Paper Writing for PhD Students, Part 6: Introduction to the Introduction

writing

Recap: we are now at a stage where you have developed a storyline for your journal article, and this storyline has been condensed into the abstract of the paper. You have some figures and perhaps some schematics, categorized according to their role in the story (see the previous post). You have written draft versions of figure captions. Now it is time to start outlining the different sections of your paper.

Every story has a beginning and an end, and the Introduction is the beginning of the story that you are about to tell.

A good, well-written Introduction does several things: it introduces the reader to your problem and motivates the problem by reviewing relevant research. It introduces schemas and concepts used in the paper. It points out gaps in the existing knowledge that need to be filled for solving the problem. It defines the exact research problem that the paper addresses, and tells how your research has solved the problem or part of it. It shows how solving it contributes to the big picture. It identifies your reader—who should read the paper?—and makes her so curious that she cannot stop reading. It makes her excited about your work. It makes her want to know more.

In terms of our already-much-abused film script analogy, the Introduction takes care of both Setup and much or all of the Confrontation. This section already provides a glimpse of the Resolution of the story too. It introduces the world and the key characters of the story: the problem area and its important concepts. Remember: the reader will only want to read on if she cares about your world and its inhabitants and the problem that they are facing.

To entice the reader, the Introduction should emphasize the question, not the answer. It should not focus on what you have done, but on why you have done it and what follows from it. There should be an engine for the story, an important question, a need to know. This is what drives the story and whets the appetite of your reader. Curiosity is a strong emotion: trigger it with your introduction, and you have a reader.

Sidetrack: <nerdspeak>The Star Wars prequels failed because there was no big question! Everyone knew that Anakin Skywalker would become Darth Vader; how that would happen was mildly interesting at best. Boring! But at the time of writing this, I do not know what will become of Kylo Ren. And I want to know. </nerdspeak>

How to ask a strong question in the introduction? How to frame the gap in knowledge that needs to be filled? Of course, in a perfect world, your research has had a strong, clear question from the very beginning, and the knowledge gap is obvious. Then, just describe it. Perhaps you have chosen a research problem that everyone knows is important, say, how to solve X. You might even be the first one to have solved X—but this rarely happens because obvious problems are to researchers what a bowl of milk is to an alley full of cats. In any case, if your problem is well-known, you can be brief; if there have been earlier, not-so-successful attempts, or if there have been ideas floating around on how to tackle the problem, you can talk about these in the Introduction.

But, almost always, things are not this straightforward, and you need to think a bit harder about how to frame your question. It might even be that you are not entirely sure of what the question is. Perhaps you have started somewhere, but then along the way, you have noticed that the question you were asking was not the right one or the most important one. Then your research led you elsewhere, and now you are trying to figure out where. Perhaps the importance of your question is not obvious at all, except to you: then you need to tell the rest of the world why the question matters. Perhaps the question that you ask is something that no-one else has ever thought of—perhaps it is your question. If so, then this is a good thing: in my view, science is driven by questions instead of answers, and good questions are rarer than good answers.

When your research aims at answering a nontrivial question that requires a bit more motivating, a good strategy is to start the Introduction with something broad and more familiar, and then gradually move on to your new uncharted territory. All questions are related to bigger questions; begin with a big question and use it to frame the problem that you are solving.

In the next posts, I’ll talk a bit about the structure of the introduction (I’ll provide a template) as well as the importance of the first paragraph and, in particular, the first sentence.

One thought on “Paper Writing for PhD Students, Part 6: Introduction to the Introduction

  1. Pingback: Paper Writing for PhD Students, pt 7: The Introduction – a 4-Paragraph Template – Jari Saramäki

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