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© Walden University Writing Center 2016
Many writers struggle with how to write an introduction to an academic paper. To help, Brittany and Beth share five things to avoid when writing scholarly introductions.
BRITTANY: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson
BETH: And I’m Beth Nastachowski.
BRITTANY: In this episode we’ll be talking about five things to avoid when writing an introduction.
BETH: So this month we published a blog post on writing introductions which focused on what you should include in your introduction like background information and your argument for the paper, and things you should consider as well, such as the audience you’re writing for, providing a purpose statement, making your thesis statement really strong, and trying to write your introduction last if you’re having trouble with it.
BRITTANY: It really focuses a lot on the things that you should do so we didn’t want to replicate that exactly and yet we wanted to continue our pattern of providing our podcast listeners with lists of five things. And so today we have a list of things not to do in your introduction.
BETH: And who doesn’t like a list, right, Brittany?
BRITTANY: I love lists. I keep them everywhere.
BETH: And we do want to acknowledge that these tips still apply to anyone writing a doctoral capstone so if you’re writing a doctoral capstone, keep listening, but just remember that for doctoral capstones like a dissertation or a project study there are very specific requirements for those Walden capstones and their introductions so you’ll always want to defer to the rubrics and checklists and feedback that you’re getting from your committee and your chair.
BRITTANY: So the first thing that I was thinking about when I was thinking of things to avoid when writing an introduction was this practice of starting the introduction, the introductory paragraph, with a source quotation. And this is something that I know I see a lot in student work here at Walden and I’ve seen other places, too. I think it’s fairly common and I think it feels, it can feel safe, you know, it can feel like an easy way to ease into the topic but it is actually something that we want to avoid when you’re writing a really strong introduction, you don’t want to start out with somebody else’s words.
BETH: Yeah and I would add here that potentially in your first draft of your paper you might start an introduction with a quote just to get you started because, like you’re saying, Brittany, it can feel sort of familiar or comforting to start with another quote to kind of get you started, but then on subsequent revisions you’ll want to make sure and go back and revise to add in your own voice to start the paragraph. So it’s not necessarily bad to start out the introduction with a quote in your first draft, but just make sure you go back and revise if that kind of helps you with your writing process.
BRITTANY: Yeah that’s such a good point, that idea that you can start writing however you need to, you know, whatever technique you need to use to ease into the writing process, but that eventually you’ll want to go back and start the introduction with your own words. And I think what you said there, Beth, is really key, that you are the primary author of whatever paper you’re writing, whatever document you’re writing, and you want the introductory paragraph to reflect that. So that means you want your voice to be the very first voice that your reader hears or reads rather than presenting them with an outside voice first. You want your voice to be the primary voice sort of leading the argument that you’re making in your paper.
BETH: And similar to that is another point that I wanted to bring up, Brittany, about not including quotes in general, so even things like epigraphs, so not just a source or a quote from a source that you’re using in your writing but even just quotes in general, so sometimes writers will include general quotes that represent the theme or the focus or the topic of their paper. They might not be from an actual source that they’re drawing from in the paper but that sort of addresses the overall theme. And those are also something that we want to avoid in our academic writing, so, at Walden because we’re focused on social sciences we want to focus on your own voice and not include things like epigraphs, which are just more common in literature or more humanity-based writing.
BRITTANY: This might actually be different from what you’ve learned in past writing courses, especially if you learned about writing or composition in like a basic writing class in high school or even a composition class in college. It’s possible that you did learn to sort of get the reader’s attention or surprise the reader in some way to keep them reading. And while that is a really good technique to use if you’re writing fiction or even creative nonfiction or other kinds of writing, in the type of scholarly writing that we do here at Walden, that kind of like “pop” of information at the beginning of the introduction is not necessary and really not appropriate. It sets the wrong tone for the scholarly work that you’re about to do. So you don’t need to catch your reader’s attention with a flashy quote, what you want to do is be as clear and direct as possible, your reader is going to keep reading because they understand the flow of your argument and they’re curious to see how you support your argument, not because you, you sort of hook them in with something kind of flashy or exciting at the very beginning of your introduction.
BETH: And building on your point about supporting your argument, Brittany, I also wanted to talk a little bit about including evidence in your introductory paragraph. So, because the introductory paragraph is not meant to be the entire argument that you’re making in your paper, the reader is going to expect that you will support that argument in the rest of your paper, in the body of the paper. So you don’t need to include too much evidence in the introduction, in fact, you probably will just want to just kind of include general background information because the reader again will expect to see that evidence in the rest of your paper, so don’t feel like you have to jam all of this evidence or specific information in the introduction.
BRITTANY: Yeah, sometimes when I read student papers, I see a lot of direct quotations. Not—I mean, we’ve already talked about not including those as the first sentence of the introductory paragraph, but, I think what you’re saying, Beth, is that you can really leave that, the bulk of those citations from outside sources for the body paragraphs of the paper. And in that way, I don’t know that we talk about this explicitly in our episodes that address the MEAL plan, but the MEAL plan really isn’t an appropriate method for paragraphing for an introductory paragraph, right, so that big E piece in MEAL, the Evidence piece, that’s not, that doesn’t belong in the introduction so much. You of course want to include a little bit of evidence because you’re kind of setting up your argument in the introduction, but you don’t need to have that back and forth between evidence, analysis, evidence, analysis, that we recommend for body paragraphs in a paper. The point of the introduction is more about setting up the argument than backing up the argument.
BETH: Right, and, speaking of body paragraphs like you mentioned, Brittany, I think it’s also useful to keep in mind a question we get about body paragraphs for the introduction, so a lot of times students will ask for body paragraphs how long those paragraphs should be, how many sentences, and that’s something to really keep in mind for introductory paragraphs, and there’s really no set number of sentences an introduction should be, just like there’s no set sentences that a body paragraph should be. But it really just depends on your purpose and really more on the length of the paper. So a short discussion post might have a very short introductory paragraph, but a longer fifteen-page paper is going to require a longer paragraph because you have more to introduce, and then that scope of that paragraph will also be bigger for that longer paper because, again, the scope of your paper is bigger, so it just really depends when you’re thinking about length, think about the length of the final paper itself and then the scope of that paper as well.
BRITTANY: Right, so what you’re saying, basically, is that there’s a relationship between length of introduction and length of paper but that in general the introduction should not be longer than the body of whatever it is that you’re writing, right?
BETH: Yes, I definitely agree. I was just gonna say, too, and that might mean, for some papers, if you do have a particularly long paper, I would say, once you get to about fifteen pages, you could consider having two paragraphs that introduce that paper, potentially. Now, it’s not always needed, but, I do know in some cases that can be useful, too.
BRITTANY: Yeah, I agree with that, Beth, it is important to note that sometimes we think about paragraphs as sort of a unit of length, but that’s not really what they are. You know they’re not just like one chunk and then another chunk and then another chunk, they’re actually like little mini papers in and of themself, right, and so if you have to sort of get through one point before you can make your point that leads up to your thesis, that might warrant a first intro paragraph and then a second intro paragraph that finally gets you to your thesis statement. These are hard, you know, those kinds of instances are hard to talk about in the abstract, I think that those are the kinds of things that if you are leaning towards doing more than one intro paragraph, you know, you can, certainly you can always ask your course instructor what they think, you can always ask questions here at the writing center, too, and we can help you take a look at the two paragraphs and give you advice on whether or not we think that two paragraphs is warranted or if you should try and consolidate into one intro paragraph.
BETH: What you’re saying here, Brittany, makes me think about playing around with your introduction as well, and having a little play there, and what I mean by play is, you know, having some flexibility and looking at trying new things in your introduction. And I think that brings us to one of the last points we wanted to talk about, too, was, not starting to write your paper by writing your introduction first and then never coming back to it and looking at it again. But instead considering your introduction as something that might change and you might play around with and you might try different approaches as you develop your paper and as you develop your ideas in the body of your paper as well.
BRITTANY: That is such an important point, and I think that’s one that we try and emphasize not just about introductions but about, you know, the whole paper in general. Writing is so tricky because the process and the product are kind of called the same thing and they, they happen in the same space, right, they happen on your computer or on your sheet of paper, and so it’s hard to—It’s not like you have, you know, one place where you’re working on a draft where it’s safe to play around and then another space where you finalize it. I mean, you could, I suppose, approach it that way and that might be a helpful technique to use but in general we kind of open a word document, start typing, and it feels like we’re supposed to—oop. I just bumped my hand. I’m gesticulating wildly over here.
BRITTANY: I banged my hand on the table! Um, it can feel like you’re supposed to approach the writing of a linear argument in a linear way, right? That the process is also supposed to be linear, and it is completely not. And that should never be your goal. That’s not your goal as you improve your abilities and your confidence as a writer, you will never get to the point, I sincerely doubt that you will ever get to the point where you can, you know, sort of spew forth your ideas in the correct order the very first time and turn the paper in—that’s normal and that’s fine. So, yes, I completely agree, Beth, that it’s really important to recognize that you can write an introduction to feel good about having that as a placeholder, but that then after you write your whole paper and you feel pretty good about the flow of the argument in the paper itself, you need to go back to your introduction and see if it aligns, and see if you need to adjust it and change it to match what it is that you’ve discovered and want to say as you’ve been writing the body of the paper itself.
BETH: Yeah, or, or even, going back and you might wait to write your introduction until you’re done with the entire paper. I think it can be sort of overwhelming to consider writing the introduction because the introduction, the voice in the introduction is one of authority that the person writing that introduction knows what’s coming in the rest of the paper, so it can be difficult sometimes to write with that sort of authority and confidence when you’re not sure what the rest of your paper looks like yet. So feel free to wait and write the introduction later, once you do know what’s coming next so you can kind of have that tone of confidence and authority.
BRITTANY: So it sounds like we’ve come up with about five tips, I think. So I think if I’m counting correctly we have described five things to avoid, so let’s review those quickly. We talked about starting with a source quotation, to avoid doing that. To avoid starting with really any quotation, so none of those, you know, feel good quotes from quotes.com or from your favorite novel. We talked about avoiding too much evidence in the introductory paragraph. We talked about making sure that your introduction is not longer than the body of the paper, the length of the introduction is proportionate to the length of the paper itself. And then finally we talked about not making the mistake of writing your introduction first and thinking of it as final. So making sure that you’re approaching it as a process where you go back and revise the introduction once you feel that you’ve got a good handle on the argument that you’re making in the body of the paper itself.
BETH: We hope that you find these tips useful and you keep them in mind when writing your next introduction, and thanks for listening!
BRITTANY: Bye, everyone!
BRITTANY: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Beth Nastachowski; and our colleague, Anne Shiell.
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