writing the introduction to a journal article

So you want to write a journal article but are unsure about how to start it off? Well, here’s a few things to remember.

The introduction to your journal article must create a good impression. Readers get a strong view of the rest of the paper from the first couple of paragraphs. If your work is engaging, concise and well structured, then readers are encouraged to go on. On the other hand, if the introduction is poorly structured, doesn’t get to the point, and is either boring or too clever by half, then the reader may well decide that those two or three paragraphs were enough.  Quite enough.

At the end of the introduction, you want your reader to read on, and read on with interest, not with a sense of impending doom, or simply out of duty. The introduction therefore has to say what the reader is going to encounter in the paper, as well as why it is important. While in some scholarly traditions it is customary to let the reader find out the point of the paper at the very end – ta da – this is not how the English tradition usually works. English language journals want the rationale for the paper, and its argument, flagged up at the start.

The introduction can actually be thought of as a kind of mini-thesis statement, with the what, why and how of the argument spelled out in advance of the extended version. The introduction generally lays out a kind of road-map for the

A simple introduction is often welcome

A simple introduction is often welcome

paper to come. It also lets the reader know broadly about the kinds of information and evidence that you will use to make your case in the paper.

Writing an introduction is difficult. You have to think about:

  • the question, problem or puzzle that you will pose at the outset, as well as
  • the answer, and
  • how the argument that constitutes your answer is to be staged.

At the same time, you also have to think about how you can make this opening compelling. You have to ask yourself how you will place your chosen question, problem or puzzle in a context the reader will understand. You need to consider: How broad or narrow should the context be – how local, how international, how discipline specific? Should the problem, question or puzzle be located in policy, practice or the state of scholarly debate – the literatures?

Then you have to consider the ways in which you will get the reader’s attention via a gripping opening sentence and/or the use of a provocation – an anecdote, snippet of empirical data, media headline, scenario, quotation or the like. And you must write this opener with authority – confidently and persuasively.

Writing a good introduction typically means “straightforward” writing. Not too many citations to trip the reader up. No extraordinarily long sentences with multiple ideas separated by commas and semicolons. Not too much passive voice and heavy use of nominalisation, so that the reader feels as if they are swallowing a particularly stodgy bowl of cold, day-old tapioca.

All of this? Questions, context, arguments, sequence and style as well? This is a big ask.

An introduction has a lot of work to do in few words. It is little wonder that people often stall on introductions. So how to approach the writing? 

In my writing courses I see people who are quite happy to get something workable, something “good enough” for the introduction – they write the introduction as a kind of place-holder – and then come back to it in subsequent edits to make it more convincing and attractive. But I also see people who can achieve a pretty good version of an introduction quite quickly, and they find that getting it “almost right” is necessary to set them up for the rest of the paper.

The thing is to find out what approach works for you.

You don’t want to end up stalled for days trying to get the most scintillating opening sentence possible. (You can always come back and rewrite!) Just remember that the most important thing to get sorted at the start is the road map, because that will help you write rest of the paper. And if you change you mind about the structure of the paper during the writing, you can always come back and adjust the introduction. Do keep saying to yourself “Nothing is carved in stone with a journal article until I send it off for publication!”

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to writing the introduction to a journal article

  1. Pingback: writing the introduction to a journal article | the neuron club

  2. Pingback: writing the introduction to a journal article | Saint Mary's University Writing Centre

  3. Ruth Herd says:

    thanks, i needed to see this right now. I have to edit an article and write a couple more new papers soon

    Like

  4. Sue Middleton says:

    There are two categories of journal and thesis writers: 1. Those who
    can’t write the introduction until they have almost finished the rest
    of the paper. These are people who work out what they need to say in
    the process of writing. The argument produces itself through writing.
    2. Those who need to formulate an entire argument before starting to
    write. These people polish up the abstract and intro first.

    I fall into the first category. I suspect we need to produce more
    drafts than those in category 2, but we tend to start writing earlier
    than category 2 people. In the case of theses category 2 types think
    through the entire thesis first and produce chapter sequentially. We
    messy category 1 types produce chapters and articles in the process of
    the research then often have a difficult time getting them all to work
    together to tell a coherent bigger story. Other approaches are valid –
    it’s a matter of temperament and personality….

    Like

    • pat thomson says:

      I think these are the two ends of a writing continuum, certainly. Those who don’t plan usually write what I’m calling a place holder as the introduction, at some point, then they return to it. (There is quite a lot on the blog about the various approaches and in particular these two ends.) Type 2 do stillneed to know what an introduction does and how it goes…

      Like

  5. Sue Middleton says:

    There are two categories of journal and thesis writers: 1. Those who
    can’t write the introduction until they have almost finished the rest
    of the paper. These are people who work out what they need to say in
    the process of writing. The argument produces itself through writing.
    2. Those who need to formulate an entire argument before starting to
    write. These people polish up the abstract and intro first.

    I fall into the first category. I suspect we need to produce more
    drafts than those in category 2, but we tend to start writing earlier
    than category 2 people. In the case of theses category 2 types think
    through the entire thesis first and produce chapter sequentially. We
    messy category 1 types produce chapters and articles in the process of
    the research then often have a difficult time getting them all to work
    together to tell a coherent bigger story. Other approaches are valid –
    it’s a meter of temperament and personality….

    Sent from my iPad

    Like

  6. karicalle says:

    I’m glad I saw this. I’m editing a manuscript to submit, so this is a great reminder!

    Like

  7. phambichha says:

    Reblogged this on Phambichha's Blog and commented:
    It is important to write an inviting introduction. Here are helpful tips from Patter

    Like

  8. Reblogged this on The Academic Triangle and commented:
    This is a really good introduction into the world of academic publishing.

    Like

  9. Rachel Hilliard says:

    I was at a Meet-the-Editors session at a conference recently. The importance of the introduction was stressed by several editors. Reviewers spend the longest time reading this section – and you should spend the longest time crafting it was the message.

    Like

  10. Pingback: paper not working? try the “what’s the problem?” approach | patter

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