[See also: How to write a research project. How to write the background, theory, method, analysis and discussion sections. How to review the literature and how to structure a research paper. How to finish on time and how to reference properly. Part of the Craft of Research series. Full program here.]
It’s a good idea to write these sections several times throughout the whole process: once at the beginning, and again when you’re about halfway through, and then, importantly, at the end. Ideally, the introduction should be completely rewritten as the last thing you do before handing in your paper, not as a promise of what you hope you’ll write, but as an honest description of what you have in fact written. The ideal writer of an introduction is the person who has written the paper that is being introduced. It’s the person who knows best what the paper says — and that is ultimately all that the introduction talks about. In order to write an introduction you have to know what is going on in the rest of the paper. The same can be said of your conclusion.
How to Write the Introduction
Begin with the world in which we live. What you’re “introducing” here is the practical context that your research is about and which you have elaborated in greater detail in your background section. In a 40-paragraph paper this will take one paragraph and in a longer project you may devote the first two or three paragraphs to this task. The idea is to describe a world that the reader will recognize, a world that is entirely familiar to them. Nothing you say in these paragraphs, which will occupy the first few minutes of their attention, should be shocking or controversial to the reader.
But these paragraphs should nonetheless be interesting. You should provide details that the reader may not be aware of even though they fit neatly into their world view. Reading them should be like meeting someone new but feeling utterly comfortable with them, the sort of person that reminds you of an old friend or family member. Your tone should be friendly and confident. This is the world that you and your reader and, indeed, everyone else, like it or not, share. It’s a “commonplace”, but your knowledge allows you to write about it in a fresh and interesting way. You’re not just rattling off clichés; you are deepening our sense of our time and place in the world.
“The Internet has changed the way businesses communicate with their customers,” is a perfectly good key sentence for this kind of paragraph. But remember “the fourth difficulty”: your reader will believe you, will understand you, and will agree with you. So you have to find a way to say it — a way to write this paragraph — that isn’t going to bore them. Since you’re not telling them anything new, you’re going to have to find an interesting angle, a shiny detail, a sparkling anecdote. Maybe a set of statistics that really drives the point home in way that the reader may not previously have considered. The reader ends up living in the same world, but is now smarter about it, and grateful for having reader your take on it.
Next, write about the science that you have brought to bear on this world. This, again, will be a science that the reader is familiar with, so you are not teaching the core principles of your theories to your reader. You are just reminding them of the state of the conversation that is going on presently in your field, a conversation you should presume your reader already participates in. Two very strong ways of doing this are to identify the standing consensus or controversy that defines your discipline. What issues is there a general agreement about, and what issues are embroiled in controversy? In a short paper (40 paragraphs or less), it’s best to choose one of these options and devote only one paragraph to it in the introduction. In a longer paper, you might want to write a paragraph about the major controversies after writing a paragraph about the common ground that exists. (Or you can reverse that order if that works better for you.)
Some people like to (or have been told to) identify a “gap” in the literature at this point. I’m not a big fan of this approach but it does sometimes work, so I’m not going to completely rule it out. Remember that a paper that seeks to change your reader’s mind is much more interesting than one that only hopes to fill holes in it. So try to presume that your reader already knows (or at least believes) something about your subject. Since you’re effectively introducing your theory section, you want to make sure that you’re activating the expectations that the reader has of your object. Don’t propose to fill a void. Engage with a field of action.
(An aside: People sometimes ask where the research question should be presented, and my answer is that, ideally, you should be able to leave it implicit. But, since you’ll often be asked to make it explicit, you should do so here, before you get to the last third of your introduction. Which is what we’re getting to now…)
Finally, you should tell the reader what you’ve got on your mind. “This paper shows that…” is an excellent sentence to anchor the last paragraph (or, in a longer paper, the last two or three paragraphs) of your introduction. You complete the sentence with a strong direct statement of your overarching conclusion. It will itself be a grammatically complete sentence that says something you know, something that is both meaningful and true. Indeed, think of it as a sentence that is made meaningful by your theory and true by your analysis. It should talk about the specific object you have collected data about, but say something that only someone who understands your theory will really get the significance of. In that sense, it should answer your research question.
You will now have to explain how you’re going to show your reader. That means you’ll have to provide some information about your methods, an overview of your results, and some sense of why it’s important. Basically, you’re introducing your methods section, your analysis section, and your discussion. Whether you’re doing this in one, two, or three paragraphs, the basic structure is “This paper shows that … It is based on …. The results are … This has important consequences for … “
By the end of your introduction, the reader should have a clear view of your arguments, and a strong frame within which to approach it. The reader should feel well-prepared to engage critically with your text, and will already have a number of questions in mind that, they hope, you’re going to answer. As the writer of your introduction, it’s your job to stimulate precisely the question that you are going to answer. There may be a few surprises in store for the reader, but they should never feel misled about what they were getting into.
How to Write the Conclusion
Remember that crucial sentence that appears near the end of your introduction: “This paper shows that…” It is completed by another sentence that states your conclusion — for example, “…managers at NyTech practice prospective sensemaking in their scenario planning.” That, like I say, is itself a grammatically correct sentence and can serve as the anchor for the first one (or two or three) paragraphs of your conclusion (depending on the length of your whole paper). Notice that I’m not suggesting you write, “This paper has shown that…” I’m suggestion you simply assert your conclusion: “Managers at NyTech practice prospective sensemaking in their scenario planning.” You then provide the strongest reasons you have to believe this is true, drawn from your analysis.
What you do in the very last paragraph of the conclusion, the last one to three minutes of your reader’s attention, depends on the thrust of your discussion. Did you identify mainly theoretical or practical implications?
If the consequences of your results are mainly that researchers need to think differently about the practice you have studied, then you should return to the consensus or controversy you used to introduce your scientific discipline (see above) and resolve the tensions you’ve put into play. What should the scientific conversation look like after your results have been understood? What are the most interesting topics now? What questions remain? What new questions have emerged? How have our lives as scholars changed because of what you have found? How should they?
If the consequences of your results are mainly that practitioners should behave differently, however, then you should return to the world you began with. How does it need to change? What does it look like now? What are the new responsibilities of managers given the knowledge you have given us? What problems loom on the horizon? What promises can you make about the future? Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? Wrap things up by taking a wide view — indeed, look out at a horizon that your research has widened for us. Or go the opposite way: insist on the issue that you have focused on. Remind us that the details matter and that we can’t take our eye off this ball. But do, definitely, remember that these paragraphs are the last impression you’ll leave in your reader’s mind.
At the end of my “How to Structure a Research Paper” lecture, I spend a few minutes talking about the introduction and conclusion. I’ve cued it up here for your convenience: