The introduction of a paper must introduce its thesis and not just its topic. Readers will lose some—if not much—of what the paper says if the introduction does not prepare them for what is coming (and tell them what to look for and how to evaluate it).
For example, an introduction that says, “The British army fought in the battle of Saratoga” gives the reader virtually no guidance about the paper’s thesis (i.e., what the paper concludes/argues about the British army at Saratoga).
History papers are not mystery novels. Historians WANT and NEED to give away the ending immediately. Their conclusions—presented in the introduction—help the reader better follow/understand their ideas and interpretations.
In other words, an introduction is a MAP that lays out “the trip the author is going to take [readers] on” and thus “lets readers connect any part of the argument with the overall structure. Readers with such a map seldom get confused or lost.”1
Introductions do four things:
attract the ATTENTION of the reader
convince the reader that he/she NEEDS TO READ what the author has to say
define the paper’s SPECIFIC TOPIC
state and explain the paper’s THESIS
Writing the introduction:
Consider writing the introduction AFTER finishing your paper. By then, you will know what your paper says. You will have thought it through and provided arguments and supporting evidence; therefore, you will know what the reader needs to know—in brief form—in the introduction. (Always think of your initial introduction as “getting started” and as something that “won’t count.” It is for your eyes only; discard it when you know exactly what your paper says.) A common technique is to turn your conclusion into an introduction. It usually reflects what is in the paper—topic, thesis, arguments, evidence—and can be easily adjusted to be a clear and useful introduction.
Some types of introductions:
Historical overview (provides introduction to topic AND background so that fewer explanations are needed later in paper)
Review of literature or a controversy
Statistics or startling evidence
Anecdote or illustration
From general to specific OR specific to general
“The purpose of this paper is . . .” OR “This paper is about . . . .”
First person (e.g., “I will argue that”)
Too many questions
There is no rule other than to be logical. Short papers require short introductions (e.g., a short paragraph); longer ones may require a page or more to provide all that a reader needs. Longer papers require ELABORATION of the thesis; a sentence is not sufficient to prepare the reader for the many pages of arguments and evidence that follow.
Conclusions are the last thing that readers read; they define readers’ final impression of a paper. A flat, boring conclusion means a flat, boring (or, at least, disappointing) paper.
Conclusions should be a climax, not an anti-climax. They do not just restate what has already been said; they interpret, speculate, and provoke thinking.
Some types of conclusions:
Statement of subject’s significance
Call for further research
Recommendation or speculation
Comparison of part to present
Questions (with or without answers)
“In conclusion”; “finally”; “thus”
Additional or new ideas that introduce a new paper
Again, there is no rule, although too short conclusions should definitely be avoided. Short conclusions leave the reader on the edge of a cliff with no directions on how to get down.
You are the expert – help your reader pull together and appreciate what he/she has read.
1Howard Becker, Writing for Social Scientists (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).
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