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Academic Skills

Writing an Introduction

What should an introduction do?

Whatever you are writing—an essay, a report, an article, a thesis, a journal, a literature review, or any other piece of academic writing—the introduction will be the first thing the reader sees. If an introduction is poorly written or constructed, if it is boring, if it does not tell readers what they need to know, if it does not help readers to orient themselves to your paper—then you have lost your readers' goodwill right from the beginning, and can be sure of losing marks, no matter how well the rest of the assignment is constructed.

It’s essential, then, that you get the introduction right. This means that you must know what the introduction is supposed to do, what sorts of things must go into the introduction, how to write and structure the introduction properly, and how to interest your reader from the start.

An introduction should do the following:

  • alert a reader’s interest
  • indicate the scope and direction of the paper, and act as a navigation guide to its reading.
  • show the reader how you are interpreting and approaching the question
  • provide a context for the main issue
  • indicate the focus of the paper
  • indicate your conclusion and point of view

A typical introduction

Below is an introduction which would be suitable for a 1500-2000 word essay on intercultural communication. This introduction will be analysed to show its content and structure.

Question: Workplace diversity is now recognised as an important feature in organisations, especially in multicultural nations like Australia. What communication problems might arise in a culturally diverse workplace, and how can managers best deal with them?

Over the past twenty five years, since Australia embraced multiculturalism as a policy, issues of intercultural communication have become more and more prominent in the workplace. However, until relatively recently, little had been written on these issues, and even now, many organisational managers have no training or knowledge of how to deal with communication problems, even though most workplaces are staffed by people of diverse cultures. Particular problem areas include the difficulties that some non-English speakers have in understanding safety instructions (figures produced by the ABS in 1997 show that migrant workers have a higher incidence of accidents at the workplace); an ignorance of the different forms of non-verbal communication used by other cultures (for example it is considered impolite in some societies for an employee to look directly at his or her employer), which can lead to misunderstandings and unpleasantness; and the lack of knowledge about differing expectations. Based on interviews with managers and staff in six organisations (public and commercial), this report examines these three problem areas, and shows that many of the difficulties faced by both natives and migrants in the workforce are caused by a lack of awareness of, and training in, intercultural communication. (About 190 words)

The Content of an Introduction

Always remember this: in academic writing, nothing must come as a surprise to the reader. Academic writing is not like fiction writing, where the reader can be held in suspense, not knowing who committed the crime, or whether the girl will get the boy, or whether the story will end happily or tragically.

In academic writing, the whole ‘story’ is outlined in the introduction, and given in detail in the body.

Remember this too: in academic writing, everything must follow logically from a starting point. It is unlike fiction, where accidental happenings can change the direction of the story with unexpected twists and turns.

In academic writing, there can be no twists and turns; the logical direction of the argument is indicated in the introduction, and followed faithfully in the body.

Any introduction must contain the following:

  • Brief, relevant background information and/or other contextualising material
  • An essay map
  • A thesis statement
  • Your point of view

These are described below.

Brief, relevant background information

Providing background information or other contextualising material shows how your topic fits into a broader framework, and what approach you are taking. By doing this, you can point your readers in the direction you want them to go; you can also show them why the topic is significant.

‘Brief’ and ‘relevant’ are the important words. Don’t give your reader too much context— give just enough (often only a couple of sentences is ample for a 1500-2000 word assignment) to place the key issue of your assignment in its context.

In the introduction above, a brief background of the topic is provided in the first two sentences.

Over the past twenty five years, since Australia embraced multiculturalism as a policy, issues of intercultural communication have become more and more prominent in the workplace. However, until relatively recently, little had been written on these issues, and even now, many organisational managers have no training or knowledge of how to deal with communication problems, even though most workplaces are staffed by people of diverse cultures.

These two sentences briefly put the focus of the assignment within its historical context, and show the reader why there is a problem. It is not necessary to give more background information in the introduction to a short essay.

Essay map

The essay map gives the scope and direction of your paper. In one sense, the whole introduction is an essay map, since the introduction should serve as a guide to navigating the written assignment. However, it is also important to show what specific areas your writing will cover.

The example above continues:

Particular problem areas include the difficulties that some non-English speakers have in understanding safety instructions (figures produced by the ABS (1997) show that migrant workers have a higher incidence of accidents at the workplace); an ignorance of the different forms of non-verbal communication used by other cultures (for example it is considered impolite in some societies for an employee to look directly at his or her employer), which can lead to misunderstandings and unpleasantness; and the lack of knowledge about differing expectations.

In this way, the introduction has provided a map to the essay, since the essay is going to cover these topics in detail.

The thesis statement

The thesis statement is one sentence (or more if the assignment is long and complex) which explicitly states the focus and direction of the writing.

In a report, the thesis statement is often separated from the rest of the introduction under the heading Aim (or Purpose) of the Report.

It is usual to put the thesis statement at the end of the introduction, but it can sometimes be placed at the beginning. Don’t put it in the middle of the introduction.

The thesis statement often begins with expressions like: ‘This report examines... ’ ‘This essay will discuss...’ ‘This article demonstrates...’. We recommend that you adopt this strategy, especially if you are an inexperienced writer. That way, you won’t forget to put the thesis statement into your introduction, and your reader has a clear idea of what the focus will be.

The introduction example given above continues:

Based on interviews with managers and staff in six organisations (public and private), this report examines these three problem areas, and shows that many of the difficulties faced by both natives and migrants in the workforce are caused by a lack of awareness of, and training in, intercultural communication.

This sentence tells the reader exactly what to expect in the essay, as well as showing how you have gathered your information and what conclusion you will come to.

The structure of the introduction

It is a good idea to keep to a simple structure. An effective introduction is one that begins with a very general statement about the subject, then gradually narrows down to the specific thesis statement. The pattern is shown below:

  • General statement about the subject
  • Beginning to focus onto the topic
  • Becoming more specific
  • (Essay map)
  • Specific thesis statement

If you analyse your assignment question, you can use this as the basis of your introduction. Begin with the Subject words and write a sentence about the subject. Then take the Limiting words and add sentences incorporating these. Finally, write a thesis statement incorporating the Direction words.

Here is an analysis of the example given above:

Question: Workplace diversity is now recognised as an important feature in organisations, especially in multicultural nations like Australia. What communication problems might arise in a culturally diverse workplace, and how can managers best deal with them?
Subject Multiculturalism, Intercultural Communication, Cultural Diversity in the Workplace
Limiting Words Communication problems that may arise, and how they can be dealt with.
Direction Describe (What...?) and Explain (How...?)
1. Over the past twenty five years, since Australia embraced multiculturalism as a policy, issues of intercultural communication have become more and more prominent in the workplace. This is a fairly general statement bringing in the subject words 'multiculturalism', 'intercultural communication', and 'workplace'.
2. However, until relatively recently, little had been written on these issues, and even now, many organisational managers have no training or knowledge of how to deal with communication problems, even though most workplaces are staffed with people of diverse cultures. This sentence introduces the limiting words 'communication problems', 'dealing with communication problems'
3. Particular problem areas include the difficulties that some non-English speakers have in understanding safety instructions (figures produced by the ABS (1997) show that migrant workers have a higher incidence of accidents at the workplace); an ignorance of the different forms of non-verbal communication used by other cultures (for example it is considered impolite in some societies for an employee to look directly at his or her employer), which can lead to misunderstandings and unpleasantness; and the lack of knowledge about differing expectations.

This sentence is more specific about the limiting words 'What communication problems can arise?'.

4. Based on interviews with managers and staff in six organisations (public and private), this report examines these three problem areas, and shows that many of the difficulties faced by both natives and migrants in the workforce are caused by a lack of awareness of, and training in, intercultural communication. The thesis statement explicitly states the specific focus of the essay, giving the direction (treatment) that the topic will have.
Essay Map The Essay Map in this paragraph is mainly in Sentences 2 and 3, which give the reader a good idea of the scope of the essay.

Incorporating your point of view

You may find it very difficult to know what is meant by a ‘point of view’. As an undergraduate, you are new to the discipline, and you probably don’t know enough about the subject matter to have a point of view about it.

As well, it is also drummed into you that you should avoid personal comments such as ‘I think that such-and-such’ or ‘In my opinion, such-and-such’.

So what can ‘your point of view’ mean?

Generally speaking, in an undergraduate assignment, having a ‘point of view’ means coming to a particular conclusion rather than leaving the question up in the air. The conclusion need not be original.

In Example 1 above, the part of the thesis statement above that says:

...many of the difficulties faced by both natives and migrants in the workforce are caused by a lack of awareness of, and training in, intercultural communication...

counts as a point of view. It is an assertion; it shows that you have come to some conclusion as a result of your reading and thinking.

Making the introduction interesting

The introduction is the first thing your reader will read. If it is dry and dull, your reader is not likely to want to go on reading it. Your lecturer or tutor has no choice over the matter; but he/she will not take kindly to being bored from the outset.

You can add interest to the introduction by:

  • giving one or two examples of the kind of thing you are going to write about
  • giving unusual or colourful details
  • beginning with a relevant quotation (from anywhere except a dry textbook)
  • beginning with a question (which can be answered in the essay's conclusion)
  • making sure your grammar and word use are absolutely right

How long should the introduction be?

A useful rule of thumb is: an introduction should be no shorter than one-twelfth and no longer than one-tenth of the total assignment. Thus a 2000-word essay would have an introduction somewhere between 160 and 200 words; a 3500-word report between 290 and 350 words.

Remember that this is only a rule of thumb. There is no absolute rule about length. Just be sensible about it.