This post is not about the five-paragraph essay.
This semester, I’ve decided to offer a course for faculty and doctoral students about how to write the ideal introduction and conclusion of a paper or, perhaps more precisely, the ideal paper‘s introduction and conclusion. I know that no paper, introduction, or conclusion is ideal, but it can be a good exercise to give yourself conditions that let you approximate an ideal. In my course, then, I will assume that the participants can take five deliberate moments to compose the first three and the last two paragraphs of a (real or imagined) paper that presents one of their research results. Since I’m assuming they have such a result, the hard part (doing the actual research) is presumably behind them. We will even leave the struggle of writing the whole paper on the side; it is only the introduction and conclusion that will interest us. We will focus on five easy paragraphs that can be written in two and a half hours, or five half-hour writing moments at the start of the day for a week.
The first paragraph of your introduction should evoke a world. This is the first minute of your reader’s attention and it should set the scene for the result you will present in the third. It is the world you share with your reader, so it should be familiar but also interesting. This is not where you tell your reader that the UFOs are real and the Andromedans walk among us. That would be “out there”. But, if your analysis does indeed suggest that we are being visited by beings from other planets, then this opening paragraph may be where you say that the Pentagon has acknowledged that they have some video that is very difficult to explain. That, after all, has been reported in the New York Times. That is, while your description of the world in this paragraph should be uncontroversial, you should use what you know about the subject to make it interesting.
The second paragraph should invoke a science. Please remember that this is your science and the science of your reader. It is not “their” science, i.e., that of a community that is foreign to you and unfamiliar to your reader. You are not introducing your reader to a new body of knowledge, you are reminding your reader of the state of the conversation in their own discipline, which is also yours. As a rule, I suggest you characterize it either as a consensus or a controversy; your field may be founded on a broad agreement or, at the moment, engaged in a foundational dispute. It may be a bit of both, but you should write this paragraph with a focus on one or the other. Describe your field as a conversation between named scholars who are aware of each other’s work. Keep this paragraph human and concrete, not conceptual and abstract. You are describing a community of people who are brought together by a shared interest in a set of ideas.
The last paragraph of your introduction should now propose a thesis of your own. We could also say that it should state your conclusion. “This paper shows that…” is a great way to start this paragraph, followed by a straightforward statement of your results. That statement should be theoretically significant and empirically true. That is, its meaning should be depend on your theory but its truth should depend on the analysis of your data. Importantly, this paragraph does not claim that your result is correct, only that your paper will show that it is. That means you will elaborate on exactly how it will show it, and the ideal way to do this is to write two sentences about your methods (“It is based on…”), three sentences about your analysis (“The findings indicate…”), and two sentences about your discussion (“This has implications for…”). Including the first sentence about the paper, that’s eight sentences in all. They are doing a lot of work, but they get it done in under a minute of the reader’s attention.
These first three paragraphs can be imagined as three concentric circles. In the middle, there is your object; around this, there is your paper, then your science, and then the world. “The world,” said Wittgenstein, “is everything that is that is the case,” but you are interested in some particular set of facts, and you have constructed these facts using the theories and methods of your science. You live in a society, done a scientific study, and gotten a result that you are presenting in a paper — the paper you are here introducing to a reader who also does science and lives in the world.
The first paragraph of your conclusion should restate your thesis. Remember that it’s been about thirty-five paragraphs (a good half hour of reading time) since we last read it in its plainly stated form. Your key sentence for this paragraph could simply be whatever you wrote after “This paper shows that” in paragraph three. But, to keep this interesting also for you, I recommend that you find a way of rephrasing it so that it says the same thing but, this time, for a reader who has just read your whole argument (background, theory, method, analysis, discussion, and all). The rest of the paragraph should support the conclusion. Write the strongest, least apologetic statement of the reasons you think your conclusion is true. Assume the reader is familiar with your methods and with your data and already understands the limitations of your study. Say it the way you say it to yourself, fully understanding what you mean. Your reader is ready and deserves to be addressed seriously.
The last paragraph should reimagine your world or your science in the light of your results. Keep in mind that there will ideally be some interesting tension between your theory and your analysis, which your discussion has dealt with the implications of. The first two paragraphs of your introduction evoked a world and invoked a science that were both innocent of your results. Now that we know what your study shows, how should we either either see the world or do our science going forward? Maybe we should prepare for one or another crisis waiting us in the future; maybe we should stop being worried about one. Maybe we should resolve the standing controversy in our field and replace it with a consensus of a kind you specify; maybe the years of peaceful consensus are over and it is time to debate the issues vigorously in our discipline. Maybe we need some specific new policy; maybe we need to conduct more research. Whatever you do, try to leave the reader with a clear view from exactly the point that you now yourself proceed.
These five paragraphs are of course easier to write about than to actually write. But I do want to insist that they are easier to write than what they are about is to know. Writing them is therefore a good test of whether you’re ready to write a paper. Take 5 x 30 minutes to find out whether you have something to say. That’s what my little course this spring will show how to do.