you skim down or flick through to find out for yourself. At worst, you stop reading and never reach the good, useful content buried somewhere inside. Everything needs an introduction: every book, every chapter, and every section within a chapter. In Structuring your writing – the back-to-basics masterclass, I talk about the horror of headless horsemen:
They’re freaky in stories and just as freaky in a piece of writing. When I read something, I want to know what it is. I give it a paragraph, maybe two – half a page at the utmost. If I still don’t know, it’s a headless horseman. This thing has no head.
Your introduction needs to do two things: introduce the topic and outline what’s coming up. Some writers forget the introduction completely and dive straight into the “meat”. That doesn’t help the reader get to the key info faster, though, because they don’t know yet what info you’re going to give them. Other writers give only half the introduction: they introduce the topic, but don’t tell you what’s coming, or they tell you what’s coming but leave out the background and context. So here’s how to write the perfect introduction.
Introduce the topic
Before you launch into the details, set the scene. Give the context and background of the topic. Consider the problems you’re going to help your readers resolve. Answer these questions: “What are you going to tell me about? Why are you telling me this? What else do I need to know to understand the topic?” For example, if you’re writing a chapter in a business management book about CRM databases, your introduction could say what they are, why businesses need them, some of the problems they solve and ways they’re used, and that the formats vary widely and need to grow alongside companies.
Outline what’s coming
Once your reader knows what the topic is, give them a short run-down of the key aspects you’re going to cover. If you’ve mapped out your book structure well, you should have a list of headings for the chapter, which gives you the key aspects – so string those together into sentences. (If they flow easily together, that’s also a good sign that they’re in the right order.) For example, “This chapter will explore the different kinds of CRMs, how to choose the right one for you, what you’ll use it for and who’ll use it, and what information to collect.”
If you want to be more elegant, leave out the “This chapter will explore” bit and make the rest into sentences. “Your CRM can be anything from a spreadsheet to a custom-built database. The key is to choose something that works well now and will grow with your company. As you explore what you’ll use it for and who’ll use it, that will help you choose what information to collect.”
The second version has two advantages. First, for introductions to sections, it’s much less repetitive than repeating “This section will explore / look at / discuss / etc”. Second, using sentences makes you explain the connections between the topics. If this feels difficult to do, try writing it in stages. Bullet-point your topics, then turn each one into a sentence, then connect the sentences. (That’s always the trick of how to write something you can’t write.)
If you reread this blog post, you’ll see another example. The first two paragraphs are the introduction. In the first paragraph, I explain the problems that arise without introductions, and put it in context as part of writing structure (with a link to the wider post). In the second, I give you the two main topics it covers, and some initial detail on each one. Each paragraph also has an introduction: the first sentence announces the subject for that paragraph.
Look back over your own writing: your blog posts or your book so far. Are you using introductions? Does each introduction have both parts: the topic and the outline? If it doesn’t, don’t panic: we’re allowed to write in drafts, so you can add it now / start using introductions now. As with any writing practice, it will gradually feel more natural, until you can’t imagine leaping into the subject before you’ve welcomed your reader in and shown them around.