Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The First Three Paragraphs

It is difficult to overstate the importance of a good introduction. If your reader does not have a good sense of your argument by the end of the third paragraph (before reading the 600th word), there is something seriously wrong with your paper. Or, perhaps more tellingly, if you are unable to outline your argument straightforwardly and clearly in three paragraphs, you will be unable to write a good paper. When I talk about what a scholarly article is, I always use the opportunity to sketch "the ideal introduction". It consists of exactly three paragraphs and no more than six-hundred words.

The first paragraph tells us about the world we are living in. This should obviously be the world that your paper helps us to better understand. It's the world that needs to be understood in precisely the way you understand it. But in this paragraph we (your readers) don't want this understanding, we just want a recognizable description of the world we share with you. Talk to us like we only need to be reminded that this is where we live. It should be familiar to us and based on widely available sources. While you should avoid the letter of a statement like "We live in a world of ..." or "Ours is an age of ...", this is very much the spirit of the first paragraph. It's a time for commonplaces; it provides a shared place for you and your readers. In an important sense, you are here describing the practices that your paper is about. And these practices are interesting because there is some problem with them.

The second paragraph tells us about the science that studies this world. It summarizes the body of scholarship that has taken an interest in the problem that is described in the first paragraph. There are two good ways and one common but bad way to structure this paragraph. It can state either a constitutive consensus in the literature or a just as constitutive controversy. Scholarship will normally be characterized either by broad agreement about some issue (which your work will then challenge) or by a standing disagreement (where your paper will provide support to one side). Many papers these days begin by identifying a "gap" in the literature (which the paper then proposes to fill), but this is a false start. The gap is only interesting because what you have found there bears upon some interesting consensus or controversy. So you should fill in the gap in advance (i.e., in this second paragraph) with the theoretical assumptions that shape your readers' expectations of your subject matter. Indeed, if the first paragraph is about practice, this paragraph is about theory; the problem persists despite precisely this theory.

The third paragraph tells us about your paper. "In this paper, I show that..." is a nice, tight way to do this. Notice that supporting such a sentence requires you not to offer evidence but to outline your paper; it's a statement about your paper not about your object. So here you have to say something about, especially, your method (what have you done to put yourself in a position to know you are right). It should also briefly sketch the content of each section of the analysis (what have you discovered to support your conclusion) and leave us with a good sense of the implications of the paper as a whole (a paper will normally have a section for implications, so you may just summarize that section). The implications may be either theoretical or practical: you may show that practice ought to fall in line with a perfectly good theory, thus solving the problem by making the world a more "ideal" place, or that the theory has be adjusted to better capture the "real-world" practices, thus at least acknowledging the problem. Or you may argue for some combination of such implications.

These three paragraphs, finally, should each be organized around a claim that can be expressed in a single, declarative sentence. The rest of the paragraph merely supports that claim. Notice that the thesis of your paper is stated only within a larger claim about its being the thesis of your paper. And that claim has been nested in a claim about the world and a claim about the research that has already been done about that world. Since the world is construed in terms of some interesting problem, there should be no need for an explicit "statement of the problem". But if your editor (or teacher) insists, there's no harm in providing it.


Andrew Shields said...

I find the "signposting" of "In this paper, I show that ..." to be unnecessary, distracting, and often more an obstacle to good writing than anything else.

At least you provide a reason to use it: the emphasis is on the paper here, not the result.

But it's going to be hard to convince me that such a reference to the paper's "paper-ness" really contributes to the paper's effectiveness. In theory, perhaps, but in practice, it is at best merely unnecessary and at worst an excuse for writers to not fully think through what they are doing.

(It struck me that you don't signpost here ...)

Andrew Shields said...

I should add that that is my only problem with your point here: the introduction is essential to the effectiveness of a good paper!

Thomas said...

I use it as a way of shifting the (very bad) "This paper is about..." opener downwards, to the third paragraph. From here we could quibble about style. We might prefer "I will here show that..." (but I suppose some would also like to avoid the "hereness" of the paper.) Basically, I believe the first two paragraphs, if done properly, give you the right to talk about yourself, your argument, and your situation as a writer.

There should be a paragraph in the introduction that works through all the major components of the paper (theory, method, implications), and this paragraph gives you the opportunity.

In my opinion it's the first paragraph of the conclusion where the writer no longer has any excuses: here the argument must be presented in the simplest possible terms. I think the sentiment of "I've written this paper for you, dear reader, because I want to show you that..." remains entirely appropriate in the introduction.

It could be the only signpost in the paper. It's more of a map really, like the map you find at the trailhead.

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for the clarification.

There's also Jonathan's take:


As he puts it, state the argument without saying it is your argument.

But your point is subtly different.

Jonathan said...

Realistically, people do signpost despite our two-man campaign against it (Andrew and I). Having it once in the third paragraph is not the end of the world. I recently read a paper by a colleague, a 35-page paper that was still referring to "the essay that follows" on page 11.

Thomas said...

Your campaign, as I understand it, is grounded in the values of the classic style: "In classic style, the motive is truth, the purpose is presentation, the reader and writer are intellectual equals, and the occasion is informal". I agree with the first three stipulations, but I think distinctly academic writing (especially in organization studies) is best understood as a "formal" affair. That's probably why I explicitly suggest a little signposting.