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.
Edit, April 24th 2016: I have now written a companion post on how to write a thesis conclusion which you may also find helpful.