Paper writing: crafting an introduction

I am in the fortunate position, this year, of teaching a short course to early career researchers and postgraduate students on writing an article for publication. I will write more about this another time, but it seems to me, from research I am doing and practical work I have done with these writer-researchers, that much is expected where too little support is given. By support I specifically mean constructive, formative spaces where they can write, obtain feedback, get formal input and guidance from experienced researchers, and work on finding their own voices.

Over the course of a few posts, I will be writing about different parts of paper writing to create part of this space here, focusing on writing in the social sciences for the most part. This post tackles part one of any paper (after the title and abstract): the introduction.

Introductions are, to my mind, a tricky section to get right. Too short and you may leave your readers wondering what they are reading and why; too long and you’ve got more detail than you need. A good introduction needs to do three main things: scope the field you are writing into and outline the debate/conversation/area of study you are contributing to; indicate what your contribution is going to be; and give your readers a sense of where the paper will be taking them as you make this contribution clear (an outline). This sounds really simple, but a good introduction that grabs your readers’ attention, and draws them in so that they want to keep reading, can take a while to craft.

Funnel for introductionsA useful image to have in mind when planning your introduction is that of a funnel (left). You need to start off answering for your reader these questions: at a broader level, what area of research is this paper connected to? What debate/conversation/issue are you connecting with? Why is this research important? How has it been done? For example, if you are writing a paper about student engagement in a specific course through a new method of assessment, you would need to start by introducing your reader to pertinent issues in the area of student engagement in learning in higher education – what helps or hinders it, what the point of student engagement and learning research is, and so on.

But then you need to bring this in a bit – narrow in a little more on which aspect of this larger area of study you are interested in – student engagement in learning through assessment. You would focus on this, briefly setting out (with relevant references) how student engagement and assessment have been connected in research, but also pointing out gaps or areas that have been under-considered thus far.

Then you can really narrow in on your paper: what is the argument this paper will make, contributing to this area of research, and this particular gap or under-considered part of it? Here you can also set out, for your reader, what shape or form the paper will take, so that they know where they are going. You may be arguing that involving students in creating and assessing tasks, rather than simply completing set tasks and being assessed, is more conducive to their engagement in learning. Thus, you conducted a study in which you set up this kind of activity, and tracked students’ engagement and experience in some way. This paper will be reporting on that, and arguing that students should be more engaged in creating learning activities, rather than only doing them. This structure should assist you in creating a clear, coherent and focused starting point for your paper.

It’s hard to say how long introductions should be – the shape an introduction takes sometimes depends on the field in which one is writing, and sometimes on the length and purpose of the paper. Generally, though, for a 6000-7000 word paper, the introduction should be about 10% of this (600-700 words). But, one could (as I have seen done) include the literature review in the introduction as an extended contextual framing of the conversation/debate/field of research one is contributing to, and in this case it will be longer (albeit with sub-headings to make it less dense and more readerly). Look carefully at papers in your field, and in the journals you want to publish in, and see what they are doing. Try to follow the dominant examples, as this is more likely to be well received by editors and reader.

building blocks

My advice, if you struggle with introductions, is to write a first draft quite methodically, part by part. Use the funnel and focus on the three areas you need to cover. Give yourself roughly 10% of the total length of your paper, or 10% of your page length. So, for a 6000 word/12 page paper, you would have a 600 or so word/one to one and a half page introduction. You don’t need to be too stressed if you are over or under this – the main point is that you have adequately set out the metaphorical space in which the paper is being written, as outlined above. If you find yourself going way over this guiding limit, you may need to consider that you are trying to do too much in this one section. Stop and ask for feedback if you get stuck, and ask for input around the three focus areas.

In a doctoral thesis, I would say that you write the introduction last, when you know what you want to introduce. But a thesis and a paper are quite different in this respect. I think it’s useful and necessary to craft a strong draft of the introduction first in paper writing, because you need to create a clear boundary to stay within. One paper = one good, well-made argument. You need to set out, for yourself as the writer, what you want to say, why you want to say it, and how you will go about saying it so that you don’t go too far off track, and end up with too many arguments, and too much extraneous writing and detail. Although you can and probably will revise it later on, a strong introduction will provide a solid foundation for the rest of the paper.

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Finding a problem to solve: searching for your doctoral thesis

I am working with a new PhD student, as a co-supervisor. He is just starting out, and recently emailed us with a slightly panicked email about what title he should have for his PhD? He sent a few ideas, wondering if they were too broad or too narrow or off-topic. My first response was to think: never mind about the title yet – we’re still trying to work out what the study is about! But he was genuinely concerned, leading me to wonder where this panic about his title stemmed from. It became apparent that he had to write down a title on a form in order to register, and he was worried that this would commit him to sticking with that title from now on. We could reassure him that this was just a form, and had no bearing on his PhD proposal or final topic. But it also pointed us to a bigger conversation: how to search for, and find, your PhD.

Bureaucracy and forms aside, do we fixate on finding a title before we have located a problem we can solve? I remember (and have proof in my research journal) scribbling down several possible titles early on in year 1 of my own doctorate, long before I knew precisely what the parameters of my study would be. Unsurprisingly, they were largely discarded along the way and I ended up somewhere quite different. I still do this in writing papers. I think it is, quite simply, because playing with words and titles is more fun, and immediate, that spending months reading, writing and speaking about my research in the effort to find a problem that is small and focused enough for me to research and write usefully about.

I do think that having some notion of a title might be helpful – it gives you a basic search area to focus on, and a way in to your reading, writing and speaking journey. But it should be seen, at this early stage, as a movable placeholder, rather than a limitation. In other words, you know you want to say something about, for example, teaching in Physics and how students learn effectively, but you remain open to further refining and reading around that issue, as opposed to discounting any reading that is not strictly about what you think you are researching.

map

I have written here about research problems, and return to the notion of a corridor of doors: at the early stage of a research project, like a PhD, you don’t want to have too many of those doors already closed. If you know the answer or solution already, why do the research? You want to remain open, read widely, and as you keep your reading journal and start to piece the field together, you then start closing doors to refine and focus your study on one problem you can viably research and respond to, making a useful and original contribution to knowledge in this field.

The reality is that you have to spend about a year reading, writing reading journal or annotated bibliography entries, making connections, taking a few wrong turns and doubling back, and talking a lot with your supervisors and peers about your study, working out where it needs to go, why and how. A great deal of the writing you do in this first year will not go into the thesis (although hopefully much of it will end up in your formal proposal*); it will be writing in your journals, writing for yourself, writing for your supervisors to guide you and offer feedback.

All this reading and informal writing can feel, at times, frustrating: you’ll read papers and even books that will be profoundly helpful, and others than you will never cite or include. You will write many words that will never progress beyond drafting/thinking/scribbling stage. I often felt as if my time was not being well-spent, especially as a part-time student with so many other things to do, if the reading was not exactly relevant, or the words were not all for The Thesis. At times, I felt I was paddling around in a circle, rather than slowly crawling forwards towards a complete thesis.

But, with hindsight, I can see just how much I gained from all that reading, scribbling and talking, even if none of it is now visible in the final thesis I wrote. In writing for myself, and giving myself permission, if you like, to just read and not panic too much about my topic or title, I slowly read and wrote myself into my research problem, locating, refining and focusing it until I was doing just one PhD (instead of the apparent four I initially proposed to my supervisor!). I found my voice through becoming immersed in the research in my field, both directly connected to my PhD and indirectly as well. I gained confidence that I was making a useful contribution as I wrote, and spoke with more knowledgeable peers, about what this contribution could be.

one way signWhile the original spark of an idea, and impetus for doing a postgraduate degree by research may find you and light you up, driving you forwards into a PhD (or MA) journey, the searching for and refining of a specific, clear and viably solvable research question or problem is a long process. Before you fixate too much on a topic, or sexy title, take the time to open yourself up to reading in and around your idea, write for yourself and your supervisors, find your researcher voice, and try your ideas out on peers and colleagues. You won’t, of course, be reading indiscriminately, but try not to hem yourself in too much with a title or topic that limits you before you have searched your field and found your PhD within it.

*In most South African PhD programmes, most of the first year of a doctorate is spent developing a formal PhD proposal, which then has to be approved by a ‘higher degrees’ committee before ethical clearance is granted and a student has permission to begin the study proper.