Step 8: Research Paper Introduction
A good research paper always begins with a strong introduction. The introduction's purpose is to present your essay's topic to the reader, and a good introduction does so while capturing the reader's attention, showcasing a clear thesis, and summarizing the information that will be explained further in the paper. Research papers also frequently employ the use of an abstract, which gives readers further information on the entirety of your paper, along with brief explanations of your approach and results. Kicking your research paper off with an informative abstract and attention-grabbing introduction is essential to the ultimate success of your paper. When you start off with a powerful introduction, your reader is engaged in the topic from the beginning, making their experience more enjoyable along with lending you more credibility as a writer. As you begin the writing process, set a high standard that you can continually meet in the rest of your paper, and you'll be well on your way to obtaining both good grades and the respect of your professor and peers.
The Building Blocks of a Great Introduction
In general, an introduction should be comprised of a few key pieces, no matter what: an attention-grabbing statement, a summarization of both the background information guiding your topic along with the information you will present in your body paragraphs, and your thesis. The introduction is not a time to get flowery, speculative, or obtuse; it's often best to stick to using these basic building blocks and leave the pontificating and explanation to your body paragraphs, where it is more appropriate. Above all, don't let your introduction stretch any longer than one double-spaced page, no matter how long the rest of your paper is. Any longer and you run the risk of losing the reader's attention early on.
A few methods can be used to effectively grab your readers' attention:
Basic Approach to an Introduction
1. Begin with a thought-provoking question in order to give your reader pause and make them begin to care about the subject you're going to present by forcing them to consider what their own thoughts on that topic are, and how they relate to your opening question.
2. Start with a quotation directly relating to the topic of your research. This doesn't necessarily have to be a quote sourced from any of the supporting information you've uncovered in your research, but it should be relevant. If you follow this method, it's often helpful to get a quote from a notable figure, especially one who is in the field of study you are tackling with your paper.
3. Open up your paper with a surprising statistic. This is a simple method to hook the reader right from the start, since you're startling them from the get-go with provocative information, piquing their curiosity about what other compelling thoughts and ideas you'll be expressing in your paper.
4. Use an anecdote to start your introduction. Since there will likely be a fair amount of discussion of data, explanation of research methods, and other less-than-exciting portions of your paper where there's a lot of "telling" rather than "showing", it can be helpful to begin on a more anecdotal note than you'll be striking in the rest of your essay. Tell the reader a story that can be tied in to the topic you're covering - it doesn't have to be personal, but it does need to mesh well with whatever other information you're bringing into the paper later on.
The summarizing of your paper's information up front is also crucial, since it gives the reader an idea of what to expect as they traverse your paper. Don't go into too much detail - it's not needed here - but provide enough of the particulars of what you'll be exploring that the reader has a basic grasp of what's coming in your body paragraphs. Make a concerted effort to trim the fat as you write and rewrite your introduction.
Your thesis statement is the most important piece of the introductory paragraph. The thesis is the linchpin of your research, the catalyst for why you wrote this paper in the first place (aside from the fact that it was assigned to you), and the driving force behind the research you previously conducted and are now explaining to the reader. A strong thesis clearly and succinctly addresses each point you'll be covering, and should be no more than one sentence long so your reader is not confused about where your thesis begins and ends.
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Starting Off with the Right Tone
There are two distinct types of research papers: argumentative and analytical. While both of these require similar dedication to finding quality research, they also require different tactics in the introduction.
Argumentative research papers are written primarily to persuade the reader that whatever idea the writer is presenting in their work is the correct idea. In the introduction for an argumentative research paper, you should clearly state your topic and, in your thesis, directly address the stance you are taking in regards to the topic you've chosen. Choose a topic that is modern, contentious, and worthy of debate. For instance, if your essay is going to cover the Occupy movement, then your thesis could clearly demonstrate why you think the movement was effective in helping promote greater accountability in the financial sector, or why you think the movement was culturally important but ineffective at helping foster lasting change, or why you think the movement was completely worthless and showcased how true activism is being replaced by slacktivism and the expectation that social media automatically propels change. You must make a strong point and stick with it throughout the essay, backing it up with whatever research you've conducted to prove your point.
Tip: It is a good idea to bring up reasonable counterarguments in your discussion, and refute them. Most readers typically think of counterarguments as they read a paper, and countering the strongest ones preemptively makes your argument that much more impressive.
Analytical research papers are designed to offer critical interpretations of scholarly topics, with probing questions and plenty of evaluation being commonplace. When writing your introduction in an analytical research paper, it's not uncommon to find yourself beginning by asking a question with no clear answer, which is exactly why you're spending the next however many pages conducting analysis of that question. Your thesis should still reach a definitive conclusion, but the goal here is not to persuade the reader, even if your topic is debatable. Rather, you are simply expressing why you believe the viewpoint you're choosing to discuss is a worthy interpretation of your topic. The thesis of an analytical research paper does not necessarily have to be set in stone before you conduct research, either. In all likelihood, it will evolve as you discover new sources that either promote or detract from the specific point you're trying to make about the topic. With no preconceived notions about the subject of your research, your thesis is free to fit whatever your digging turns up.
An abstract, while similar to your introduction, has to do a different kind of summarization and explanation. Whereas your introductory paragraph is designed to give the base information needed to entice your readers to continue reading, an abstract must be an effective summary of your entire research paper, covering all of the sections - typically purpose, approach, methods, results, conclusion, recommendations - that your paper contains, while also being short enough to be read and understood at a glance. Abstracts are typically a paragraph to a page long, and generally should be no longer than ten percent of the final report. This means that succinctness and knowing how to quickly address the relevant points are essential to writing a strong abstract. The abstract should also follow your paper's chronology, so readers are not confused about how your work is structured.
Tip: Imagine a terrible disaster occurred and your entire paper was lost, save for the abstract. This section alone should be enough to inform the reader of your argument, evidence, and conclusions.
Begin by explaining the topic of your paper, along with the motivation for why you're conducting this research. What is the purpose behind this essay? What are you trying to answer, ascertain, or argue? From there, transition into providing some brief background on how you actually conducted the research that comprises the bulk of your paper's support. Address the reasoning behind the approach you took, and summarize the methods you used to conduct the research present in your final paper. Next, briefly address the results of your research. In base terms, what conclusions did you come to over the course of your research? What was discovered? Did you encounter any problems or outliers? You don't need to explain any hiccups just yet, but they should be addressed for the reader's sake. Finally, end with a recap of your ultimate conclusion, along with any recommendations you may have for those who are looking to continue researching similar topics to what you've covered in your work.
After you've written the first draft of your abstract, you should always go over it a few times to make sure that it is as airtight and compact as it can be. Don't include any information that is not absolutely essential to the summary. Don't add any new information, either - this is strictly a summary, not a time for you to add more commentary to your work. Furthermore, make sure that your abstract is also easy to read and doesn't contain too much jargon or lingo. Your abstract should be accessible to a wide audience, so don't put in information that could potentially alienate readers. Finally, make sure that your writing sounds assured and does not contain too many instances of words like may, could, should, or seems. These "weasel words" discredit your own work just by their inclusion in your abstract, so avoid them at all costs if you want to sound like you know exactly what you're talking about.