What Does Background Mean in an Essay

By background in an essay, we mean background information. Similarly to a person’s background (like the one being asked for in an interview for a job), a background in an essay is an important part of the overall picture. Without that part the picture will be incomplete, it will miss important information and the evaluator will not be able to conduct a thorough and objective assessment.

In an essay, we use background information to help the reader to better understand our point. In most cases, such information represents definitions, while it could also be about a historical context, events that relate to the topic of our essay, additional details to aid the reader’s understanding, etc.

Background in an Essay

Why We Need Background Information in an Essay

We may need a background in an essay in two instances:

  1. When our task prescribes us to include such information. At school, this is done with the purpose to train us in providing additional information – a very important skill, which we will need later for the graduate research papers.
  2. When we feel like we need to include a background in an essay, since the reader may not understand our point, term, phenomenon, or the like. By including a background in an essay, we show that we have already mastered this artistic device, which will make our paper stand out from similar papers by other students.

In either case, including a background in an essay correctly and in the right place will reward us with additional points.

The Relationship between a Thesis Statement and Background Information

It is tempting to think that background in an essay serves to support a thesis statement. However, this is not the case! To support a thesis statement we use the main body of our essay, where we include facts, arguments, examples, and logical thinking. 

The main function of background in an essay is to explain an otherwise difficult-to-understand thesis statement. Without such information, our statement could be misunderstood, its context could be blurred, and the reader would fail to see our intentions with this paper.

The Right Place for Background in an Essay

The right place for background information is the introductory part. It is placed right after the hook, sometimes before and sometimes after the thesis statement.

If you are placing background information right from the very beginning (the very first sentence), or somewhere at the end of your essay, you are making it wrong. The reader will fail to understand your intentions and might lose interest in reading your essay further.

The Length of Background in an Essay

Now you know the purpose and the correct place for background information. Have you got everything you need to include a background in an essay? How about the length of background information? Should you write a sentence or several paragraphs? Neither one is the right approach.

In a 3-5 paragraph essay, background information should consist of 2-4 sentences on average. Needless to say, an essay is a short type of academic paper and as such it doesn’t require lengthy additions or appendixes. Never make your background information longer than an introductory part itself!

At the same time, in an extended essay, background information can be as long as a separate paragraph or two. In such papers, it should be as long as it takes to give the necessary background. Later, during editing and proofreading, you can always shorten and revise your background information.

Background Essay writing

Examples of Background in an Essay

Any learning would be incomplete without examples. So, let’s illustrate the use of potential background information in connection to several essay topics.

Example 1. Assume you are writing a paper on the much-disputed topic of people’s right to carry guns in the US. You want to claim that the legal right to carry guns in public places is dangerous and should be abolished, but before you move on to particular examples of people abusing their right and conducting mass shootings, you may want to provide some background information on why such a right was adopted in the US in the first place.

Your background part could be as follows then:

The history of people carrying guns with them in US territory began as far back as the 17th century. Then, the first pilgrims and colonists were in constant danger of violence and robbery from bandits and Indians, and the firearms made them feel safer and brought protection. Those times are long gone, though, and in modern society, the gun’s role of protector is far outweighed by other, far more dangerous roles.

Example 2. Let’s assume you have been asked to write an essay on the role of nuclear energy in providing power to societies all over the world. In your introductory part, you are posing a question of whether the nuclear energy benefits outweigh the dangers and make a claim that currently they really do. For your readers to have a better understanding of the topic, you may want to add a background in an essay about the term ‘nuclear energy’.

Your background information would read then:

The term ‘nuclear energy’ is derived from the word ‘nucleus’, which is the central building block of an atom. The idea of energy contained in atoms first came to be in the 1930s, when the famous physicist Enrico Fermi showed the results of his experiments to the masses.

By providing a background in an essay, you are showing your awareness and knowledge of the topic and the subject. However, only the rightful application will bring you the desired outcome. If you are unsure how much background information to include, it’s always better to keep it short and simple.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a background in an essay?

Background in an essay refers to the additional information the author provides to supplement their point(s). Background information can represent a historical reference, a definition of a term, an illustration of an artistic work, or a classification of a complex phenomenon, to name a few.

Where to include a background in an essay?

Background information in an essay is paced in the introductory part (on rare occasions at the beginning of the main body). The key rule here is to place additional information after, but not before the hook.

How long is the background in an essay?

Background information in an essay should not be longer than 3-4 sentences for a simple essay (up to 5 paragraphs in length), and up to 10 sentences or a single paragraph for an extended essay.

Will my essay benefit from background information?

If used correctly, i.e. placed in the right spot and of the right length, the background in an essay could only do well for your paper and its assessment by the teacher. However, if you don’t know how to do it right or don’t have anyone to consult with, it’s better not to risk the flow of your paper by including the clumsy background information.