Getting over bad/limited advice – journal article introductions


How do you start off a journal article – well, let’s say a conventional journal article*?

I’ve  recently seen the important opening move of a paper described as “ introduce the larger subject, then narrow that larger subject into your topic”, “Write the context for your paper” and “Provide the background to your paper (What have others done, provide evidence supported by a limited number of references) ”. You’ve probably seen this advice too.

Now, this kind of advice might seem helpful, and it may be for some people,but it has a problem. The problem is that the writing seems to be a pretty simple, almost mechanical process. You just state the context/background/largeness and then get on with it.

Or do you? Is it really that simple?

Because there are no reasons given for why you might need to start large, or give the background, or provide context, you the writer are largely on your own. Because the advice seems so straightforward and reduces what is actually a pretty nuanced task to a couple of simple steps, the advice may leave you feeling inadequate because you can’t work out what to do. Rather than help, the advice leaves still you feeling confused.

You may well have questions, such as –

  • Why do I have to start large? What does that mean?
  • What background should I choose?
  • How do I decide which aspects of context are important?
  • How do I choose between the literature that goes in the very beginning and the literatures that come in a literature section?

It’s perfectly rational to have these kinds of questions – the problem is not just yours. It is also with the advice givers who don’t explain the work that the introduction has to do. So by way of starting off, here’s a few different things you might think about in relation to writing an introduction.

The very start of the introduction to a paper has to do a number of things at once.

1. Lay the groundwork for contribution. A paper ‘s introduction not only has to establish a general area of interest but also the particular aspect of the general area that the paper will address. The introduction establishes what the paper says something about and what body of knowledge the paper adds to.

Here’s an imaginary example. You are writing a paper about one aspect of  accurately measuring sea level changes in Pacific islands. Your introduction has to say at the very start that the paper addresses the broader questions of climate collapse, rising sea levels, and islands in the Pacific. But you also have to say that measuring sea level change is important. Writing oh so briefly about climate change, rising sea levels in general and in particular in Pacific islands won’t be enough. You also have to make a short but convincing case about the importance of  measuring. Getting these things on the table at the outset is your first step towards saying what the contribution of the paper is going to be.

2. Establishing potential significance. As well, in setting the general problem that the paper will speak with/to, the very beginning of the introduction also has to establish the potential significance of its topic. You have to say that this paper is important because it is going to contribute something to understandings. In our hypothetical paper, you have to say why it’s important to know about the impact of rising sea levels on highly vulnerable locations as well as climate change more generally. Significance is always key to…

3. Creating the warrant for the paper. The introduction has to provide a justification for the paper, for why we need to know more this topic. And it simply isn’t good enough to say that there is a gap in what is known.  We need a rationale. An explanation for choosing this area. You have to say why this gap matters, and to whom and how. You have to provide the reasons why we need to know more.

So your imaginary paper doesn’t say we don’t know enough about rising sea levels in the Pacfic, full stop.  Rather, you say that it’s important to know this because… Well you might write something like this. The Pacific islands are the world’s most disaster prone region, the islands are low lying and prone to flooding. Accurate data is crucial because (as the website which I’ve used for this example puts it) “Up-to-date data enables governments, climate scientists and emergency managers to predict future changes in land and sea levels, and prepare for potential climate hazards and natural disasters.” Nd you use some literatures to support your reasoning. You can only cite a few literatures here and they have to be key to supporting your choice of topic, your potential contribution and its significance.

And of course, once you’ve spelled out the place for the contribution and its potential significance at the start of your paper, you get to go on and say exactly what it is that you are going to do in this paper, you get quite specific about the potential contribution.

Now let’s forget my example – it’s not my area and any scientists/geographers/environmental scientists reading this are probably laughing a lot at my clumsy interpretations. But I hope the example is enough for you to get the general idea. You don’t just choose any aspect of context or background or larger area, what you write about is very specifically tailored to the paper you are writing, the point you are making, and thus to your potential contribution and its significance. And laying this groundwork at the start of a paper matters because you refer back to it in the conclusion where you make the claims what it your paper’s contribution

Doing all this work in a short space of text is clearly a complex task not a simple or a mechanical one. But there’s even more involved. Laying groundwork and establishing warrant is not all that’s involved in starting off a paper.

4. Speaking to a specific readership. Papers are submitted to particular journals with particular readerships. So the introduction not only has to provide information about the general area, and why it matters, to whom, when etc, but do so in a way that the reader will immediately recognise and understand. To do this successfully means you need to know something about what the potential reader of the journal already knows about the topic. Connecting with the reader and their existing knowledge and interest generally means understanding the particular scholarly community you are talking with, as well as the conversations that they have already had on the topic. And you often signal the connection between the readers and your paper through your judicious selection of texts.

5. Securing the reader’s attention. Because you also want to appeal to the reader, you need to convince them that this paper will be a good read. So the introduction calls on you to use all of your writerly crafting.

I hope you can see that starting off your paper is not a technical matter at all. It calls for a lot of thinking. The introduction frames your argument and to begins the red thread that holds it together.

So here are some questions to ask which will help you to decide what aspects of context, background etc to include:

  • What area am I contributing to and what can I do to lay the  ground work for it? What specific aspect of this area do I look at?
  • What is the significance of this paper? Why is it important to know more about this topic? Who/what is affected/involved and how? Why does this matter?
  • How can I speak with the journal scholarly community? What do my readers already know about this topic? What do they think is important? What do I need to say and cite in order to connect with their existing knowledge and interest?)
  • How can I write the very beginning of the paper so it signals all of these things, as well as promise a worthwhile read?

*There are other ways to start off a journal article, for example, if you are writing something more literary or arts based.