How to write an introduction

There are a few well-worn pieces of advice on introductions that get passed around. “Tell ’em what you’re going to say” is probably the most popular of these. Another one is “grab their attention”. I haven’t found either to be very helpful in my own writing. After all, most authors tell people what’s going to be said in the abstract, which covers the whole paper and its conclusions. The introduction is really for leading people into the essay, not reproducing it in compact form. And while you can grab people’s attention through short, shocking statements, surely that isn’t the only way to open things up. Look at the essays you admire. Some may aim to surprise, but probably not all.

Then there are the traps that students fall into over and over. Many undergraduates open by repeating the essay prompt or quoting from the dictionary. These are hackneyed approaches, and they call to mind an unsure student sitting in front of a blank computer screen. Others try to puff things up with grand statements of the cosmic importance of what’s to come in the essay (“Ladies and gentlemen! What you’re about to see will astonish you. Ever since the dawn of humanity, we have wrestled with…”). That’s an exaggeration of what I’ve seen, but only just.

A better approach is to use your introduction to set the right environment for your argument. You can do this by (1) establishing the context, (2) identifying a problem, and then (3) providing a response. The context is where you introduce the topic that will be under discussion, usually in a fairly neutral way. The problem can be either a gap in existing knowledge or a point of academic contention. And the response is your contribution or judgment, the argument that you will be supporting over the rest of your paper. You might have found a different approach to the problem, or something new to consider. Or maybe new evidence has come along from a different field that should be taken into account.

If you’d like to read more about this way of writing introductions, you can try chapter 16 of Booth et al.’s The Craft of Research, or various material written by John Swales, including Aspects of Article Introductions.

For now, though, read through the following introductions, all taken from work produced at least in part by PPLS teaching staff (Hannah Rohde, Andy Clark, and Robert Logie). Watch how they follow the pattern I’ve just described.  I’ll highlight the first one for you.

Most of the linguistic input that we encounter as comprehenders woefully underdetermines the crucial structural, semantic, and pragmatic relationships that make language meaningful. These invisible relationships must be inferred by the listener or reader, who manages to do this gracefully and automatically. From a stream of words, we extract a plausible grammatical structure, positing syntactic and semantic relations between words and phrases. At the same time, we also identify higher order relationships that hold between sentences and that allow us to link together a series of sentences to form a coherent discourse.

Almost all sentences that we encounter are embedded in larger multi-sentence discourse contexts, yet our current models of language comprehension tend to focus on the sentence-internal process of combining words to form local syntactic and semantic relationships. The aim of this dissertation is to show that comprehenders generate expectations about the direction the discourse is likely to take — that is, how upcoming sentences will relate to the current one — and that those expectations influence the interpretation of linguistic phenomena internal to the sentence.

Try the next two on your own:

These examples are particularly concise; some writers will spend paragraphs getting from green to red. But nearly all essays do follow the pattern, and that’s because academic writing is (1) about something requiring contextualisation, (2) situated within a research community that has already thought about the topic, and (3) aimed at generating new ideas or approaches. Don’t see the pattern as a straightjacket, but as a reminder of your academic responsibilities to your reader. The execution is up to you.