How to write: Introductions

This post is the part of a series on how to write a paper. The first was on how to write abstracts.

Now, let’s move onto the introduction of the paper. Introductions are often hard to write. It can become difficult to decide what information should be included in the introduction versus in later sections of the paper.

There are a few things you need to make sure you include in your introduction. First, it’s important to use the introduction to introduce your topic. This sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how many people try to gloss over it as they just want to get to the meat of the paper. When introducing your topic start with an overview of your topic and not the details of your project. Second, make sure you motivate your topic. You need to convince your readers that your topic is important and worth reading. That it contributes something new to the field. And third, you want to explain what your paper is actually about. What is was your research question and what did you solve/prove.

The following is a possible way to structure your introduction:

  • Introduce the general topic
  • Motivate the research and explain why people should care
  • What is your research question?
  • How did you try to solve it?
  • What sort of results will the paper present: a user study? qualitative? quantitative?

Common mistakes I’ve seen in papers usually involve presenting both too little or too much information in the introduction. Some people seem to think it’s better to section their paper out into more sections. These authors make a section for motivation and another to present what they’re doing. They divide their paper into so many sections and then each section has only one to two paragraphs. Their introduction ends up being 2-3 paragraphs and gives barely any details about what the paper is going to talk about. Your introduction should provide all the information a reader needs to understand why you’re doing the research you’re doing (the motivation) and what the paper is going to present.

The other mistake I’ve seen is presenting results in the the introduction. You should mention in the introduction how you evaluated your solution. But this should be mentioned in terms of “We used a user study to compare our new GUI to the original” and not “The user study we performed showed that our GUI was statistically significantly better than the original.”   If you give all the results in the introduction, why should they bother reading the rest of your paper?

When reading introductions, you’ll often find papers that finish their introduction with a paragraph similar to the following: “Section 2 presents some related work on the topic. Section 3 presents our methodology…” There are times when this is useful. For example, if you’re writing a long journal paper, or possibly even a long conference paper (6 plus pages) this can be used to provide the readers with the layout of the paper. If the paper is shorter than that, it becomes  much less useful. I’ve seen people use this on a 2 page paper. Here, you’re wasting valuable space on something that isn’t at all important. A reader can easily flip the page over to see all the sections. Also, if you do this, please don’t finish with “Section 8 is a list of references.” The last section you should mention is your conclusion. All research papers finish with a reference section, and so that is a given. If your paper has an acknowledgement section, don’t mention it either. It is only there so you can thank any one (or company) who provided data or money to support the research.

Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to reading introductions? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen an author do?

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3 thoughts on “How to write: Introductions

  1. “two little or two much” –> should be too little or too much.
    Sorry I find myself focusing on typos subconsciously!

    Informative and useful.. thanks!

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