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Writing an Introduction

Writing an introduction is often seen as a relatively straightforward element of the assignment writing process. The reason for this may be that we often find typical ‘ingredients’ in an introduction that we can use, regardless of the assignment we are writing. One of the challenges of writing a good introduction, however, is to be brief, and to stay focused. A rambling or unfocussed introduction, or one that is over-lengthy, will get the essay off to the wrong sort of start an will not create a good impression. In particular, you should avoid being 'anecdotal' in your introduction (i.e. writing as if you are telling a story) and you will also need to avoid wasting words by 'stating the obvious' and writing a series of over-generalised statements. Below you will find some helpful suggestions for writing introductions to essays and assignments.



1. What are the typical ‘ingredients’ in an introduction? 

2. Should I follow introduction structures closely?

3. How to write introductions for dissertations and theses?


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What are the typical ‘ingredients’ of an essay introduction? 

Trzeciak and Mackay (1994) have identified a number of ‘ingredients’ of an introduction. It will not always be necessary or desirable to include all of them, but they will generally be used in some combination or other, in order to introduce an academic argument.

  • a statement of the importance of the subject
  • mention of previous work on the subject
  • a justification for dealing with the subject
  • a statement of your objectives
  • a statement of the limitations of the work
  • a mention of some of the differing viewpoints on the subject
  • a definition of the topic being discussed

Swales and Feak (2004), meanwhile, focus on the research paper in particular. They attempt to place introduction ingredients into a sequence. They identify the following series of ‘moves’ in a typical introduction to a research paper:

  • Move 1: Establishing a research territory

- by showing that the general research area is important, central, interesting, problematic, etc. (optional)

- by introducing and reviewing items of previous research in the area (obligatory)

  • Move 2: Establishing a niche

- by indicating a gap in the previous research or by extending previous knowledge in some way (obligatory)

  • Move 3: Occupying the niche

- by outlining purposes or stating the nature of the present research (obligatory)

- by listing research questions of hypotheses

- by announcing principal findings

- by stating the value of the previous research

- by indicating the structure of the research paper

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Should I follow introduction structures closely? 

The above-mentioned elements of an introduction are helpful, and could be followed quite systematically to produce a reasonably acceptable introduction. However, there might be several problems associated with an attempt to follow these introduction structures too closely and to include them in every assignment you write :

  • Your introductions might become too predictable and ‘formula-written’, and may lack a sense of enthusiasm and commitment;
  • Your introduction may become too lengthy in relation to the remainder of the essay (depending on the length of the paper);
  • Your introduction might become too ‘detailed’ and this may spoil the ‘surprise effect’ of what you go on to say next;
  • The existence of an ‘introduction’, as described above, is not self-evident or natural in all disciplines; and even within subjects that commonly require an introduction (typically, social sciences and humanities disciplines) there may be some types of question that do not especially need one (e.g. document commentaries, unseen commentaries on literary texts, business plans, some short law questions, etc.);
  • One of the key aspects of writing an introduction, in many disciplines, is to attract the interest of the reader – if you give the impression that your writing is ‘formula driven’, you may fail to make the sort of impact you want on your reader. Sometimes, of course, the reader is not looking for interesting introductions (especially in fact-based or mathematical work).

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Dissertations and theses

In many respects, the procedure for writing an introduction remains the same for a longer piece of writing, such as a dissertation. In particular, it is still very important:

  • To write an ‘eye-catching’ opening sentence that will keep the reader’s attention focused;
  • Not to say everything you have to say in the introduction – save some of your good material for later.
  • To try to keep the reader in ‘suspense’ and to make them read on;
  • To ensure that there is a direct relationship between the introduction and the remainder of the dissertation;
  • To ensure that you do not promise what cannot be fulfilled or what goes beyond what can reasonably be expected.

At the same time, there will also be some differences in your approach. Among these differences are the following:

  • As well as having an overall introduction to your dissertation or thesis, each chapter should also have an introduction (as well as a conclusion). The reason for this is that in a longer piece of writing, it becomes more important to ‘remind’ the reader of what you are doing and why you are doing it, before each chapter continues.
  • Because of its length, there will be more opportunity to introduce a sense of ‘debate’ into the introduction to a thesis; and you will have time to bring in a wider range of references from outside.
  • It is a good idea in a chapter introduction to remind the reader what happened in the previous chapter (e.g. In the previous chapter, the literature relating to the teaching of vocabulary was considered. From this discussion, it was seen that….).

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The text was prepared by Dr Gerard Sharpling