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3 Steps to consider when crafting an article introduction

The introduction is perhaps the most important section of an article, but unfortunately it can be notoriously difficult to write. To help make the process less painful and more productive, Meagan Kittle Autry, the Director of Thesis and Dissertation Support Services at NC State University, shared advice for writing exceptional introductions in a recent TAA podcast entitled How to Write an Introduction That Will Get Your Article Accepted.

According to Kittle Autry, there are three key elements to consider when writing an introduction that can impact the success of your article being selected for publication. First, research articles are becoming increasingly uniform across disciplines and highly conventional, so a large part of getting your article published is establishing yourself as part of the academic community by demonstrating that you understand and can follow the writing norms used by academic journals. Second, you must consider your audience of journal editors, peer reviewers, and readers in your field, for whom your personal interest in the topic is not enough—you must establish in your introduction that your work is significant for the field and offers something new to help move the field forward. Related to this is the final element, which is the concept of writing for the journal, which involves tailoring your introduction for your target journal and that journal’s specific audience.

In order to accomplish these goals, Kittle Autry suggests following these three steps from linguist John Swales’ “Create a Research Space” (CARS) Model for Introductions:

Step 1: Establish a territory. This first step involves establishing your topic and its significance by claiming that the topic is of central interest to your field, making generalizations about the topic, and reviewing previous research. Your first sentence should state your topic and allude to its significance in your field. Kittle Autry states that this strong opening sentence is the key element that often differentiates published work from unpublished work.

The opening sentence should be followed up by a short literature review in which you describe what is currently known in your field, citing literature to support your generalizations. The studies you choose to cite will also help establish your identity as someone who understands the scholarly conversations currently happening in your field. Cite important research from your target journal to show that your topic is connected to the literature that readers of that journal consider valuable. Some phrases that can help you establish your topic’s centrality to your field include “there has been growing interest in,” “has become a major issue,” and “has become an important aspect of.”

Step 2: Create a niche. Next, it is important to establish a need for your present research. This step involves indicating a gap in previous research, proposing an extension of previous research, and in some fields such as engineering, presenting a positive justification for your current study. The academe considers problems and unknowns worthy of investigation, so after you review the current literature on your topic, use a contrastive turn such as “however,” “despite,” “little is known,” or “previous research failed to determine” in order to transition from the established knowledge to the unknown or unsolved and thereby justify your research. Using these contrastive turns will also allude to your research problem or question.

For scholars involved in highly interdisciplinary work, the first two steps in this model may need to be repeated since it may be necessary to establish a topic from the perspective of multiple fields in order to connect all the pieces for your research.

Step 3: Occupy the niche. After establishing that a research need exists, it is important to show how your current work meets that need. This can be accomplished in part through outlining the purpose and main features of the study. In some disciplines, this portion of the introduction also involves listing research questions or hypotheses. Writers in certain disciplines or writers who choose to follow an unconventional organization for the body of their article should also preview the organization of the article here as well. It is in this portion of the introduction that academic writers typically include a first person reference (e.g. “In this article, we report the results…”) and make the first explicit references to the text at hand (“The aim of this paper is to…”).

Following these three moves will help you to create a solid outline, but to craft a truly strong introduction, it is important to apply the model to popular, well-received, or canonical articles in your field to see how those authors tackle each step. This comparison will help you determine ways to tailor your introduction to your specific field or target journal; for example, it will help you make decisions such as how much literature to review in your introduction and whether or not to use the first person when introducing your current study. With this model as a guide, your introduction will be much more likely to inspire editors to give your research the serious consideration it deserves.

Listen to Meagan’s webinar in the library of Presentations on Demand.