The Writing Center @ The University of Wisconsin - Madison
The Writer's Handbook
Introductions

Invest in Your Introduction

When they begin to read your paper, readers are trying to understand a complex text that is new to them. They want to know what it's about, to understand its background or context, and to see its goals or purpose. An explicit and detailed overview will help you show the richness and complexity of your work and set up the reader's expectations for your paper.

When should you write the introduction?

You do not need to write your introduction first. Some writers write the introduction in the middle of the drafting process once they see the larger direction of the paper; others write the introduction last, once they know the exact content of their work. Try different approaches to see which one is best for you, but always check your introduction before you turn in your final draft to be sure it matches the paper you actually wrote.

How can you start drafting an introduction?

Depending on the discipline you're writing in, an introduction can engage readers in many ways:

  • Ask a question
  • Identify a debate
  • Give a comparison
  • Explain a situation
  • Describe a problem
  • Quote an authority
  • Cite an example
  • Set up an intellectual problem
  • Offer a hypothesis

What should your introduction promise?

Introductions represent a promise the writer makes to the reader. Your introduction should announce your paper's topic and purpose, situate that purpose in relation to what you've discussed in your course or what has already been published on that topic, and offer your readers a preview of how you will satisfy that purpose.

To address a topic.

One of the important functions of an introduction is to announce what you are writing about to your readers.

To present a claim, finding, or argument.

You will often read them toward the end of an introduction: the thesis statement (which could also be a purpose statement or question). This is a promise that your paper is going to make a point, not just cover a topic.

To participate in a conversation.

If you are writing for an instructor, this promise might mean suggesting that your paper will touch on the main topic of the course. If you are writing as a scholar, this promise might meaning explaining how your research will fill an important gap in the existing research.

To excite and engage your reader's intellectual curiosity.

An introduction should seek to engage readers so that they will become invested in your writing. In some contexts this means finding a way to persuade a reader who is reading 60 papers on the same topic that yours is worth paying special attention to. In other contexts this means helping a reader already committed to your work to recognize what unusual or exciting question your paper will address.

Sample introductions

Undergraduate history essay

Notice that this introduction begins by situating the paper in the context of larger conversations about British attitudes towards French politics and ends by promising a specific argument that the rest of the paper will support.

In 1789, Britain's eyes were fixed on France's turbulent political arena. In just a few decades, France's once-formidable divine-right monarchy had been reduced to a state of relative powerlessness by frequent warfare, burgeoning social unrest, and a pressing financial crisis from the nation's incessant militarism and the court's lavish expenditures. As France's sociopolitical scene intensified, noteworthy events found their way onto London stages with a flourish of historicity, drama, and hyperbole. These plays, consequently, provide a revealing lens for examining Britain's response to and interpretation of the initial events of the French Revolution. In particular, John Dent's The Triumph of Liberty, performed in 1790, and The Royal Fugitives, staged in 1791, offer intriguing samples of British sentiment surrounding the Storming of the Bastille and Louis XVI's flight to Varennes. Despite their decidedly French subject matter, the plays' intense professions of British nationalism and their inclusion of Englishmen in leading roles suggest that Britain celebrated the rise of liberty and democracy in France, but refused to honor the role of French citizens in promoting these virtues. Instead, the plays seem to interpret French radicalism as the product of an undercurrent of democratic sentiment initiated by Britain, thereby allowing Britain to take credit for such favorable circumstances as the fall of the Bastille and Louis XVI's recapture. Used with permission of the author.

Mechanical engineering

From Mounting methodologies to measure EUV reticle nonflatness by UW–Madison graduate student Venkata Siva Battula et al. (2009). Notice that, in an engineering paper, an introduction presents a research question or problem.

Meeting the image placement (IP) requirements in the sub-30-nm regime may be one of the most difficult challenges facing the semiconductor industry. For Extreme Ultraviolet Lithography (EUVL), all sources of IP error must be either minimized, compensated for, or completely eliminated. One potential source of error is the nonflatness of the EUVL mask during exposure scanning. With nontelecentric illumination of the mask, any nonflatness of the patterned surface of the reticle will induce IP errors on the device wafer. To address this issue, SEMI Standard P37 has established the flatness specifications for the EUVL mask substrate. The goal of this study was to identify the most accurate procedures for measuring and subsequently describing the nonflatness of the substrate.

Legal writing

From UW–Madison Law Professor Andrew B. Coan's Judicial Capacity and the Substance of Constitutional Law (2012). Notice how the introduction leads the reader through a series of logical steps that describe the current conversation about the topic, and how the last sentence ends by promising (by implication) to fill an important gap in that conversation.

Start with a very basic premise: courts can decide only a small fraction of the constitutional issues generated by the American government. By now, this is something of a commonplace among constitutional theorists. But it is a commonplace of a peculiar sort. It receives frequent lip service but is almost never taken really seriously. Advocates for more expansive constitutional protections routinely brush aside, or outright ignore, the judiciary's limited capacity. Opponents of such protections routinely write as if "government by judiciary" were a real and worrisome possibility. Meanwhile, there has been very little work exploring why the judiciary has such limited capacity or how we should expect this limitation to affect the substance of its constitutional decisions.

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