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Essay Writing Background Information

The quality of an essay introduction often determines whether the essay gets read in the first place. Even if it has to be read, as in the case of essay writing assignments in a university setting, a fine introduction gives the reader a good initial impression, entices the reader to read on, and encourages the reader to give an excellent evaluation at the end.

Hence, an essay introduction serves to attract the reader’s interest, introduce the topic, and explain what the essay will be about. Correspondingly, an essay introduction contains three features that usually appear in the following order: an attention-getter, some background information and the central idea.

Getting the reader’s attention

Some common strategies used to attract the reader’s interest to an essay are:

  • Relate a dramatic anecdote.
  • Expose a commonly held belief.
  • Present surprising facts and statistics.
  • Use a fitting quotation.
  • Ask a provocative question.
  • Tell a vivid personal story.
  • Define a key term.
  • Present an interesting observation.
  • Create a unique scenario.

Providing background information

Providing background information in an essay introduction serves as a bridge to link the reader to the topic of an essay. But exactly how long this bridge should be is largely dependent on how much information the writer thinks the reader will need in order to understand the issue being discussed in the essay and appreciate the importance of the issue. For much university writing (for which the readership may not be restricted to lecturers alone), one good rule of thumb for students to determine whether enough background information has been provided is to read the draft introduction to fellow students from other faculties and see whether they understand what is being talked about.

Stating the central idea

The central idea or thesis statement in an essay introduction is the most important part of the essay and is thus indispensable. The thesis statement is usually one or two sentences long and tells the reader what the whole essay is going to be about.

A thesis statement can be direct or indirect. A direct thesis statement gives a specific outline of the essay. For example, one of my students (in his essay entitled ‘The Qualities of a Successful Technopreneur’) wrote the following thesis statement: “The three core qualities that a technopreneur must possess to be successful are vision, a never-say-quit attitude and an innovative mind.” This sentence tells the reader what the essay is going to be about (i.e. the qualities a technopreneur must possess in order to succeed) and provides a structural outline (i.e. that the essay will comprise three main parts, each portion respectively covering one of the three qualities mentioned).

In an indirect thesis statement, no such outline is provided; however, the reader will still know what aspect of the topic the essay is going to discuss. For example, on the same topic, another of my students wrote this thesis statement: “In today’s rapidly changing technology market, only technopreneurs who possess certain qualities will succeed while those who do not will falter and fall in the battlefield.” From this sentence, the reader can still expect the essay to talk about some qualities of a successful technopreneur; but he/she will neither know exactly which and how many qualities the essay will cover, nor predict how many parts the writer will discuss in the main body paragraphs. The suspense given by an indirect thesis statement sometimes gives the reader a good reason to read on.

Once aware of the three features of an essay introduction and some of the options for the presentation of each feature, students can experiment with different options to see which one(s) creates the best effect for each essay.

Background Essay

English 127
Research Writing

Points & Length:  200 points; 4-5 pages (1200-1500 words)
Double space; include heading on the first page (top left); place shortened title and page number in the header of every page (top right); see Format Instructions
Title:  Include an informative, interesting, provocative and/or creative title that reflects your narrowed topic (see CR, p. 247)
Drafts:  First draft to be copied and pasted into a forum window; final draft to be submitted as an uploaded file on Canvas.
Student Sample Background Essay

The purpose of this essay is to inform yourself and to identify what aspects of your topic you will research for the two subsequent essays.  In this exploratory essay you will present background information relating to your proposed (narrowed) topic, including relevant history, laws and policies, statistics, past and current problems, stakeholders, organizations, programs, debates, and other related contexts, etc. 

Remember that all three of the major essays for this course should be on the same topic, though the way that you narrow it and your research question will continue to evolve throughout the quarter (contact me if you want to change your topic altogether after submitting the Background Essay).  Review the Assignments page to get a sense of how the Background Essay fits in with the Literature Review and the Final Research Article; a revised version of the Background Essay will become the background section of your Final Research Article. 

Required Elements

Introduction:  The first paragraph of your essay should present some context for your narrowed topic and introduce the kinds of information and issues that your paper will present.  Close your introduction with a single sentence that provides an overview of the main subpoints of information that your paper will cover.  (Note that you are including an overview statement rather than a thesis statement since you are not putting forth an argument in this paper.)

Body Paragraphs:  You should have at least five body paragraphs, each with a clear topic sentence, that cover the following types of information.  Note, however, that you are not being asked to write one paragraph per aspect.  For example, you may have more than one paragraph on history, and your discussion of history may include statistics.

  • historical background (including a relevant current event; may include descriptions of causes and effects, though keep in mind that those may be debated rather than "fact");
  • statistics;
  • laws or policies;
  • stakeholders (e.g., communities, organizations, groups, agencies) along with their perspectives, interests, and relative power and voice;
  • published debates and conflicts (what stakeholders may disagree about and why, but without taking a position in those debates yourself);
  • additional information can include relevant definitions, current news stories, key figures, programs, etc. 


The concluding paragraph should indicate any important information you were not able to find.  Also, tell us how you intend to narrow your topic further, that is, what aspects of the topic you will continue to research. Next, propose one research question (see CR, Ch. 3) that you would like to answer about your narrowed topic.  Your proposed research question should not be merely informational, opinion based, nor a good/bad, either/or, for/against, pro/con, yes/no, etc. type of question; nor should it predict the future or try to solve a problem (your job will not be to solve a problem in the three papers but to contribute to its analysis). Explain what is significant about your research question, that is, why is it important to understand that aspect in particular?  Note that how you’re narrowing your topic and your proposed research question will continue to evolve. Do not use "I" or other forms of first person voice in the three formal essays for this course, including here in the conclusion. 

Required Sources:  See the Holman Library Class Guide for this course.  A minimum of five substantial and diverse sources are required for this essay (at least two of which should be no more than two years old).  Do not rely on any one source for the majority of your information; demonstrate that you have synthesized information from multiple sources, especially for your historical accounts.  Experiment with various subject and keyword search terms and combinations.  You should plan to sift through and evaluate numerous sources to finalize the ones that you plan to use.  Your five sources must come from the three source types listed below, with at least one source from each type.  If you make use of more than five sources, you may include some information from other source types, including organizational websites, documentaries, TED Talks, youtube videos, news stories, etc., but be very cautious about the credibility and authority of sources. 

  • Online or print references:  See the "Find reference articles" tab of our Holman Library Class Guide.  CQ Researcher, Gale Virtual Reference Library, Encyclopedias (e.g., Britannica, etc.), social science textbooks, print materials from a library’s Reference section, etc. You may not use Wikipedia as one of your sources, though you may consult the References section of a Wikipedia article to locate other relevant sources; see the Wikipedia section of IRIS: http://www.clark.edu/Library/iris/find/wikipedia/wikipedia.shtml. Dictionary entries will not count as one of your five required sources. 
  • Magazine articles:  You must have at least one article that you find from the ProQuest database, which you can find from the "Find magazine and newspaper articles" tab of our Holman Library Class Guide.  Try out a variety of search terms in ProQuest to find relevant and substantial articles (must be longer than 1000 words); use the tabs at the top of the search results (the list of article links) to sort and view only the magazine articles. Online magazine articles are also acceptable.  Avoid academic journal scholarly journals for this essay, which will be the main source type for your next essay (Literature Review).  Longish, investigative newspaper articles may work. 
  • Books or book chapters:  See the "Find books and book chapters" tab of our Holman Library Class Guide.  Use the online library catalog to access GRC’s holdings as well as electronic books that you can read directly from your computer.  You can also look for books via WorldCat, King County Library, UW Libraries, and amazon.com.  Use the Inter-Library Loan service to have GRC get books for you that Holman Library doesn’t own. Rereading America articles do not count to fulfill this required source TYPE.

***Note the difference between magazine articles (where the audience is the general public, as in Newsweek, or a particular segments of the public, as in Popular Photography) vs. academic journal articles (where the audience is made of scholars, such as Journal of Popular Culture or Journal of American History).  You will focus on scholarly sources for the second major paper, the Literature Review.  It can be difficult to distinguish between magazines and academic journals when you do a database search (e.g., on Proquest); see Scholarly Sources to understand the difference.  Avoid scholarly journal articles for the BE; if you do use one for information (rather than a report of current research), you should also make sure you have the other three required source TYPES listed above. 

***You are encouraged to find as much relevant background information on your topic as you can, so look far and wide at many different kinds of sources, but the bulk of your information should come from the three source types above.  You may even end up finding sources for the Literature Review (scholarly journal articles) or the Final Research Article, in which case you’ll be ahead of the game!  Ask a librarian for assistance as you hunt for relevant sources and information; click the link for the 24 hour online chat with a librarian at the top right corner of the Holman Library website.

Quotations (in-text citations):  You must have at least one quotation from each of your five sources.  In addition to the required five quotations, you can also cite them (paraphrase or simply refer to them).  If you have more than the minimum required five sources, you must cite all of them in the body of your essay even if you don’t quote from them.  Follow APA guidelines for in-text citations to setup each quotation or citation grammatically with a signal phrase or attributive tag, and include a comment or explanation for each major quoted passage. Include authors' last names only, year of publication, and page or paragraph numbers for EACH in-text citation. Do NOT include authors' first name, initials, or credentials in the body of the essay.  Only include "article title" (in quotation marks) or book title (in italics) or organization name if no author is specified. 

This is a research writing class, so you are expected to quote from multiple sources to indicate where you are getting EACH piece of information or viewpoint.  However, the quoted passages should not be so many or so long that they dominate your own essay.  The majority of the writing in the essay should still be your own, not the authors’ you quote.  You may need to indicate what source you are using more than once in a single paragraph:  the reader should always know where you are getting your information from; there should never be confusion about whether you are stating your own ideas and interpretations or presenting someone else’s information or views. 

Additional Considerations

Topic Selection and Narrowing:  Before making a final topic selection, be willing to consider and even do preliminary research on more than one topic.  Make sure you are focusing on a social science aspect of your topic rather than a scientific aspect.  For example, do not attempt to write a paper on the effects of psychotropic drugs on brain chemistry, though you might, for example, explore the policies around mental health and medication for prisoners.  Even though you must narrow your topic before getting started so that you are not biting off more than you can chew, you will likely have to provide background info that is more general than just your narrowed topic.  For example, if you were writing a paper on mass transit in Seattle, it would be relevant to look at the history of mass transit more broadly along with the experiences of other cities.  Your job will be to balance the specific information you provide about your narrowed topic and the broader background and contexts. 

Information, Evaluation and Analysis:  Of the three major essays, this one requires the least explicit written evaluation and analysis on your part, but it is still not a "data dump," in which you just throw together all the information you can find.  Although there may not be any such thing as objectivity, you should seek to remain neutral.  Remember that in this paper you will not be putting forth an argument about your topic, which in fact you will not develop until the Final Research Article.  Therefore, do not put forth your opinion, take sides in a controversy, or form judgments about what is right and wrong, good or bad.  However, you will still need to exercise and exhibit your own critical thinking, judgment and creativity in narrowing your topic.  You will also need to evaluate sources for credibility as you select, organize and present relevant information in a clear, concise and meaningful way. 

Voice and Audience:   Don’t use “I,” “me,” or other forms of first person in the three major essays for this course.  Also don’t use “you” (second person) voice.  Use third person speech, but avoid awkward and unnecessary uses of passive voice.  Contact me in advance if you wish to include brief, relevant personal experience that you will discuss in the context of other non-personal published research.  Never use first person to give your opinion (“I think” or “I believe”) or to narrate the trivial details of your own research experience (“Then I went to the library to find some more sources!”).  For the Background Essay and other writing in this class, your audience is NOT the general public.  Instead think of your audience as fellow researchers, for example, your fellow students in this class. 

References and APA format:  Citations for your five or more sources must appear in your document on a new page entitled References and must follow APA format.  All of your five or more sources need to be cited or quoted in the body of your essay (with quotations from at least five of them). 

Paragraph Form:  Make sure each of your body paragraphs has a topic sentence that connects with the overview statement in your introduction.  Pay attention to the transitions between and within paragraphs.  Paragraphs in academic writing are (usually) between 1/3 - 3/4 of a page long.  If they're shorter than that, you may not be adequately developing your ideas.  If the ideas or information don't deserve to be developed further, then you might consider combining the content of the short paragraph with another paragraph; in this case, you would need to revise the topic sentence so that it covers the combined materials.  If a paragraph is much longer than 3/4 of a page, you risk losing the attention of your reader as well as losing focus in your paragraph itself.  Of course, there are exceptions to the 1/3-3/4 page guideline.  See the Paragraph Development page for further explanation. 


Information Questions:  Even before you begin or as you get started hunting for relevant sources and information, make a list of as many information questions you can think of with regard to your topic.  What is it that YOU think you might like to know or need to know about your topic?  It is helpful actually to write these out since it will focus your hunt.  As you research, keep adding to this list.  Which information are you not able to find out?  Why might that be?  Whom might you ask for help in locating the answer to a particular question that you think is important but can't seem to find? 

Historical Timeline:  Come up with a historical timeline with the dates for at least 3-5 major events, laws, or other developments.   Briefly explain the significance of each date; perhaps write a mini-narrative.

Statistics:  As you go through various sources, identify at least one or two statistics that are relevant for your research topic/question.  Why are these statistics relevant?  Would everyone agree on what they mean, or are they the subject of disagreement and controversy?  See the Misleading Use of Statistics. 

Stakeholders:  List as many different groups or parties that are involved or affected by your research topic/question (do not say "society," which is too general a category) as you can think of.  List at least five different types of groups/parties.  Ideally, you should be able to identify their distinct interests, perspectives, and relative power and voice, which may motivate you to look for even more diverse sources.  For example, in researching the criminal justice system, how might you go about researching the experiences and points of view of prisoners themselves?

Debates/Disagreements/Controversies:  Describe and explain at least two major debates or disagreements that are relevant to your topic.  Who disagrees with whom and why?  Do they disagree because of conflicting evidence, interests, values and/or assumptions?  These disagreements might be found in the mainstream media or in some other sources.

Problems:  While your job is not to solve a real-world problem (even in the Final Research Article), you should begin trying to understand it.  Think about the following questions, though you do not have to answer them for the BE:  Why and when did it become a problem? Why hasn’t it been solved?  How has it evolved over time?  What efforts have been to solve the problem?  What has or hasn’t been effective about those proposed solutions?  Who is (most) to blame for the problem or should get the most credit for attempted solutions?  What are the main disagreements about causes and solutions?  Who has the power to do something about the problem?  What is a financial analysis of the problem?  Who gains something from the problem remaining a problem? 

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