writing the introduction
Adam Grant and Tim Pollock, two very prolific senior editors at the Academy of Management Journal, tell us how to write a compelling introduction to a scholarly article.
We only get one chance to make a first impression, and in academic publishing the introduction to your submission or your article is that chance. A good introduction hooks the reader by elucidating the topic’s impact; what scholars now know, what we do not know, and why that matters; and how the research contributes to an ongoing research conversation or starts a new conversation.
They interviewed 16 past winners of AMJ’s best article award about the process of writing introductions. Here are some of the key findings from their interviews:
At what point in the drafting process did they write their introductions? Nine percent wrote it when they first developed the idea; 23 percent wrote it at the very beginning of the drafting process; 9 percent wrote it at the very end of the process; and 59 percent wrote it somewhere in the middle of the process, often times jotting notes when they first developed the idea and/or before data collection and analysis were finished….The average award winner estimated spending 24 percent of the total writing time on the introduction.
As noted earlier, the average winner reported rewriting the introduction ten times. The minimum was three, and 45 percent reported rewriting it ten or more times.
For further insights, we asked the Best Article Award winners for their advice on how to write a great introduction. A content analysis revealed three primary categories: focusing (45%), engaging the reader (32%), and problematizing the literature (23%).
I usually give my PhD students the advice that they should write the introduction as if they are laying out a puzzle that needs to be solved (see also Ezra Zuckerman’s helpful advice about this point). Dave Whetten once told me that I ought to write the introduction as if I were speaking to just two or three people whom I’d like to convince of something. Picking those two or three people helps focus your argument. Lately I’ve found it useful when starting a new paper to write the first draft in a loose, conversational manner, ignoring academic conventions and just getting the core of the argument out there. I’ve found this helps me overcome the initial writer’s block I always face whenever starting a new project. I think it also clarifies my thinking. Rather than getting bogged down in a lengthy (and boring) literature review, writing in a more conversational tone focuses my writing on what I really want to say in the paper.