Learn what NOT to do (and what to do instead) when writing the introduction to your paper or grant proposal.
Compared to sections in a paper such as the discussion, the introduction may not seem like the hardest one to write. However, only few authors master the skill of writing great introductions to their study.
The main function of an introduction section is to contextualise your study. Meanwhile, it isn’t a review of the literature in your field (see mistake # 2 to find out what the difference is). We can understand how to best contextualise a study by looking at a paper in terms of a story. The introduction serves to set the scene: it presents the setting, the main characters and the tension.
And the introduction holds another function: advertisement. You want to convince your reader (editor/peer-reviewer) that the topic you decided to study is an important one.
Frequently, I see authors not doing either of these things. Here are seven mistakes I find authors make when writing their introduction:
1. They don’t describe the problem
This is a big one. I’ve read countless articles with introductions that only told me stuff that is already known. No mention of a problem that needs solving - in other words, the research question underlying your study. This can be a debate in literature, a gap in the knowledge about a topic, a contradiction in literature, a disagreement between different scientific groups, a claim that is only weakly evidenced…
Identifying and describing the problem you are solving in your study corresponds to the essential story element of tension. Find out more about why tension is essential in any story.
The introduction is the place where you can put your problem in the spotlight. The introduction, in fact, is the scene for your problem. Use that space. Convince your editor, peer-reviewers and readers that your study is needed and important because of the existing problem. This will make your paper stronger.
2. Their introduction is too long
Often, authors write introductions that are simply too long. Sometimes journals specify how long an introduction should be. Science, for example, doesn’t want you to write more than one or two paragraphs in a Research Article. And they don’t mean those paragraphs that fill a whole page.
A common mistake is that authors are aiming to present a full review of the literature in their field. However, the goal isn’t to present all studies that are ever so slightly related to your research. What is necessary instead is to mention those aspects that are needed to contextualise the problem that your study is solving (see mistake # 1). And ONLY those aspects. I recommend this blog post for a guide on deciding who to cite and how to cite in the best way.
One tip I often give my clients is to go through every sentence in their introduction and analyse whether the reader would still get the whole story of the paper if they deleted the sentence. If that’s the case, you can probably delete it or rewrite it so that only the most essential things are left. Find lots more tips if you want to cut your word count in this post.
3. Their paragraphs are too long
Not only the whole introduction section is frequently too long, also the paragraphs within often are. I know this may come as a surprise to some academics but I’m gonna say it: It’s okay to write short paragraphs. You’re not presenting less valuable information by doing so. In fact, 100-200 words is the optimal paragraph length for a scientific article. Nobody likes to read big walls of text (check your own reading behaviour if you don’t believe me). Short paragraphs also help people to skim read. And it ultimately helps you, the author, too. Writing an introduction with short paragraphs likely means that you need to plan your introduction in advance. By doing this, you’ll achieve good flow in your manuscript (see mistake #6). If you want more tips on writing great paragraphs, check out this recent blog post. PS: This paragraph is 146 words long.
4. Their sentences are too long
Yes, sorry, the sentences too. You might aim to sound fancy in your scientific writing. Or perhaps you found it too difficult to split up a sentence while maintaining flow in the paragraph. Writing shorter instead of longer sentences is harder than it looks, and so is writing well. Writing well means that your reader quickly understands exactly what you wanted to say. Good writing, therefore, is simple and clear.
Practice will get you there. I always give my clients a rule of thumb: Never write more than one main and one subclause. A subclause is the part of a sentence that begins with “that”, “which”, “although”, “because” and similar words.
There’s a little trick that sometimes works to break up sentences: To break off a subclause starting with “because”, you can do easily by using transitions such as “This is owing to” at the start of the new sentence. A subclause starting with “which” can become a new sentence by using “This” or “These”. It’s okay to cheat sometimes 😉
5. The first sentence is boring
The first sentence in any paragraph is a powerful position but the first sentence of the whole paper is even more so. Therefore, it would be a shame to throw away this chance. There is an art to writing first sentences. The first sentence in your introduction needs to capture your readers and give them a general idea about what your study is about. This means, it needs to be tailored to the readership of the journal you are submitting your paper to. For Nature or Science, you will need a very general first sentence that covers a bigger part of the research area. For more specialist journals, you can start a little deeper in the matter. And the really perfect first sentence already signals why the reader needs to care about the field and hint at the general problem.
6. There’s no flow
A huge part of writing well lies in creating flow. Flow means that the reader can easily follow from one sentence to the next one without getting stuck. This gives you an advantage because you reader will be less likely to stop reading what you wrote. Once they stop (even if just to think about what exactly a word meant that you wrote), they can get easily distracted and might not pick up your paper again. An editor might simply dismiss your paper because they didn’t understand what you were getting at. Therefore, I strongly recommend creating flow between your sentences and paragraphs. In fact, I think it’s a good idea to map out the introduction before writing it. I teach the whole process in my strategy sessions – get in touch to get one-on-one help.
7. they use too many synonyms
When we write we often feel an urge to throw in as many synonyms as possible because we fear that the reader might get bored. The opposite is the case. Readers get bored when they don’t understand what’s going on and their minds starts to wander (see mistake #6). When you are deeply involved in your research you might not even realise that other people might fail to understand what is – to you – the most obvious synonym.
Think about how much your reader has to process while reading your manuscript. The area might be new to them, or the methods, or your model system – or all those things. (This is likely the case for your Nature or Science editor who receives manuscripts from a broad scientific spectrum.) They might never realise that your fancy abbreviation and what you call “the model system” are the same thing and reject your article straight away because what you studied wasn’t clear to them. If you are curious about some examples, click here for a blog post with more detailed language tips.
There you have it. Did you learn anything new? Are you guilty of any of these mistakes? Let me know in the comments below! :-)
Do you need help to get your paper in shape for publication in a high-impact journal? I can help you to craft a story for your paper and make your writing clearer and more concise, and I'd love to work with you! We can work together in the following ways:
I can edit your paper (for authors working on a topic within Chemistry-related fields)
I can give you advice on your paper in a strategy session
I can teach you and your peers how to write high-impact papers in a workshop.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I’m Anna Clemens, a scientific editor and writing coach for scientists. I give workshops about scientific writing, offer strategy calls and edit papers and proposals. I’d love to work with you, please click here for more information.
I also regularly blog about scientific writing and write articles about science for magazines and websites. I hold a PhD in Chemistry/Materials Science.
When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably out and about with my dog and assistant Zuza.