I. Structure and Approach
The introduction is the broad beginning of the paper that answers three important questions for the reader:
- What is this?
- Why should I read it?
- What do you want me to think about / consider doing / react to?
Think of the structure of the introduction as an inverted triangle of information that lays a foundation for understanding the research problem. Organize the information so as to present the more general aspects of the topic early in the introduction, then narrow your analysis to more specific topical information that provides context, finally arriving at your research problem and the rationale for studying it [often written as a series of key questions] and, whenever possible, a description of the potential outcomes your study can reveal.
These are general phases associated with writing an introduction:
1. Establish an area to research by:
- Highlighting the importance of the topic, and/or
- Making general statements about the topic, and/or
- Presenting an overview on current research on the subject.
2. Identify a research niche by:
- Opposing an existing assumption, and/or
- Revealing a gap in existing research, and/or
- Formulating a research question or problem, and/or
- Continuing a disciplinary tradition.
3. Place your research within the research niche by:
- Stating the intent of your study,
- Outlining the key characteristics of your study,
- Describing important results, and
- Giving a brief overview of the structure of the paper.
NOTE: Even though the introduction is the first main section of a research paper, it is often useful to finish the introduction late in the writing process because the structure of the paper, the reporting and analysis of results, and the conclusion will have been completed. Reviewing and, if necessary, rewriting the introduction ensures that it correctly matches the overall structure of your final paper.
II. Delimitations of the Study
Delimitations refer to those characteristics that limit the scope and define the conceptual boundaries of your research. This is determined by the conscious exclusionary and inclusionary decisions you make about how to investigate the research problem. In other words, not only should you tell the reader what it is you are studying and why, but you must also acknowledge why you rejected alternative approaches that could have been used to examine the topic.
Obviously, the first limiting step was the choice of research problem itself. However, implicit are other, related problems that could have been chosen but were rejected. These should be noted in the conclusion of your introduction. For example, a delimitating statement could read, "Although many factors can be understood to impact the likelihood young people will vote, this study will focus on socioeconomic factors related to the need to work full-time while in school." The point is not to document every possible delimiting factor, but to highlight why previously researched issues related to the topic were not addressed.
Examples of delimitating choices would be:
- The key aims and objectives of your study,
- The research questions that you address,
- The variables of interest [i.e., the various factors and features of the phenomenon being studied],
- The method(s) of investigation,
- The time period your study covers, and
- Any relevant alternative theoretical frameworks that could have been adopted.
Review each of these decisions. Not only do you clearly establish what you intend to accomplish in your research, but you should also include a declaration of what the study does not intend to cover. In the latter case, your exclusionary decisions should be based upon criteria understood as, "not interesting"; "not directly relevant"; “too problematic because..."; "not feasible," and the like. Make this reasoning explicit!
NOTE: Delimitations refer to the initial choices made about the broader, overall design of your study and should not be confused with documenting the limitiations of your study discovered after the research has been completed.
ANOTHER NOTE: Do not view delimitating statements as admitting to an inherent failing or shortcoming in your research. They are an accepted element of academic writing intended to keep the reader focused on the research problem by explicitly defining the conceptual boundaries and scope of your study. It addresses any critical questions in the reader's mind of, "Why the hell didn't the author examine this?"
III. The Narrative Flow
Issues to keep in mind that will help the narrative flow in your introduction:
- Your introduction should clearly identify the subject area of interest. A simple strategy to follow is to use key words from your title in the first few sentences of the introduction. This will help focus the introduction on the topic at the appropriate level and ensures that you get to the subject matter quickly without losing focus, or discussing information that is too general.
- Establish context by providing a brief and balanced review of the pertinent published literature that is available on the subject. The key is to summarize for the reader what is known about the specific research problem before you did your analysis. This part of your introduction should not represent a comprehensive literature review--that comes next. It consists of a general review of the important, foundational research literature [with citations] that establishes a foundation for understanding key elements of the research problem. See the drop-down menu under this tab for "Background Information" regarding types of contexts.
- Clearly state the hypothesis that you investigated. When you are first learning to write in this format it is okay, and actually preferable, to use a past statement like, "The purpose of this study was to...." or "We investigated three possible mechanisms to explain the...."
- Why did you choose this kind of research study or design? Provide a clear statement of the rationale for your approach to the problem studied. This will usually follow your statement of purpose in the last paragraph of the introduction.
IV. Engaging the Reader
The overarching goal of your introduction is to make your readers want to read your paper. The introduction should grab the reader's attention. Strategies for doing this can be to:
- Open with a compelling story,
- Include a strong quotation or a vivid, perhaps unexpected anecdote,
- Pose a provocative or thought-provoking question,
- Describe a puzzling scenario or incongruity, or
- Cite a stirring example or case study that illustrates why the research problem is important.
NOTE: Choose only one strategy for engaging your readers; avoid giving an impression that your paper is more flash than substance.
Freedman, Leora and Jerry Plotnick. Introductions and Conclusions. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Introduction. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Introductions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Introductions. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Introductions, Body Paragraphs, and Conclusions for an Argument Paper. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; “Writing Introductions.” In Good Essay Writing: A Social Sciences Guide. Peter Redman. 4th edition. (London: Sage, 2011), pp. 63-70; Resources for Writers: Introduction Strategies. Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Sharpling, Gerald. Writing an Introduction. Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick; Samraj, B. “Introductions in Research Articles: Variations Across Disciplines.” English for Specific Purposes 21 (2002): 1–17; Swales, John and Christine B. Feak. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Skills and Tasks. 2nd edition. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2004; Writing Your Introduction. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University.
The resources available in this section provide the user with the materials that they would need to hold a writing workshop for graduate students. While these resources do not target a particular kind of writing (e.g., writing for courses, writing for publication, or writing thesis and dissertations), it does provide the needed structure act as a sort of graduate student writing workshop-in-a-box.
Last Edited: 2014-06-10 09:06:54
About This Handout
Although each discipline has its own conventions for what articles, research reports, dissertations, and other types of scholarly writing should look like, academic writing shares some general characteristics across each field. One area of similarity is the introduction section. This handout provides strategies for revising introductions.
CARS (Creating a Research Space)
John Swales’ CARS model for introductions is based on his study of articles across a range of disciplines. He identified the following moves as common among most articles:
Move 1: Establishing a territory
Step 1 Claiming importance and/or
Step 2 Making topic generalizations and/or
Step 3 Reviewing items of previous research
Move 2: Establishing a niche
Step 1a Counter-claiming or
Step 1b Indicating a gap or
Step 1c Question-raising or
Step 1d Continuing a tradition
Move 3: Occupying the niche
Step 1a Outlining purposes or
Step 1b Announcing present research
Step 2 Announcing principle findings
Step 3 Indicating article structure
Writers can use these moves as a guide for revising their own writing, or for helping others.
Questions for Revision
Does the introduction to the piece of writing you are working with…
1) Establish the importance of the paper’s topic within the discipline?
2) Mention commonly accepted ideas about the topic?
3) Discuss previous research related to the topic?
4) Challenge existing beliefs about the topic?
5) Demonstrate a gap in current research on this topic?
6) Ask questions about current knowledge in the field?
7) Name an area of research that needs to be extended?
8) Explain the purpose of the paper?
9) Name the focus of the research?
10) List the primary findings of the research?
11) Outline the sections of the paper?
A topic outline is a fast and easy way to analyze whether an introduction is effectively organized. According to Pyrczak and Bruce, a topic outline can help show the flow of an introduction to ensure it moves from a general introduction of the problem or gap to a specific discussion of the current research (33). The topic outline can be combined with the CARS model to improve your introduction or to offer advice to a peer.
Topic Outline Exercise
1) With your own paper, or a peer’s, read through the introduction section.
2) As you read, write down the main points in the introduction in outline form, using short phrases or sentences to describe what you see happening. The outline need not be complex.
3) After creating your outline, read through it to see if each of the moves in the CARS model is covered. Pay particular attention to whether the paper’s author:
a) Mentions how the paper fits into previous research,
b) Lists the paper’s main findings, and
c) Outlines the structure of the paper.
Pyrczak, Fred and Randall R. Bruce. Writing Empirical Research Reports: A Basic Guide for Students of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Los Angeles: Pyrczak Publishing, 2000. Print.
Swales, John. Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings. 1990. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.