academic writing knowhow – setting the scene

That first sentence. Your first thought. An opening gambit. Setting the scene. Attracting the reader. Aaargh. Starting a new piece of writing can be daunting. It’s no wonder that so many writers worry about how to begin.

But academic writers are comparatively lucky when it comes to starting off. Unlike fiction writers who must pull a brilliant beginning from the void, academic writers have something to fall back on. An established genre which they can use, if they wish.

What is this “established genre” I hear you ask? Well. Many academic texts begin with some contextual scene-setting. Papers, books, proposals often start with context. Then, once the scene is set, the writer goes on to say exactly what this particular text will be about.

Contextual scene setting can be comparatively slight in word terms, but a few sentences can do a lot of work. Scene-setting accomplishes five key things.

  1. It locates the paper/book/proposal in a field of study, an area of concern, a policy context, a professional practice, a geographical location, a moment in time. One or a combination of these things. And in doing this locational work the opener also

2. establishes the potential significance of the paper. The context makes the case that the paper will say something about an important matter. Nothing trivial here. There is good reason to take this paper seriously. The opener may also suggest that the text will be timely, something that people are already talking and concerned about. And once the significance is pointed out, then

3. the reader knows that the paper to come is something they should read. It also helps if the opener is inviting and well written so that

4. the reader think that this will be a paper they will enjoy. The reader wants to open the door, go thought the archway, fall down the rabbit hole. And very usefully

5. laying out the context at the start of the text allows you to go back to it at the very end of the paper, when you are discussing the implications of the work you’ve written about. Now you know this, what does that mean for this context? What should happen now, who might do what, given the results and this argument?

And of course these five points strongly suggest that in order to set the scene so that it speaks to a reader, you have start with an idea of who you are writing to, and what they will be concerned about. And just a little tip. Writing multiple openers for different readers is always an interesting way to decide which reader, which angle you are going to take in your text and which journal you will target.

So what does scene-setting look like? Well, here’s three examples. Let’s start with a one sentence opener from an abstract.

Lack of student engagement in online learning is reported as the major challenge contributing to poor academic performance and completion rates. 

This sentence establishes the context – online learning – and an associated practice problem – lack of student engagement. While the opener doesn’t specifically refer to the pandemic, it has been published at a time when many more of us have been involved in online learning and encountered the engagement challenge. And so we can anticipate, predict, that the next sentence is going to say that the paper addresses the problem that has been identified – the aforesaid lack of interest and enthusiasm. Yes, maybe you would write this context differently, but this is from a published paper – the opener has done its job.

Here’s a somewhat longer starter for ten taken from the published paper, not its abstract.

In April of 2020, the British government was accused on mislabelling the Sars-CoV-2 virus as the ‘great leveller”, harming the rich and poor alike (Milner, 2020). However, mounting evidence shows that the pandemic strikes more deeply at groups with pre-existing social disadvantages, impacting most severely people in precarious jobs and poorer communities ( Kristal and Taylsh, 2020; Plumper and Neumayer, 2020, Qian and Fan, 2020). 

This scene setting is geographical – the UK – and temporal – it addresses the pandemic – and takes a sociological framing – differential effects on different social groups. But the paper could be about anything. However, it is in a higher education journal so readers could predict something like this next sentence…

We ask whether this differential impact was replicated  within higher education. 

The reader now knows, after four sentences, what they are about to read and why it is important. 

Here’s another brief example from another published paper.

Although literature suggests that boredom and its associated negative outcomes should be avoided in higher education ( Feldges & Pieczenko, 2020) avoiding boredom may, it seems, be altogether impossible. Despite efforts to rid students of boredom, research reports high prevalence among higher education students (Dugan et al, 2019; Pekrun et al 2020; Sharp et al, 2020). 

This opener establishes another common problem in higher education – it could be called lack of engagement or lack of participation, but this paper focuses on boredom. Because the word boredom sounds a little like the feedback that comes in student course evaluations, readers may be very keen to read on. And readers of this journal, another higher education publication, won’t be surprised to read the next sentence which says what the paper is about.

A different strategy to dealing with boredom may thus be required. 

The reader is now very tempted to read on, lured by the promise of learning something new. And potentially useful.

Now, sometimes – in fact quite often – opening scene-setting goes on for a bit longer than these examples. I chose these because they were short and suitable for a blog post. The scene setting opener may extend to one, two, three paragraphs. But there is a limit to how much you can put in an introduction. If establishing the context goes on for too long, the reader may wonder what on earth the actual paper is about. Yes, but why am I reading all this? Focus dammit, they may start to think. It is important to move on from the opening scene to tell the reader about the actual paper to come.

The writer may have to add something more a little later in the paper about context. Or immediately. For example in the paper about boredom, the very next section after the intro explains and expands on how boredom is often understood, and how it will be understood and discussed in this paper.

So context. So setting the scene. If you are about to start a new bit of writing, one of the more straightforward things you can do is to write something about the context. And if you also think about how you might come back to the context at the end, this will help you orient the argument you will make in between the intro and outro.

I’m not suggesting that writing the scene setter is necessarily easy or quick. But it is a known process. It’s a default commencing, something that you can do to get started. Scene setting is not the only way to start a paper and you may choose to go back to your first draft and do something else, or kick off your writing in another way altogether.

But writing the scene- setter first does get you going. You no longer have a blank screen in front of you. You have a direction, and you can more confidently write the next sentences about what your text is going to do, and how it will address the context you’ve established. 

And yes, I’m sure some of you picked up that locate is the first move in writing a Tiny Text.

Photo by mohammad takhsh on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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