Introductions are tricky bastards. In fact, I would place them just behind the literature review in terms of difficulty among thesis or dissertation chapters. What the introduction has going for it that the lit review doesn’t is the home court advantage: you have doubtless read and even written introductions before you sit down to write the introductory chapter for your thesis or dissertation. So there’s a good chance that you have absorbed at least some of the conventions of the introduction.
That said, the introductory chapter for a thesis or dissertation is different from the introductory paragraph or pages you have probably written for university papers. And therein lies the heart of the challenge with the introductory chapter: scale.
The introductory chapter has to say enough to set up the context and give the background, justify the need for the work, articulate the question(s), outline the methods, take a stab at the conclusions, and tell us how the work will be organized. But if it strays into actually doing the work or giving too much background, it can quickly take us out of introductory mode and into the body of the project. The introduction needs to say just enough and no more. But how much is too much? I find this hard to describe but easy to identify when reading an intro chapter.
One way I like to describe the introduction is to use the analogy of film focal length. The intro needs to start with an “establishing shot” that gives the lay of the land and tells us, essentially, what universe we’re in. It then needs to zoom in a bit to the specific scene or set where we meet the major players and find out something about the plot. We then zoom in further and learn what the specific conflict or question will be. Then we zoom back out to medium range where we continue to gather information about this project.
Here is a rough sketch:
I realize that this is a loose analogy. It might also be useful to point out the different rhetorical modes that we use in the introduction:
- Responsible generalization or overview (hopefully backed up by citations)
- Inquiry (as expressed in the research questions)
- Description (often of the methods)
- Meta-narrative (it’s often good to give an “advanced organizer” or “previews of coming attractions” that lets the reader know what to expect in each chapter)
The one good thing about introductions is that they are scalable. You can expand them from a paragraph to a chapter while still keeping many of the same elements in place.
Here is an exercise that will help you sketch out the core elements that go into your introduction. Once you have completed this exercise you will have a one-paragraph framework that you can scale up. This exercise comes with a peer review worksheet you can hand to a friend to make sure that your skeleton introduction contains everything your reader needs to know to understand your project.