writing course – The Introduction

We’re off!

We started the first writing course session with some personal introductions so that I knew who was in the room, their disciplines and the general drift of the paper that each person wanted to write. About half of the participants were in my own field of education, others in sociology and social anthropology – not too far from my own work. One person was in administration and tourism and I didn’t feel too uncomfortable about working with that field either. So there was nothing right out of my comfort zone. It does help, I find, being a pretty interdisciplinary researcher.

Everyone had written abstracts. Well just about everyone. One person had a paper that had been rejected by a journal and wanted to rewrite it. Several others had drafts. However, today was a new start.

My opening gambit was a look at some key points in writing The Introduction. I was focused of course on a social science journal article.

I began by stressing that the journal article is a cultural artifact, and not all academic traditions write the same way. I wanted everyone to understand that what was on offer in my writing course wasn’t The Way to write a paper, but a culturally specific genre.

(For instance, some European scholarly conventions do not use meta-commentary in the same way as English language journal articles. That is, they don’t spell out before-hand what the paper is about and what the conclusions are. Instead, the writer leads the reader through the argument and reveals the conclusion at the end. TaDa, sounds of applause etc.

And Suresh Canagarajah gives a very telling example of the geopolitics of academic writing. He took his US PhD back to Sri Lanka and delivered a paper in the English/US tradition only to find that his learned audience found it alienating and insulting. They didn’t want to be told what the paper would do before it had been presented.)

As well, I wanted to focus everyone’s attention not only on the need for the paper to have an overall argument and a So What but also that, therefore, each section of the paper needed to do its part. Each of the conventional pieces of a social science journal article has very particular work to do. Each part makes a specific contribution to the whole.

The Introduction for example, has to accomplish three things:

  • create the warrant or mandate for the paper. The Introduction has to establish why the paper has been written, and why what it has to say is important. It has to create the niche in which the paper sits, and thus to anticipate the contribution.
  • entice the reader, interest them, engage them, persuade them that it will be worth them spending part of their day reading what’s to come. Readers make pretty quick judgments about whether a paper is going to be hard work, boring or a really good read. It’s vital to begin in a lively way – as you mean to carry on. However it’s not necessary to get that right straight away – it may be that the killer opening is left to the second or even third draft.
  • introduce the writer. You want to establish yourself right at the outset as someone who has expertise and authority in the field. The writing must be assertive without being arrogant, sufficiently humble without being unassuming. Getting the right tone is crucial at the beginning. The reader wants to know they are in safe hands.

We then looked at the four moves that generally make up The Introduction:

Locate the paper – this means setting up the context of the paper in for example a problem in the field, a difficulty in practice, a debate in the literatures, a problematisation of a taken-for-granted theory or approach, a proposition, a curiosity or puzzle… this establishes the niche/space/gap/issue that the paper will address. People sometimes use a quotation, a narrative or a rhetorical question to begin the Locate work in an attention-getting way.

Focus and Expand – this next move in the introduction spells out what the paper is going to do. It’s often helpful just to write This paper will… or In this paper I/we… it’s important to make this snappy. However, it is generally the case that the Focus of the paper needs to be explained and this can be done by saying more about the way in which the contribution has been generated. So the Expand might be about a particular method or sample. An Expand might offer definitional work to create some boundaries about what is to be done. It might set out what it is going to do that other papers haven’t, just to reinforce the niche that it will fill – without being repetitive of what has been stated in the Locate.

Outline – the various sections of the paper are then mapped out. Empirical results are listed and the argument that is to be made is signaled. This road map to the paper is specific and not waffle or a vague promise. So, for example an Outline would not say something cryptic like The paper provides evidence of the major themes that emerged during analysis – it would actually say what these important themes were. Sometimes the road map is ordered by numbers – This paper consists of four moves – firstly, secondly, thirdly, finally… and the So What is anticipated – as in for example, I argue in conclusion that …

We looked at some introductions in published journal articles to see how these moves were written very differently in different papers, but nevertheless each did the same work. They created the niche, said what the paper would do, and then explained how the paper would proceed. It’s always good to see how different writers do the same work in very diverse ways. This helps you to understand that writing the paper is not a mechanical exercise but is a very creative process.

It was also important for me to put up front that in order to write The Introduction you have to know what the argument is to be, and to have the various pieces of the paper already in your mind. The workshop participants had written abstracts so they did have an idea about the order of their argument and the general structure that they were going to use.

We then did two 30 minute pomodoros – timed writing sessions during which the Locate and then the Focus/Expand and Outline were written. Three paragraphs, one for each move.

Of course, these were messy first drafts and not for general consumption. Participants have therefore posted their work to me on the intranet and I’ll look at them overnight and make some comments using track changes.

The participants also know that in addition to finishing off their first drafts by dinner time, they must think about tomorrow’s questions:

  • What specific concepts or theories will you work with in this paper?
  • What are the building bocks in the literatures that you will use?
  • How does what you are writing sit within the literatures?
  • Who in the field do you position yourself with?

Tomorrow we start writing about The Literatures. Usually this is the section of the paper after The Introduction, although not always. However The Literatures does generally have to be written at some point, so we’ll do it now, and think about whether it is in the right place later.

And to finish this post, a gratuitous snap of the university car park, just to show what we see out of the windows….


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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5 Responses to writing course – The Introduction

  1. Linda McPhee says:

    Interesting reading about your class — I’ve been teaching writing-for-academic-publicaion courses for 30+ years, and it’s always useful to see how others do it.


  2. Pingback: writing course – The Introduction | Rhonda Wilson MHN

  3. Pingback: Academic Writing as a ‘Desire to Relate’ | Jenny Connected

  4. Pingback: February 23, 2015 | kuspfyi

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