A Step-By-Step Process for Writing a Killer Introduction
The following is adapted from a lecture I gave to graduate students at the London School of Economics in October 2016.
Let’s face it, writing introductions can suck. We think of introductions as that annoying thing we have to write that simply summarises the main points of our essay/paper.
If we’re feeling adventurous, we might add a few flourishes to set the scene – perhaps a nice quote or a couple of dates. We then dive into something along the lines of “this essay will discuss…”
But, despite introductions being a pain in the arse, they’re extremely important.
These days, most people don’t read your paper from start to finish.
Instead, most people just read the introduction and results sections in depth, while skimming over the rest of your paper.
Yes, I know it’s shocking that people don’t spend hours reading the paper you’ve (hopefully) spent weeks slaving away at. But sadly, that’s the reality.
With this in mind, we need to make sure our introductions are clear, succinct and convey as much information as possible.
It’s the first thing that a reader sees, so a good introduction should present a coherent overview of your argument and how your argument either adds to/resolves ongoing debates over your topic.
The role of the academic writer is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand your argument.
This is a pretty important point so let me say it again. Your role, as an academic writer, is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand your argument.
So how exactly do you write an introduction?
There’s a formula for writing introductions
I spoke to a number of academics about how they write introductions and they all told me that they have a formula for structuring their introductions.
The structure of your introduction will vary depending on what discipline you’re in, so the first step is to ask your professors to recommend a few published academic articles which they believe have good introductions.
From there, you should read these articles to identify the structure of their introductions.
Once you’ve been able to identify this, you can deploy the structure in your own essays.
So what does this look like in practice?
Let me walk you through an example introduction from the field of Public Policy. The example paper I’ll be using is “Politics and Investment: Examining the Territorial Allocation of Public Investment in Greece” by Rodríguez-Pose A., Psycharis Y. and Tselios V.
(A note on the methodology: the article is a quantitative study which uses statistical data to test a hypothesis.)
Now, the articles you’ll write may not adopt this type of methodology, but the key takeaway is that you can find similar structures in articles related to the type of study you’ll be writing.
Deconstructing Rodríguez-Pose et al.’s paper:
(1) Setting up the straw man
“Public finance theory has argued that public sector intervention in the economy is primarily motivated by the principles of efficient allocation of resources, equal distribution of wealth and stabilization of economic activity over the business cycle (Musgrave, 1959)”
Here, the authors set up a ‘straw man’. This is an argument which they believe is incorrect and which the paper will proceed to challenge.
(2) Other authors’ critiques of the straw man
“A growing body of research has questioned this ‘benevolent’, ‘efficient’ and ‘equitable’ role of the state in allocating public investment (e.g. Besley and Coate, 1998 Besley T. and Coate S. (1998)).
[some academics argue that] public investment decisions have been easily the most political of all economic policy decisions taken by governments.”
They then move on to demonstrate how other authors have challenged the straw-man argument. The point of this sentence is to indicate that the first quote we looked at is now an antiquated belief.
(3) Making your critique different to existing critiques
“However, while the political influence on the allocation of public spending across space is well-documented in the literature, less is known about the exact political mechanisms which govern it.”
Here, the authors attempt to set their own critiques apart from those which are outlined above in (2).
We, as readers, can therefore begin to see that their argument will be an original take on the topic.
(4) Introduce research question, method and case study
“this paper sets out to test empirically the relationship between electoral results and regional public investment spending in Greece for the period 1975–2009.
The authors then introduce the main elements of their paper:
- The research question: ‘what is the relationship between electoral results and regional public investment spending?’
- The method: ‘empirical testing’ using econometric techniques
- The case study: Greece for the period 1975–2009
(5) The hypothesis
“The paper explores whether decision over centrally controlled public investment allocation in Greece had been driven by ‘pork-barrel’ politics. More specifically, it addresses four different aims…”
Next, the authors succinctly state what their hypothesis is – i.e. that ‘pork-barrel politics’ have been responsible for the majority of public investment in Greece.
It’s not important for us to know what ‘pork-barrel politics’ is (I’ve got no idea), however for our purposes, we can see how the authors clearly introduce the hypothesis they will be testing in the paper.
(6) An overview of the results
“The analysis intends to make several contributions to the literature on the interface between politics and economic policy such as….”
The authors then provide an overview of the results they’ve found.
This is a step most students hate doing because they’d prefer to keep the reader in suspense until they ‘unveil’ their results towards the end of their paper.
This is a mistake.
As I said at the begin, the job of the academic writer is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand your argument.
Therefore, you should provide an overview of your findings in the introduction. This will allow your reader to more easily follow the argument you set out in your paper.
(7) Provide a brief summary of your argument
“Summing up, the main contributions of the paper relate to…
Here, the authors take great pains to make it clear what they’re arguing.
They do this by providing a summary which reiterates their argument and restating why their paper provides an original take on their topic.
(8) Outline the structure of your paper
“The paper is structured as follows…”
Now comes the part which all of us students associate with introductions – summarising the structure of the paper.
This is probably the easiest part of writing an introduction.
It might look something like: “the first section provides an overview of the existing literature, the second section outlines the data and methodology used, the following section provides the results, and the final section concludes”.
In summary, the structure of this introduction resembles the red boxes below:
So there you have it, an easy and step-by-step process to writing an introduction that’s on par with those used in the top academic journals.
The key message is that there is a strict structure and formula to writing these types of introductions.
If the example provided above isn’t relevant to your discipline, then I encourage you to spend about an hour identifying the structure used in academic articles related to your field of study.