How to write a journal article intro

One of the most important parts of a research article is the introduction, yet many authors are struggling to write it. Even experienced scholars sometimes seem not really to know what the introduction should do for their paper. In this post, I’ll offer my two cents worth on how to write a persuasive and useful introductory section for an academic journal article.

I cannot claim to have invented the method I’ll describe here: I’ve picked it up from conversations with colleagues and co-authors, from reading hundreds of well-crafted research articles, from writing and revising papers, from troubleshooting dysfunctional papers, written by me or others, from reading about academic writing, and from my reviewing and editorial service.

It is a method that works for any topic: I’ve used it for political philosophy as well as empirical research papers, and I’ve seen others successfully implement it on a broad range of subjects. Its applicability is probably infinite. ((For some examples, see these recent articles:

Olsson, Elizabeth M. ‘Relational Curiosity and Constructive Conflict: A Study in Classrooms’. Emotions and Society 2, no. 2 (2020): 179–95.

Schaffer, Johan Karlsson. ‘The Self-Exempting Activist: Sweden and the International Human Rights Regime’. Nordic Journal of Human Rights 38, no. 1 (2020): 40–60.

A cumulative dialectic:
This is the contribution
that the paper makes
by solving the problem
with the state of knowledge
about the research question.

The method consists of a series of writing prompts that can help you construct a cumulative argument in a dialectic tension with existing literature. But before I show how it works, I need to say a few things about the genre of the journal article. (I’m speaking of the social sciences here, what I say may apply to other fields, mutatis mutandis, or it may not.)

First, in my fields, the normal length of a journal article is 6-10,000 words (I keep a list of ca 250 journals in my areas of interest, and their median word limit is 9,000). And within this limited space, the journal article seeks to “present a single, easily identifiable claim: It will show that something is the case.”

Anatomically speaking, the journal article consists of roughly 40 paragraphs, as Thomas Basbøll helpfully suggests:

  • 5 paragraphs provide intro;
  • 5 paragraphs establish a general background, e.g. literature review;
  • 5 paragraphs state theory;
  • 5 paragraphs introduce the method by which data was generated;
  • The analysis/results section will make three overarching claims (that support the main thesis) in three 5-paragraph sections;
  • 5 paragraphs outline implications and conclusions.

“These are ball-park figures, not hard and fast rules, but “knowing” something for academic purposes means being able to articulate yourself in roughly these proportions.”

“40 Paragraphs” Research as a second language – Thomas Basbøll

Second, the journal article is a specific genre, different from other academic genres such as the essay, the doctoral thesis or the grant application. In a thesis, for instance, you explicitly state and signpost purpose, aims and research questions, sections for research ethics, methods, data and the like. A journal article will have such content as well, but presents it in a more condensed, no-nonsense form. Moreover, the journal article is also a different genre from the academic essay, which is more literary in style, more tentative, more reflective, etc.

As any genre, the journal article has its own genre conventions. Like all conventions, you may find you want to break them for one reason or another. But if you do, you should make sure you know what you do: You should know what the conventions are, have a rather good reason for breaking them, and be able to think through the consequences of doing so. And the best way to learn a genre’s conventions is to practice them, to appropriate them, to discipline yourself to them. It is only once you know them well that you can violate them in an interesting way to make a statement.

Now, why is the intro section so important?

  • It’s the first part of the paper readers read, and often the only part. Readers use the intro as a declaration of content, as an information label on the packaging: Is there something in here I can use? If you don’t tell your readers explicitly and cogently what your paper is about and what it contributes to the literature, they won’t read the rest of the paper.
  • Reviewers tend to read the intro as the standard by which to judge the paper: What does the paper promise to deliver – and does it deliver? The intro thus serves as the constitution of the paper: an overarching framework justifying and regulating the rest of the paper. As an author, it’s my experience that if the intro gives reviewers the wrong cues, they won’t see the merits of the rest of the paper, no matter how strong they may be, for what they are.
  • Writing the introduction often helps me to identify and hone my argument. I might have a vague idea for the paper, but it’s only once I actually write it down in a structured format that I really begin to develop my claim. Of course, the intro is often both the very first and the last thing I write: I write it to provide a roadmap for where I want to go, and once I’ve gone there, I will often discover that the terrain didn’t look quite as I had expected when I drew the map, so I then revise the map to match the journey I made.

What should the intro do for your paper?

  1. Since the journal article format serves to present one clear claim, the intro should tell readers clearly and explicitly what that claim is.
  2. The intro should tell readers what the prior state of knowledge on the topic is. Science is cumulative and producing knowledge entails standing on the shoulders of giants. Telling readers the ‘known knowns’ is a way to contextualize the article’s claim.
  3. Then, the intro should suggest to readers some problem with the state of knowledge about the topic. Formulating some problem to solve is important for the research to be contributive. You don’t have to formulate the problem negatively, as a gap, flaw or neglect in existing literature; it’s usually more constructive to formulate the problem as questions that existing literature now enables us to ask. Instead of antagonizing other scholars in your field, try to bring them over to your side by acknowledging their work as a stepping stone for your own contribution.
  4. Identifying a problem is not enough, though: The intro should also indicate some ways in which the problem can be resolved. “What distinguishes the critic from the mere grouser is believing to know of a better way.” ((Barry, Brian. ‘Social Criticism and Political Philosophy’. Philosophy & Public Affairs 19, no. 4 (1990): 360–73.)) So the intro should tell us how the paper helps to address the problem. This might include giving info about e.g. theory, data, methods and the like – but the intro shouldn’t provide excessive detail about that: You should only give away as much of that necessary-but-boring info as you need to show the reader you’ve got a solution to the problem you identify. Save the details for the substantive sections of the article.
  5. By solving the problem, the article also contributes to existing knowledge, and the introduction should tell the readers what those contributions are, since these are essentially the plums they’re looking for in the pudding. Note, though, that the contributions are a consequent of and therefore something else, something more than the solution per se. To use a metaphor, building a bridge is the solution to the problem of getting across a river, and the contribution it makes is allowing people to travel across it.
  6. Finally, the intro should outline the paper. This is boring but necessary. An intro without an outline does not properly introduce the rest of the paper.

What should the intro not contain?

  • Lots of detail on theory, methods or data, or research ethics statement; chunks of analysis. Save that for later sections – and some of it could sometimes even be placed in appendices. Remember, the journal article is a different genre than the doctoral thesis: For the thesis, you need a belt-and-braces strategy to show you’ve got an answer to every possible objection to any choice or delimitation you’ve made in your project. In the journal article, you have neither the need nor the space to address such concerns.
  • Literature review. The intro is not your literature review. It should, of course, identify the state of knowledge and find some problems in it, but you can save the lit rev proper for its own section.
  • Too many paragraphs! I’ve seen manuscripts with 10-15 paragraphs before the next heading – that’s not an intro, it just shows you don’t know how to prioritise.
  • An epigraph or a personal reflection – that’s genre confusion; you’re not writing an essay. In a journal article, I just find it confusing to start with a quote that is neither introduced nor analysed.
  • Background. An introduction is not a background section. Some authors start their paper with a background that supposedly sets the scene for the empirical case, e.g. by telling a largely descriptive story in a journalistic style about how the phenomenon under study evolved or why it’s an important social/political problem. That’s not what your academic readers will be looking for in the introduction. Actually, general descriptive background rarely belongs in a journal article: Of course, you’ll need to provide context, but I often find I don’t quite know what to do with a lengthy background that is not guided by previous lit, by theory, by methods.

Again, as with any genre conventions, you may have very good reasons for violating these rules. But if you do, the rule violation will risk taking over, becoming the key statement your paper makes and competing with any substantive claim you also want to make.

Writing prompts for a cumulative, dialectic intro

OK, so let’s get down to business: How does one actually write a journal article intro that contains all the necessary pieces (and none of the unnecessary ones) and conveys them in an effective way within the space of just five paragraphs?

Some of the advice I’ve found on how to write journal article intros contain much of the above, yet do not provide any concrete advice on how to produce it. They basically describe what ingredients you need to bake a delicious loaf of bread, but do not provide the recipe.

In order to move from ingredients to a hands-on recipe, we can transform the six items on the list above to a set of writing prompts, corresponding to the structure of the five paragraphs of the intro. It goes like this:

  1. What is the research question that the article aims to answer? – First sentence of the first paragraph. The RQ should be a single proper question, formulated in simple and clear language.
  2. What is the state of knowledge on (0)? – Rest of first paragraph.
  3. What is the problem with (1)?
  4. How does this article help resolve (2)?
  5. By doing (3), what does the article contribute to (1)?
  6. How is the article structured?

For each of these prompts, you write one paragraph – no less, no more. Each paragraph should also be in the normal range of 100-200 words, so don’t try to cheat by expanding the number of words. Following these prompts produces an introduction that – within the genre convention of five paragraphs – presents the claim your paper makes within the context of previous literature.

To get started, I often formulate just a topic sentence for each of the paragraphs I’ll need to write. A well-formulated topic sentence helps provide a structure for the rest of the paragraph, much like the intro does for the article at the macro level. It signposts to readers that you’re moving in to a new topic and what the paragraph is about. In a well-crafted paper, you should be able to get a rudimentary understanding of the article’s argumentative structure just by reading the topic sentences opening every paragraph. With the topic sentence in place, I can then fill out the remaining elements of each paragraph.

Why does this structure work?

  • It places the research question front and centre, and lets it steer the unfolding argument. Readers – and you, the author – will know what the paper aims to do, right from the very first sentence of your paper.
  • It’s cumulative like a nursery rhyme: Since each question connects to the previous one, the prompts produce paragraphs that form a coherent argumentative structure, one paragraph naturally leading to the next.
  • It also constructs a dialectic narrative, moving from state of knowledge via criticizing the state of knowledge to providing a solution: Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
  • Through this dialectic structure, it also provides a good way of presenting an interesting claim. In a classic piece, Murray Davis suggests all interesting claims in the social sciences are of the form: ‘What seems to be X is actually non-X’; i.e., an interesting claim denies certain assumptions of its audience. To produce an interesting claim, the author must (a) articulate what their intended audience takes for granted; (b) make a claim that denies (a); and (c) offer proof of (b). ((Davis, Murray S. ‘That’s Interesting!: Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology’. Philosophy of the Social Sciences 1, no. 2 (1 June 1971): 309–44. The prompts outlined here can make it easier to present such a claim to interestingness.
  • Finally, it takes off the pressure to come up with a new and interesting opening strategy for every paper you write. Sometimes you might be able to start your paper with a sublime quote for an epigraph, a fascinating theory paradox, a telling anecdote from fieldwork or a pressing real-world policy issue. But oftentimes, you won’t, and then these prompts provide a generic way to introduce your argument. They allow you not to reinvent the wheel.

With some adjustments, one can use these writing prompts to craft persuasive conference abstracts and grant applications, since these genres, too, require us to argue in a dialectic form with existing literature. For an abstract, you just write a sentence or two for each prompt, instead of a paragraph. For grant application, the rationale section will typically present the dialectic: A claim about the state of knowledge in previous research, some issues with or gaps in the state of knowledge, and an idea about how to address the issues.

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