Definition: What is an Introduction?
The introduction is the beginning of every academic paper. Therefore, it forms one of the three cornerstones of every academic text, next to the main body and conclusion of your paper.
A good introduction skillfully draws the reader’s attention to the topic and arouses interest. The introductory paragraph also needs to describe the objective of your paper, and state the methods you will use to achieve your goal.
Contents of a good introduction paragraph
The answers to How to write a good introduction is manifest in three key aspects, namely:
1. Relevance: Why is the research topic important?
2. Research topic: What is the research question and/or topic that will be covered? and
3. Procedure: What procedure will you to answer the research question? (cf. Karmasin & Ribing 2014: 29).
In short, the introduction introduces the area of research as well as the research question derived from it. A good introduction tells the reader why answering the research question will lead to new, important insights.
Derntl (2014: 110) summarizes three tasks that a good introductory paragraph needs to fulfil, which are in line with the above-mentioned (1) relevance; (2) research topic; and (3) procedure:
Outlining methods in your introduction
Equally important is the outline of the methods used to answer the research question.
The University of Leicester gives a concise overview of what you need to achieve when writing a good introduction to your research paper – and when to write the introductory paragraph (University of Leicester [a]):
In the introductory paragraph you need to justify how and why you have narrowed down your topic. This will be summarized by a short description of your line of argument and the structure of your paper.
Like the concluding paragraph, the introductory paragraph of your Bachelor’s thesis must not be a fragment but be consistent and understandable in and by itself. This means that the reader does not need to rely on insights established within the main body of the paper in order to understand the introductory paragraph (cf. Brauner & Vollmer 2004: 121).
How to write an Introduction: Structure & key aspects
|Steps||Aspects of writing an Introduction|
|Step 1||Leading to the topic|
|Step 2||Justification of the topic’s relevance|
|Step 3||Subject of your research paper or essay|
|Step 4||Objectives of your research paper|
|Step 5||Outline of Methods|
|Step 6||Dissociations and limitations of your research questions and their reasons|
|Step 7||Differentiation and disambiguation of terms|
|Step 8||Structure of your research paper or essay|
Find more detailed information below by clicking on the relevant aspect.
How to write an Introduction – Step #1: Leading to the topic
There are numerous ways to lead the reader to your research topic:
- Provocative proposition
(adapted from Brück 1997, quoted in Franck & Stary 2009: 146)
“Sociology can no longer be dissociated from insights and findings on women’s situation in
society that have been developed by feminist scientists over the last 20 years.”
e.g. What can the differences between individuals be attributed to? Is it genetics or environmental factors? And what comprises the practical relevance of this question? (cf. Franck 2004: 64)
This question may also be quite thought-provoking (UNC College of Arts & Sciences 2018):
- Experiential report that leads to the research topic
(adapted from Faulstich-Wieland 1995, quoted in Franck & Stary 2009: 147)
“Over the last few weeks I have interviewed former teachers of a primary school for girls on the immediate post-war era. Amongst other things I wanted to find out what it meant to them to have taught girls. Unanimously, the pedagogical ambition was found to be the same, regardless of the students being boys or girls.”
- Description which outlines the problem and/or research topic
(cf. Franck 2004: 65) – this can also be a puzzling scenario (UNC College of Arts & Sciences 2018):
- A quote
(UNC College of Arts & Sciences 2018):
Make sure the quote is relevant to your research paper and that you do not just use a “famous” quote for the sake of using a “famous” quote.
Generally, the following overview might be useful when writing your introductory paragraph (De Montfort University 2017):
Structuring an introductory paragraph
Introduce the context or background to the topic: Perhaps you could explain the title in your own words or use a quotation from an author who offers a supporting or contradictory statement about your topic area.
What is the purpose of writing about this topic? Is there a problem or controversy with the topic?
Definitions: Are you using any complex terminology or acronyms that need defining? Try to use a working definition from an expert in your subject area rather than referring to a general dictionary definition.
Introduce the main ideas that stem from your topic: You cannot write about everything for a 2000-word assignment; select between three and five key ideas and introduce them in the order in which they will be discussed.
How to write an Introduction – Step #2: Justification of the topic’s relevance
The introductory paragraph of your thesis or research paper contextualizes your research topic within the greater context of the research area and establishes a connection to the specialist area from general field of study (cf. Rossig & Prätsch 2005: 71).
The following three examples are a guideline as to how you can best tie in with the most current research (University of Delaware n.d.):
The following example illustrates how you can point the reader to your topic’s significance (Regoniel 2015):
Looking at this example of an introductory paragraph, which highlights the relevance of your endeavour, you can see that the author proceeded as follows (Regoniel 2015):
How to write an Introduction – Step #3: Subject of your research paper or essay
When writing the introduction to your research paper or an introductory paragraph for your essay, it is crucial to name what you will be researching.
The research question is derived from the research topic and, therefore, the research question needs to be linked to the research topic you will tackle in your research paper or essay (compare also article Research Question).
How to write an Introduction – Step #4: Objectives of your research paper
Another vital question to answer in the introductory paragraph is: Which objective are you pursuing, and which outcome is anticipated? (cf. Franck & Stray 2009: 144).
The title of your research paper is not identical to your objectives: Usually, the title of your research paper or essay describes the general subject area as opposed to the niche you want to cover (Stickel-Wolf & Wolf 2013: 202).
The introductory paragraphs below show how best to describe the objective of your paper in one sentence (Penn State 2019):
How to write an Introduction – Step #5: Methods
Knowing how to write an introduction also means having a firm grasp of the methods you will be using to achieve your research goal. The way in which you anticipate achieving your objectives needs to be pointed out in the introduction paragraph of your essay or the introduction of your research paper.
This is where you explain how you will go about gathering answers to your research question (cf. Samac, Prenner & Schwetz 2009: 60). Regarding the theory your research paper is based on, this involves outlining the theoretical underpinnings of your research paper (incl. the most important literature you use).
In an empirical research paper like your dissertation, which includes empirical studies, the introduction needs to explain the methods used to analyse the data you gathered in your study and how you analysed this data (cf. Kornmeier 2013: 105).
Where appropriate, you could mention related background in the introduction paragraph, such as work experience or research stays. However, this information should be kept to a minimum (cf. Oertner, St. John & Thelen 2014: 31).
How to write an Introduction – Step #6: Dissociations and limitations of your research questions and their reasons
Knowing how to write an introduction also means knowing your limits. The introduction paragraph hence dissociates your research topic from other fields in this research area (cf. Rossig & Prätsch 2005: 71).
Knowing how to write a good introduction also means to giving valid reasons for any limitations and restrictions you place on your research paper. The introduction paragraph of your research paper clarifies why you restrict your research topic to a certain, potentially very specific research area, and why this is important to achieve the goals you set out to whether this pertains to a Bachelor’s thesis, or any other research paper (cf. Stickel-Wolf & Wolf 2013: 202).
How to write an Introduction – Step #7: Differentiation and disambiguation of terms
The introduction paragraph of your research paper, Bachelor’s thesis or Master’s thesis, needs to explain basic but fundamental terms that are vital to understanding your research topic.
Explanations of terms that are only relevant to individual segments of your research paper should not be part of the introduction paragraph (cf. Rossig & Prätsch 2005: 71). Focus on terms that you might use (slightly) differently than your readers might expect, and define them accordingly (Case Western Reserve University 2018).
How to write an Introduction – Step #8: Outlinging the structure of your research paper or essay
Knowing how to write an introduction also includes knowing the structure of your research paper. In a few sentences in the introduction paragraph you should outline your line of argument, which emerges from the outline (table of contents) of your Bachelor’s thesis, Master’s thesis or dissertation.
Generally speaking, you give an outline of how you will go about answering your research question, which is mirrored in the structure of your research paper (cf. Kornmeier 2013: 106). Also, giving an outline of your research paper in the introduction paragraph will help the reader to remain focused.
Below you can find two examples from term papers (Tossey, Lisa. (n.d.); Wilson, Lily. 2016):
- The main purposes of the investigation into children’s Internet addiction are to study the phenomenon, learn about both views, reveal the true opinion, and create a list of recommendations for parents.
- I will be exploring how these POV cameras are being utilized in teaching, with a focus on science education, to gather data and provide virtual experiences – both in the lab and in the field.
What you want to achieve is that the reader understands why you have chosen to proceed in a certain way, i.e. how your procedure will enable you to answer your research question in a statisfactory manner(cf. Stickel-Wolf & Wolf 2013: 203).
The introduction in essays & introduction paragraph examples
The University of Leicester gives an example of a good essay introduction. Be aware that essays are a particular kind of research paper and differ from e.g., articles or ‘scientific’ term papers. In the following example you see how to write a good introduction to the essay question “What is the importance of imitation in early child development?”(University of Leicester [b]):
What do you want to achieve with the introduction to your bachelor thesis?
„We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.”
Samuel Goldwyn, film producer and publisher.
While a scientific research paper is not a film script and no professor will expect an earthquake when sitting down to read the introduction paragraph of your research paper, you still want to achieve a similar effect with your introduction paragraph:
Your introduction paragraph needs to captivate and win over the reader immediately. In doing so, the introduction guarantees that the reader will keep reading your paper with interest.
The introduction paragraph is the actual beginning of your paper, as neither abstract, nor foreword, nor table of contents belong in the actual body of the research paper.
In the introduction paragraph you reach out to the reader for the first time (cf. Esselborn-Krumbiegel 2002: 132), and ideally you want to leave a good impression. In providing a short guide the structure of your paper, the introduction paragraph is the flagship of your research paper (cf. Stickel-Wolf & Wolf 2013: 200).
How to write an Introduction: Length of the introduction paragraph
Planning your writing is quite a pragmatic endeavour. This includes deciding on how long each part of the text needs to be. The lengths of individual parts of your research paper depend on the overall length of your paper.
While the main body of your research paper will be the longest, the introduction paragraph will account for up to 15% of the scope of your text (cf. Stickel-Wolf & Wolf 2013: 201). Gruber, Huemer & Rheindorf advise you to restrict your introduction to only 5%, which is one page in a 20-page research paper (2009: 98), and Esselborn-Krumbiegel (2002: 142) advise 10%.
The introduction paragraph of your research paper, essay or Bachelor’s thesis should hence account for 5-15% of your paper. Andermann, Drees & Grätz (2006: 86) suggest you write your introduction paragraph in such a manner that it holds a sensible relation to the rest of the text. Writing a good introduction is not an easy endeavour just because it is comparatively short in size. Be short and precise, boil everything down to its essence and save the longer versions of explanations for the main body of the text.
Where to start and what to write first: Introduction paragraph vs. closing paragraph
Where to start on that blank piece of paper in front of you? As ironic as it might sound, it is a just and well debated question. The introduction paragraph and the closing paragraph are closely linked. While the closing paragraph summarizes the main body of your research paper, the introduction paragraph prepares the reader for it. Hence, both conclusion and introduction are part of brackets that parenthesize your research paper (Brauner & Vollmer 2004: 120).
Theisen suggests, you write the introduction paragraph as the last part of your paper. This is because you, the author of your paper, are likely to know only at the end of your work what you could actually achieve (Theisen 2013: 152).
The introduction is considered to be the most difficult part, which is why it can be easier to write an introduction at the end once you know where you are headed. It is advisable to start off your paper by one of the chapters of the main body. This strategy can also prevent a writer’s block. This could be done through an appropriate quote that gets the reader started and is then followed by the research context and a research question.
Several authors also emphasize that it is important you have gained a thorough overview of your research topic before you can write your introduction well enough to truly captivate the reader. Hence, they too consider writing the introduction paragraph towards the end of the entire writing process of your research paper or essay (cf. Rossig & Prätsch 2005: 71; Bänsch & Alewell 2013: 79; Stickel-Wolf & Wolf 2013: 201).
Contrary to this view, Kornmeier argues that even the author of a research paper should know no more at the point of the introduction than they do at the point they start their writing process (Kornmeier 2013: 109). The research question, too, should not be inserted afterwards (cf. Samac, Prenner & Schwetz 2009: 61).
How not to write a good introduction
The following table summarizes important aspects you should refrain from when writing your introduction (adapted from Franck & Stary 2009: 144-146):
|Don’ts in your introduction paragraph||Examples of bad introduction paragraphs|
|Limitation of research topic is not justified scientifically: If you limit your paper to certain aspects, it is vital to explain your (scientific) reasons for doing so in the introduction paragraph. Limiting your research shows that you have a good grasp of the general research area as well as your possibilities in the realms of your Bachelor's thesis or essay.||“The topic of the philosophy of science is a wide subject. Due to this an analysis of various scientific theoretical approaches will be refrained from in this paper.”|
|Refraining from further analysis because something is too complex: “[…] is beyond the scope of this paper” does not add anything important to your argument. What follows from refraining from mentioning certain topics/outlines?||“The group of themes concerning the relation between the polish minority to German parties; the role of the Polish questions in the Prussian house of parliament; the Polish banks in Berlin etc. have been used during research but the respective descriptions would have been beyond the scope of this paper.”|
|Justify your personal interest in the matter or making a personal confession:|
Science is not about beliefs and your personal conviction is no justification for your bachelor thesis.
|“My preoccupation with the works of Toni Morrison stirred up many emotions in me. The more I exposed myself to her work, the more complex my picture of the author and her work turned out to be.”|
|Recounting the table of contents:|
What is the sequence of the chapters? This does not need to be recounted but explained.
|“Chapter six deals with the developed prototype. Single models of domains of prototypes and their points of intersections will be explained. What follows is a description of the implementation and possible extensions of the prototypes. The paper will conclude with chapter seven, which will provide an outlook.”|
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In a nutshell
- The introduction paragraph is part of the actual research paper (other than the pretext and indices). The introduction paragraph establishes the first contact with the reader, introducing the topic and encouraging the reader to continue reading your research paper.
- The introduction paragraph of your Bachelor’s thesis should account for 5-15% of the overall length of your research paper.
- It is advisable to write the introduction paragraph of your Bachelor’s thesis or research paper once you have finished the main body and closing paragraph of your research paper. Only then will you know what you managed to achieve in your research paper and hence you only fuel realistic expectations in the reader through your introduction paragraph.
- Essential parts of the introduction paragraph of your Bachelor’s thesis also include your research question; the aims of your research paper; and the methods applied to achieve those goals.
- Make sure to briefly explain how and why you limit your topic. Refrain from phrases like “This is beyond the scope of this paper” as this is not a sufficient or a satisfactory explanation.
- Finish off your introduction paragraph with an outline of your research paper, i.e. the sequence of the chapters: How the chapters are sequenced, which line of argument you will be following, etc. Make sure you do not simply repeat your table of contents.
- Avoid personal confessions and subjective opinions. Neither of them has their place in the introduction paragraph of your research paper to justify the choice of your research topic or method.
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