Ivory Tower Writing #9: Writing an inviting introduction

This post provides pointers on how to write an enticing introduction section for academic papers.

They say that first impressions are everything, and you don’t get a second chance at making first impressions. Such holds true for even academic papers. Your introduction is your first chance to hook readers into reading the rest of your paper, so you better work hard on it.

At this point, we have covered the general parts of the introduction, so let’s get to the actual writing. Also, because writing an inviting introduction is hard, this section is often written first and finished last.

What’s in an introduction?

Let me get this out of the way first. You are not writing a novel. Your introduction should not read like a piece of internet clickbait, such as “I use Realist theory to explain European regionalism. You won’t believe the results!”

No, that is not how you should write the introduction.

Basically, the introduction provides the reader with all of the important information they need before progressing into your paper. This means you need to explain:

  1. The background of the paper (“What’s the context?”)
  2. Your motivation for writing the paper (“Why am I writing about this?” or “What’s the research gap?”. This also includes your thesis statement.
  3. The tools you will use (“What are your methods/theories?”)
  4. Your key results.

As you can see, the introduction can be considered a brief summary of your paper which also functions to hook the reader in. Let’s go into these elements one by one.

The background: get the reader up to speed

The background serves to provide the reader with some context of the issue you are discussing. This could be something of political importance, such as increased competition in the Indo-Pacific, or something of theoretical importance, like “nobody has approached the issue of ‘justice’ from this angle”.

Depending on the length of your essay, this part can be either short or long. It is recommended not to use up too much of your word allowance in this section. You also shouldn’t consider this section as a place to “dump” a ton of historical or theoretical background on the reader. This is a complete turn-off. Avoid using phrases like “Since the end of the Cold War…” if you’re writing about an issue that happened two years ago. Imagine having to read through five pages of post-Cold War history before getting to the thesis statement!

Consider this section as a place to make sure your reader is on the same page as you.

Your motivation and thesis statement

I thought these two elements should be fused into one since they’re interlinked.

In this section, you write your motivation for writing the paper. This is where you highlight the supposed “research gap”… or if you’re simply writing a term paper, a point of interest that you intend to research further.

Here’s an example:

There are three major theoretical models for explaining the cycle of revolutions in military affairs (RMA): the Tofflers’ “wave” model, the Murray-Knox “military revolution”, and the punctuated equilibrium model. You’re interested in which model explains Indonesia’s RMA process better.

There’s a point of interest. Your thesis statement will usually reflect this interest. From here on, you may be interested in seeing which model is better reflected in reality. Or maybe you may want to see if all three models are wrong and thus you want to create a new one. Either way, you now see that your thesis statement should be closely linked to your “motivation”.

Your tools

Your reader would want to know what kind of tools you will use to construct your argument. The main reason for this is to ensure your research can be replicated (or at least, be scrutinized).

Why is this important? Well, if other researchers cannot reach the same conclusion as you, then your entire research comes under question. In the humanities, this elaboration of methods is important to make sure that other researchers can comment whether your methods were sound. This is even more important in quantitative-heavy research. At the very least, it makes sure everyone what data you’re using and how you intend on analyzing that data. For example, if you wanted to show that over the last 50 years major inter-state wars have declined, you would need to explain what type of dataset you used, along with the variables that you observed.

Here, you should describe your methods specifically. One mistake that students often do is simply write that they will “use quantitative/qualitative methods”. Well… that’s not much help now, is it? It’s better to be specific. If you’re researching the evolution of Japanese security policy and all you say is that you will “use qualitative methods”, I’ll ask questions like “What type of documents will you be researching?” or “Who will you interview?” Instead, you could consider writing something along these lines: “I will analyze specific security policy documents, including but not limited to… from 1947 to 2014.”

Additionally, you should also explain why these sources are important. Perhaps they are very special documents that reflect the nature of Japanese security policy. Or maybe the sources you will interview all fit your sampling universe. Whatever the case may be, you should give a reason as to why these sources are good enough to be relied upon for your research.

Your key results, because in academia, spoilers are good

Spoiler alerts are appreciated when doing academic writing. In fact, it makes the life of the reader easier if they know what you will be talking about and what the key results are up front. This saves them the suspense and gives them more time to criticize other parts of your essay.

In the introduction, you’re allowed to keep discussions of key results short. But, at the very least, you need to declare the key results of your research. Continuing from our last example of Japanese security policy, you can simply write like this in the introduction:

“The key findings of this research is twofold. First, it finds that in the 1990s, Japanese security policy started turning from pacifism. This was later evident in 2014, when Shinzo Abe proposed a reinterpretation of the Constitution, specifically regarding Article 9. Second, it finds that these deviations are a result of external pressure, as suggested by increased US pressure towards Japan to contribute to US war efforts starting in the early 1990s.”

I promise you I wrote that off the top of my head.

Conclusion

I’ve covered the basics of writing an inviting introduction. Basically, you need to work on four key elements of the introduction: background, motivation, tools, and results.

I saved technical details for last. There’s no specific limit for the introduction; however, as a rule of thumb, it should be around one-third of your word allowance (that’s 2,000 words assuming a 6,000-word allowance). That’s not a rule set in stone, though.

Hope that helps and if you have additional questions, please write in the comments!

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