Classically Inclined

June 1, 2011

How to write a thesis introduction

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:15 am
Tags: , , ,

One of the things I found hardest when writing my thesis was getting the introduction sorted. By the time I came to write it, I had an outline that I had sketched in my rolling synopsis many many moons earlier, and random ideas that I’d been keeping in a document imaginatively titled ‘things to put in an introductory chapter’ for the last couple of months. Suddenly I found myself faced with the task of making a plan that actually reflected what I wanted to put into an introduction, and writing the thing.

To get my brain in gear, I thought I’d have a think about what the purpose of an introduction is, and how it should work in the first place, and it is those thoughts that I want to share with you now. I should note that this records my own thought process within my field of Classics, so I’d be delighted to hear about any significant differences in your discipline that might change how you would approach this task.

Well, taking the philological turn, an introduction should introduce. It needs to explain what’s coming, and what the reader can expect. Similarly, it needs to explain why the work that’s been done has been worth doing, and what new contribution to knowledge this thesis/book is going to make. What does the reader get out of reading it?

(When this part is done badly, you get an incredibly dull review of the previous literature. Not that the literature review is a bad thing to do, but the more I read, the more obvious it becomes that literature reviews in the humanities are fundamentally padding rather than useful argumentation, designed to let thesis candidates show they know the literature of the area rather than display their own ideas. This is probably a flaw of the thesis genre as a whole, but I wanted to avoid that trap if at all possible.)

It should also serve as an orientation for what is to come, so the reader knows what to expect. I think that goes in two directions. The first is providing key concepts, defining terms, explaining basic theory; for instance, here was where the potted history of Stoicism needed to turn up (because, yes, there did need to be a potted history of Stoicism for readers not familiar with it so that the subsequent chapters would be accessible), along with the potted history of who Seneca was and why he matters. It’s repetitive and dull for anyone reading around the relevant literature, but for someone coming to it from a history-of-the-family angle or anything not grounded in either Senecan or Stoic scholarship, it’s going to be an invaluable aid. This is also the place to explain your limitations, which for me was to be very clear why my thesis just looked at Seneca’s prose and why I don’t talk about any of his plays. (Yet.)

The second direction involves highlighting key themes and ideas that unite the chapters as a whole; the introduction should flag up the Important Ideas in a general form so that the reader has a vague idea of the shape that the chapters are going to take. It’s drawing together the macro implications of the micro themes that the chapters explore. This may mean that after you’ve written the introduction you have to go back to the chapters and revise some of those new ideas in, but that’s alright; especially in the case of the earlier chapters, that’s going to be a useful form of unification.

The very final part of the introduction is the road map – here is a list of the chapters with a paragraph summary of what you will find in each. I think most good books I’ve read have had the helpful chapter-paragraph summary as the most useful reader guidance tool in their kitbox, so I’m going to want to have one as well. But that comes last.

Another way to think about what you need to cover in your introduction is to consider your scope, your aims and your methodology. That sounds a bit scary, but can be broken down into simple questions – what are you talking about? What were you trying to find out? How were you trying to find it out? Once I’d written my introduction, I went back and made sure I had answered those questions to the best of my ability, rather than trying to write to answer them in the first place, which seemed the more helpful way of going about it. I should also note that methodology is a word that tends to put my nerves on edges, because I am a text-based analysis person. My methodology – I look at texts, I analyse, what more do you want? Obviously methodology is more important in fields where the ways of doing things are less fixed, even in classics, but it’s still important to talk about how you did the research you are going to tell people about, and what your guiding principles are.

To sum up – introductions lay the ground, highlight the important ideas, argue the case for the importance of the work, lay out the stall, sell the product. They also, as subtly as possible, make it clear what a work is not going to offer – but an introduction is not apologetic or flimsy. That said, neither is it overbearing and arrogant, convinced it’s introducing the most important piece of writing on the topic ever written. It makes a calm, considered case for the value of what the reader is about to read, and should whet said reader’s appetite to find out more about the details of this Important Idea. An introduction should be an invitation, like an appetizer that makes you want to see what else the chef can do.

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29 Comments »

  1. Thanks you so much. your article is helpful

    Comment by kokoro — April 17, 2012 @ 4:25 pm | Reply

  2. I’m pulling together all my various “To go in introduction” documents. I hit a bit of a block, googled and found this page. It’s super helpful, thank you!

    Comment by Mary — May 19, 2012 @ 2:34 pm | Reply

  3. thank you.. it helps me a lot.. :))

    Comment by lovejoy — July 15, 2012 @ 9:07 am | Reply

  4. Great article! Great help to me! Just wondering, what’s the difference between an introduction and background to the study. Which one represents the whole structure of ‘chapter one’ and which one represents the ‘beginning of chapter one’ I will be grateful for any help you can give.

    Comment by Michael — July 19, 2012 @ 11:57 pm | Reply

    • Interesting question! First of all, I’d separate out ‘chapter one’ from the introduction. The introduction is where you do all the groundwork that lets you get on with your argument. In some fields, ‘chapter one’ is actually a literature review – that is, you go through all the material published on your subject and outline the state of play. This will depend on your discipline, and it’s best to check with your supervisor what the expectations are in your field. To my mind, the introduction is about laying out the foundations on which you will start building your argument in chapter one, so it should include some broad background to the study, but shouldn’t try to make minute points about previous scholarship which would be better addressed in the relevant chapters as you construct your argument.

      Comment by lizgloyn — July 20, 2012 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

      • Thanks so much!

        Comment by Michael — July 27, 2012 @ 9:19 am | Reply

  5. Thanks – this was helpful!

    Comment by Adelle — September 2, 2012 @ 2:25 am | Reply

  6. Thank you so much for such a precise guideline.

    Comment by Tanmayee — November 29, 2012 @ 4:10 pm | Reply

  7. Thank you so much. it is very clear

    Comment by arul — January 25, 2013 @ 1:17 am | Reply

  8. Thank you for this information, It could help a lot to me while I’m doing my report in Masteral Degree at Western Colleges @ Naic, Cavite in my subject about Methods of Research under Dr. Abner V. Pineda our professor in this subject

    Comment by Harvy L. Ilog — January 28, 2013 @ 11:54 am | Reply

  9. thank you very much!!!!

    Comment by azeb — February 11, 2013 @ 10:35 pm | Reply

  10. i found this helpful a lot
    thanks

    Comment by mushiana khano — March 21, 2013 @ 9:40 am | Reply

  11. I like the way you explain :)

    Comment by Marta — April 6, 2013 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

  12. thank you

    Comment by Major Mashayamhara — April 9, 2013 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

  13. May I know what is the difference between abstract, introduction and literature review? I am confused and might mix up everything. Btw, nice explaination. :D

    Comment by nurul — June 10, 2013 @ 4:01 am | Reply

    • ABSTRACT is the resume, the summary made of a few lines that appears before the introduction.

      Comment by coco — June 20, 2013 @ 8:34 pm | Reply

  14. I am trying to write my introduction (it should be 3 pages) for my Masters Degree thesis, but I find it so hard to start.
    Anyway, thank you for the article…its useful

    Comment by coco — June 20, 2013 @ 8:37 pm | Reply

  15. tnx i have an idea for my thesis writing

    Comment by efren dazo — June 27, 2013 @ 5:52 am | Reply

  16. It’s an awesome post for all the web users; they will get benefit from it I am sure.

    Comment by Shannon & Elm — July 31, 2013 @ 1:36 am | Reply

  17. This was really great. Very helpful guidelines- I am currently writing the introduction to my MA thesis.
    I also find that it is helpful at the start of any thesis to keep a piece of paper of things to include in the introduction. I find that thoughts and ideas were always cropping up. I always jotted these down on that piece of paper. By the time you come to writing your intro, you had a sheet full of great thoughts :)

    Comment by Kay — September 28, 2013 @ 4:50 pm | Reply

  18. you have filled in spaces I thought I would not and it just a milestone to write. thanks for the article .sishemo

    Comment by Patrick mwanaumo — October 23, 2013 @ 6:21 am | Reply

  19. thanks a lot for your article it helps me so much :)

    Comment by nicah joo — November 3, 2013 @ 3:22 am | Reply

  20. thank you ((:

    Comment by camille — November 26, 2013 @ 1:51 pm | Reply

  21. holy molly f***ing molly it helps me a lot thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Comment by dr. Des Von Harker — February 9, 2014 @ 9:49 am | Reply

  22. Thank you, are you a professor really or someone just is so smast T.Y

    Comment by Anton Schabblertom — February 9, 2014 @ 9:51 am | Reply

  23. It helps me alot. Thank you. :)

    Comment by April — February 21, 2014 @ 3:18 pm | Reply

  24. it’s very helpful and interesting to me

    Comment by omar gassama — March 7, 2014 @ 6:35 pm | Reply

  25. good help…

    Comment by mery jhedeth — March 8, 2014 @ 8:48 am | Reply

  26. thank you so much..

    Comment by jeu — June 17, 2014 @ 3:03 am | Reply


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