Introduction

Different editors (and teachers) have different ideas about what an introduction should do and what it should look like. At the end of the day, you’ll have to find a way to satisfy them, not me, but I would recommend that you take seriously the idea that an introduction occupies the first few minutes of your reader’s attention, after which you either still have it or have lost it. Indeed, I can be more precise than that. Think of your introduction as a way of making the most of the first three minutes of your reader’s attention. In that time you will have to evoke a world, invoke a science, a provoke a thought that gives your desired reader a reason to keep reading. To this end, here are three paragraphs you should consider writing.

To evoke a world, write about the common real-world problem that your research bears upon. What is going on in society that your research tries to better understand? Don’t write about your research, however; just describe the world as it exists independently of, but relevant to, your research. This paragraph can be journalistic or historical, anecdotal or statistical, personal or political. The important thing is to evoke a world that the reader recognizes by way of a problem the reader takes seriously. Also, since the problem itself will be familiar, it’s important to provide enough detail to demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about it. The reader should not find what you are saying hard to believe, but should come to a better more detailed understanding of the subject after reader it. The sky should be blue in this world, as it is in the reader’s, but in may well be “azure” as well.

The best way to invoke a science is to remind the reader of the current consensus or standing controversy that defines work within your discipline on the problem you presented in the previous paragraph. Here, again, don’t write about yourself or your own research. Write about what has come before you. As in the previous paragraph, what you say here should be familiar to the reader but also interesting. You should demonstrate a deep knowledge the literature of your field and an understand of what the reader expects of your analysis. What concepts should be drawn on in a study of the problem you have raised? How much work has been done on it so far? Are scholars generally in agreement — i.e., is there a “received view” — or is the field currently debating the core issues? Perhaps the problem you raise has always been approached through contested notions, so that controversy is actually constitutive for your discipline. Remind the reader of where you stand scientifically.

Finally, I suggest you provoke a thought in the mind of the reader by announcing your conclusion and briefly explaining how you arrived at it. Your conclusion should challenge the consensus or take a side in the controversy or, perhaps, solve the real-world problem you began with. “This paper shows that…,” is a good way to begin, followed by a sentence that is theoretically significant and empirically supported. It should derive its meaning from your conceptual framework (your theory) and it truth from your analytical material (your data). Now write a couple of sentences about your methods, two or three that summarize your analysis, and a couple more that suggest the main implications. The basic structure should be: “This paper shows that … It is based on … The data suggests … This has important consequences for …”

In all three cases, remember not to write more than 200 words. The trick is to get all this done in under 600 words, so that it will take no more than three minutes to read it. By the end, the reader should have good reasons to keep reading the whole thing.