Five Steps to Writing a Stellar Introduction to an Academic Paper
An introduction is the most important part of an academic article. Thus, in academic writing, as in all writing, you want to make your introduction as clear and compelling as possible. Your introduction should motivate the reader to turn the page.
The introduction is your chance to make it clear why your paper is important. I find Wendy Belcher’s advice on writing introductions to be quite useful, and provide my own, slightly modified, version of it in this post.
An introduction to an academic paper needs to accomplish five things:
- Draw your reader in and convince them they should care about your topic
- State your argument clearly
- Render evident your contribution to scholarship
- Establish your expertise.
- Define your terms
It’s a lot to do in two to four paragraphs, but a quick perusal through journal articles will make it clear that it is feasible.
Step 1: Draw The Reader In
My two favorite ways of beginning academic articles are with anecdotes or shocking statistics. For an article on deportees, I may begin with “In 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deported 387,242 people—thirteen times as many as in 1991.” Alternatively, I could start the paper with “Leroy moved with his parents to the United States as a legal permanent resident in 1978 when he was seven years old. He did not return to Jamaica until 1999, when he was deported for drug possession.”
Another effective opening involves beginning with an argumentative statement such as “The deportation of the adopted children of U.S. citizens represents one of the most egregious violations of human rights in contemporary America.” Alternatively, you can go straight to theory: “Scholars of transnationalism focus on the diminishing meaning of national borders. Deportation, however, solidifies these borders.” Finally, you can start with a question such as: “Once forcibly returned to their countries of birth, why and how do deportees participate in transnational relationships?”
There are many ways to draw the reader in. If you are having trouble figuring out how to begin your article, consider trying each of these approaches and seeing which one you find most effective.
Step 2: State Your Argument Clearly
An academic article should not be written like a mystery novel. Instead, you need to state your argument clearly and early on.
One of my favorite definitions for what constitutes an argument comes from Wendy Belcher, who writes: “an argument is a statement to which you can coherently respond “I agree” or “I disagree”.” In my article on Jamaican deportees, my argument is as follows: “Jamaican deportees use transnational ties as coping strategies, and face a gendered stigma because of this.” This is a statement with which one could agree or disagree.
In contrast, it would not be a viable for me to state “I contend that Jamaican deportees are people forcibly returned to their countries of birth.” That is just stating the obvious.
Step 3: Render Evident Your Contribution To Scholarship
Scholarly writing is not just about making a good argument; you also must make it clear how you are contributing to scholarly knowledge. Even if it is true that most Americans think that undocumented workers don’t pay taxes, you can’t publish an academic article solely on the basis that it demonstrates that undocumented workers do pay taxes, because specialists in this field already know this. Your research must contribute to current literature in your field, and your introduction has to make it clear what your contribution is.
In my article on deportees, then, in addition to arguing that Jamaican deportees use transnational ties as coping strategies, and that they face a gendered stigma because of this, I had to explain how this contributes to the literature in this subfield. I accomplished this by pointing out that although transnationalism has been studied extensively, we know relatively little about 1) why migrants choose to participate in transnational practices; 2) how the uniquely stressful experience of deportation might affect these practices; and 3) how gender affects reliance on transnational affective ties. Because my research is qualitative, I had to be sure that the kinds of contributions I was planning to make were congruent with the sorts of questions I could ask as a qualitative researcher.
Step 4: Establish Your Expertise
At some point in your introduction, it is crucial to point out the basis on which you are making your claims. For social scientists, this generally means your data, whether you completed statistical analysis of a national data set, qualitative interviews, ethnography, content analysis, or comparative historical work. You do not need to go into detail with regard to your methodology – that goes in the methods section. However, you should state the basis of your expertise at some point in your introduction. For folks in the humanities, make some mention of the texts, documents, music, or other media you have analyzed to show readers the basis upon which you are making your arguments.
Step 5: Define Your Terms
Your article likely deals with concepts with which the general public might not be familiar. The introduction is a good place to define these terms. In my paper on the transnational ties of Jamaican deportees, for example, it seemed pertinent to define both deportation and transnationalism.
As I was writing this blog post, I edited my introduction on the paper I am currently editing to ensure that I followed my own advice. I paste it below, not as an example of an ideal introduction, but as a demonstration of my attempt to follow my own advice.
Here it is:
TITLE: Forced Transnationalism: Transnational Coping Strategies And Gendered Stigma Among Jamaican Deportees
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) deported 387,242 people—thirteen times as many as in 1991. Deportation is the forced removal of a non-citizen from a host country to one’s country of citizenship, a form of state-sponsored forced migration. The high and increasing rate of deportation has important consequences for the study of migration; however, deportation has yet to receive the attention of migration scholars. With more than one thousand people deported every day from the United States, it is safe to say we are in an era of mass deportation. How do deportees fit into our understanding of migration? What sorts of ties do people legally barred from traveling to the United States maintain with that country? This article addresses these questions by asking how and why Jamaican deportees maintain transnational ties.
The question of why people engage in transnational exchanges is important because not all migrants participate in these exchanges. Transnational migrants are a subset of international migrants who retain significant ties to their country of origin while settling into the host country (Parreñas 2010; Wiles 2008). Guarnizo, Portes and Haller (2003), for example, found that only 10 to 15 percent of the Salvadoran and Dominican migrants in their survey regularly participated in transnational exchanges. The relative rarity of habitual transnationalism raises the question of why only some migrants use transnational strategies. Transnational practices refer to cross-border activities, and include activities that literally and symbolically cross national borders, meaning that migrants need not travel to participate in these practices (De Bree, Davids, and de Haas 2010). This is pertinent for deportees, whose international travel is often greatly restricted.
Analyses of the cross-border engagements of Jamaican deportees shed light on how the forced, shameful, and physically and emotionally stressful experience of deportation affects how and why deportees participate in transnational practices. My analyses of 37 interviews with Jamaican deportees render it evident that deportees use transnational practices as coping strategies to deal with financial and emotional hardship. This argument builds on research about the transnational material and affective ties of voluntary labor migrants. Other scholars have found that transnational ties provide female migrants with social connections and support networks (Domínguez and Lubitow 2008), emotional support (Viruell-Fuentes 2006), and affective connections (Burman 2002). Although the deportees I studied were primarily male not female, I found they also relied heavily on transnational material and affective ties. Scholars have found that return migrants use transnational strategies to gain social status (Goldring 1998) and to create a sense of belonging upon return home (De Bree, Davids, and de Haas 2010). The shame associated with deportation means that transnational ties do not bring social status to deportees. In addition, the notion of “home” is complicated for those deportees who have spent most of their lives in the United States.
Deportation creates economic hardship as well as a sense of alienation, shame and isolation. The shame of dependence is exacerbated by gendered expectations that men should be able not only to take care of themselves, but also to provide for others (Lewis 2007). Due to a gendered stigma of men unable to provide for themselves and their children and incapable of controlling their emotions, many deportees found their newfound material and emotional dependence to be shameful. Deportees face a paradoxical situation: they use transnational coping strategies to relieve their financial and emotional hardships. Because of gendered expectations of themselves and others, these same strategies remind them of their isolation and inability to provide for themselves, thereby reinforcing their sense of shame and isolation.