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Writing your introduction

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We all need to start somewhere...

We know that every paper starts with an introduction. In fact, every paper starts with an abstract and then an introduction. But when you are in the process of writing a paper, starting with the introduction is probably the worst thing you can do.

In Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland the King gives this advice to the White Rabbit:

“Begin at the beginning, … and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

That’s great advice for when you’re reading, but horrible advice for writing.

The best place to start when writing is with the results. Write up what you you did, what you want people to know about your work. Results and discussion are often treated together but if they are not, write the results first, then the discussion about the results. Then head back to the methods section and put into the paper what you actually did in the lab. Then the conclusion – what do you want people to remember most about your work? What is the take home message?

Then, after all that, it is time for the introduction.

The introduction gives the background for the story you want to tell. It tells people what has already been done in the field. It tells people why your work is important – what gap you will fill, what you will add to the body of knowledge.

To write this you will need some understanding of what other people have done in the area before you. But you probably have that understanding, at least a little, already. I hope that on your way through your research you read a few papers that other people had written on the subject. 

So go ahead and write a few ideas down. Don’t worry about finding references at this point. Don’t even worry about whether your memory of what others have done is 100% correct. Just write something.

Make sure what you are putting in the paper is relevant to what you have in the results and discussion. This is why it is better to write the results first. You know a whole lot about many things related to your research but people only want to know (in this paper) the background that helps your particular research for this paper make sense. Some information is just not necessary.

If you are worried that you’ve gone off track, head to your conclusion and see if the information you have written relates to the information in the conclusion. If it does, you’re good. If it doesn’t, then it probably doesn’t need to be in the introduction.

And then, once you’ve written the rough draft of the introduction, find all those papers that contain the information that you have written about. Make sure every statement of fact is backed up with a paper from someone else, or you can cite your own published work. That’s perfectly acceptable too.

And after all that, it will be time to write the abstract.

Then you will have a solid paper to give to your supervisor, or to sent to me at fixmyenglish.com.au for editing.

Ruth Amos