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? 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.

On writing when the words want to be somewhere else

I am writing this from a writing retreat in the beautiful Devon Valley near Stellenbosch. I am hugely lucky to be starting my writing year here, away from the pressures and activities of everyday mum-and-wife life, where all I have to actually do all day is put words onto a page and make them make some kind of sense. However, I am finding the actual doing of the writing hard work this week.



I am writing a book. A whole one, on my own. I have been thinking and scribbling about this book for a long time. It has been like circling a huge obelisk, going round and round looking for a door or a way in, and finding none. Or circling a block of marble, trying to see the statue inside it so that you know where and how to start chipping away at it. But there is no door, and the statue is a fuzzy blur, so round and round I have been going, not quite writing, but not quite doing nothing either. It is just too big. How do I start? What do I write first? How do I get this right?

The first thing I have told myself, firmly but in a kind tone of voice, is that I must actually stop being such a faff and write something, anything. Just start, and try not to edit, and some words will come. They probably will not be right, but they don’t have to be right now. They just have to be written, and once I start, like a tap being turned on, the ideas will start to come from the swirly depths of my mind where they have been percolating and find their way out, and slowly be formed into a logical story. So, this is what I have done, yesterday and today so far. I have just made myself write, for 20 minute slots at a time. Freewriting, as it were. It’s slow, and difficult and frustrating, but I am slowly starting to see the statue. It’s just a finger, or an eyeball, at this point. But it’s there.


Interior with reading woman by Carl Vilhelm Holsøe

This brings me to the second thing I am counselling myself about, in a slightly more exasperated tone of voice. When I started conceptualising this book, and talking to one of my advisors about it, I had these romantic visions of me and my book, up late at night, lamplight burning in my office, typing away while the words and ideas flowed. We were going to be so productive, and clever, and it was all going to be so enjoyable, and intellectually stimulating. The reality is … less romantic. My office is such a mess I can’t even see my desk. I am so tired by 8pm there is no chance of coherent thoughts beyond that hour. And the words, they are not flowing. They are trickling, at best. So my romantic vision is pretty much shot to pieces, and this disappoints me. Which then leads to more circling of the obelisk, and less actual chipping away at the door or statue. Don’t get me wrong here: I expected much drafting and revisions and rewriting, but I just didn’t expect to not enjoy it. I hope I will enjoy it eventually, but right now I am not having much fun.

The final thing I am advising myself on comes from a friend and mentor: I have to be prepared to write rubbish that I will eventually delete or chop out in order to get going. This is a tough one. I know, of course, that with every paper and chapter and so on that I write, there are parts that are written and then later binned because they no longer fit, or strike the wrong tone, or just are wrong. I write rubbish, for sure. But writing a page or two of rubbish for a journal article feels like a lot less potential time wasting than writing pages and pages of rubbish for an 80,000 word book. I think this is what I am struggling with: I have a deadline, and other things to do as well as writing this book, so I kind of want to start writing and have it be the actual book, and not all the drafting and writing around that will eventually start becoming the book through cutting, deleting, selecting and more writing.

I remember feeling this way at the beginning of my PhD – staring up at this obelisk and wondering how on earth I would actually make it into something other than a lump of rock. Then, I had a supervisor to chivvy me on, and wonder where my drafts were and give me feedback. Now, I feel I just have me to hold myself accountable, and I am not always very good at that.

stone-dressing-tools-1-1-800x800So, I am trying to stop being romantic about this, I am trying to stop expecting all the words to be good, and perfect and erudite. I am trying to just write what I can now, and trust that the rest will come if I put in the time, slog through the difficulty and slow writing days, and do the work that I know needs to be done. That’s not a sexy, super-slick and easy plan. (Sorry about that.) But it’s a plan I can work with, that will break me out of the circling, put the chisel in my hand and start the chipping process. And that’s enough, for now.

Slogging away, slouching and sailing: developing a research work ethic

Recently I read a post on one of my favourite blogs written by Susan Carter on managing emotion in doctoral supervision, and in doctoral writing. What stood out for me were her comments on managing emotions around producing written work for comment and feedback. She comments that she no longer gets emotional about her writing; as an experienced academic she knows it is part of her job, and something she just has to do (and likes doing). She comments that students and academics would be helped by having a ‘workerly’ approach to writing, and also by learning to manage emotions that can lead to writing blocks or paralysis.

This notion of a ‘workerly’ approach to academic writing has been floating around in my head since I read her post a few months ago. I think I have developed a more workerly approach to writing in the last two years especially; I have chosen an academic career and I do know that producing publishable writing is something I need to do as part of this career. I like writing, and while I don’t enjoy all the kinds of writing and reading I have to do, on the whole I derive pleasure from these scholarly activities.

But I still get emotional about my own writing; I still get stuck, and down, and worry about whether and how I will get up again. I do, however, get up. This being down and getting up and carrying on has to do with being resilient, and part of this is developing and maintaining a work ethic about research and writing. By this, I specifically mean working more consciously on what Susan Carter speaks about in her post: learning to manage emotions so that they do not block your progress, and being a little more ‘workerly’ about your writing.

Waiting for the mojo (can leave you waiting a long time)

I, like many writers, have what I think of as my ‘writing mojo’. I am sure many of you have experienced the mojo when it is strong – the ideas flow and the words come and the sentences hang together, and you sail through a morning’s writing that leaves you with a pretty brilliant piece of work to send to a supervisor, or build on tomorrow. These mornings are what keep me going, sometimes – knowing that on the days when the mojo seems weaker, days of sunny sailing through writing are still possible, and will come again.

The reality is that most mornings or days of writing are not necessarily like this. They see me slogging away at a measly 100 words, slouched over my computer, getting up every ten minutes because I can’t concentrate for longer, or find the right word, or figure out what I want to say. I agonise over synonyms, and wonder if I have used ‘like’ too many times. I edit, more than I create. It is hard, painful work. It makes me feel frustrated, and inadequate, and slow.

This is me when I am working on my writing, metaphorical quill in hand, completely idealistic task list mocking me gently

These emotions are difficult to manage. But manage them I must, otherwise the mojo may not return. I am learning that all that slogging is necessary for the brief bright mornings of sailing through my writing to be possible. If I spent all my writing time waiting for the mojo to be strong, and the ideas to flow, I might be waiting a very long time, and I’m not sure I’d get much writing done at all. This, then, is when I need to be workerly in my approach to my writing.

Planning and pragmatism

Being workerly, to me, means being pragmatic, and planning my time as carefully and realistically as I can. It means instead of messing around on email, I need to make myself sit down for two or three pomodoros to read two or three relevant papers and make notes. It means setting myself one task for a morning or a day: writing an introduction, or coding a small set of data, and holding myself to that task until it is done. This, for me, is slogging. It is the work of being an academic writer that is often boring, and tedious (especially coding and transcribing data), and it feels like trudging through treacle because I’m not actually producing something tangible to show for my time spent at my desk (yet).

Yet, in the midst of this slogging is where my work ethic is formed and strengthened. The ability to push through the tedium, boredom, frustration and anxiety and continue to do the small tasks that make the mojo stronger and make sailing through the writing possible is part of what it is to be an academic writer. It requires fortitude; sometimes it probably feels like you are being unkind to yourself when you have to make yourself work on part of your paper or PhD on a Saturday morning when the week has been long, and you are tired. But all those little tasks, especially the difficult ones, build your work ethic and your researcher resilience, and they move you forward.

mojo giftThere are no easy answers to building and strengthening a work ethic, especially when you are a part-time student with many other demands on your time and headspace. But it helps me to remember that the mojo isn’t magic: it’s created over time through many small, seemingly unconnected tasks that all add up to a finished project if I sit up straight and slog away.

Overcoming my resistance to my own writing

Last year I wrote a paper – my first paper out of my PhD thesis – and sent it to a big international journal. After 4 months, they sent it back with an odd decision: ‘reject and revise’. Essentially, a substantial revise and resubmit. I was given a deadline three months hence, and three reports to work with. Two were mostly encouraging, and one was Reviewer 2. I had many angry one-sided conversations with Reviewer 2 for about a week which felt quite cathartic. I eventually revised the paper, it was rejected again by Reviewer 2, and it is now, finally, being published by a completely different journal after yet further revisions. While a pleasing eventual result, it is the messy and emotionally draining revision process I want to reflect on here.

Although I had three months to revise the paper, I actually only did the revisions in the last 3 weeks of this time period. It was not because I had so many other things to do. I realised, after some reflection, that I was putting off the revisions because I was afraid. The reviews were so painful to read, and felt so mean (especially Reviewer 2), that I became convinced that my paper was complete rubbish and should never have been sent to a journal in the first place. I was scared to open the file and read my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad* writing. I literally could not even go into the folder, and double-click on the file for about 2 months. I tried, but I found myself unable to initially overcome the resistance to going back to my own writing, and what I perceived as my failure to succeed in writing. This fear is something I have felt on more than one occasion when I have received negative peer review, and it took me a while to see it, and realise that I could confront it and overcome it.

Deadlines are an excellent motivator for confronting fear of something you have written and being forced to see for yourself just how awful it is. I eventually opened the file because I had to, and I re-read the paper. To my immense surprise, it was not quite as awful as those reviews seemed to indicate, and re-reading my work enabled me to find the courage to go back and re-read the reviewer reports, make notes, and begin to rework the paper. I rewrote almost 70% of the paper, and was much happier with it when I resubmitted it. Unfortunately, the reviewer who re-reviewed the paper (seriously suspect it was Reviewer 2) indicated that I had addressed the concerns, but wanted more revisions, pretty much along the same lines as the first round. This contradictory request, with no mediation from the editors, was confusing and unmanageable. I didn’t see how I could actually do any more for them with the comments I was given. I withdrew the paper politely, and went elsewhere.

The second round of journal consideration has been more successful. Another 5 months of waiting, but a better decision, and much more encouraging and useful feedback. Yet again, though, getting into the revisions has been tough. I really loathe this paper now. I have rewritten and revised it 5 times, and I really, honestly have no clue whether it is very good or not anymore. I don’t know if it is making any kind of useful contribution to scholarship in my field. I just hate it. I have been so resistant to revising it again, so unwilling to keep looking at it and reading it. It has been useful, though, for me to think about why I feel this way about my ‘feral’ writing, to use Annie Dillard’s brilliant term. I think we all feel really emotional, and hurt, when we receive feedback that is hard to hear and work with. This is well-known and often written and spoken about. But, I have heard much less about what comes between getting the feedback and delivering the revised thesis chapter, draft or paper.

I think most or all writers feel resistant to going back into a piece of writing that needs to be revised and rewritten, especially on the basis of harsh critique. Perhaps it is not always clear what that resistance is about. In my case, it has mainly been about fear: that my writing is bad, and that if I go back in I will lose faith in myself, and carrying on with this or any paper will be impossible. I would rather not confront the ugly writing I have done. And yet, if I had just chucked this paper, as I wanted to more than once, I would not have learned this about myself. I would not have learned what I have about writing – every time I write a paper, I learn something new about my style, my voice, my thinking and so on. I would not have a paper in press. I would really have failed if I had just caved in the face of the fear and stopped working on this paper.

Writing is hard work, this much we know. But what we also have to give ourselves is recognition that resistance to writing, fear of our own (potentially) bad writing, and feelings of fed-up-ness, loathing, and frustration are part of this hard work that we need to deal with if we are going to push through and make progress. Give yourself time and space to feel your way through as you think your way through, and if you are feeling resistance, frustration or more, try to work out what is at the root of those feelings so that you can get to it, work it out, and keep going. You’ll be so glad you did.


*From the book  ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’ by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz (1972)