Writing Introductions


Hochschild JL. Writing Introductions. In: APSA Guide to Publishing. edited by Stephen Yoder. Washington D.C. : American Political Science Association ; 2008. pp. 93-100.

Full Text

Writing Introductions

“The beginning is half the whole.”
“Well begun, half done.”
my grandmother

Every book, article, or journal issue has only one first sentence and
paragraph. So it is essential to get them right (which often implies
that the first sentence is written many times, most crucially after the
rest of the document is finished). Getting them right means several
things—writing in a style that will motivate your reader to move to
the next sentence and paragraph, making a clear and important point
immediately, articulating a distinctive position, and conveying the genre
in which you will be writing (fiction? ruminative essay? cut-and-dried
social science?). Hard as it is to do all of those things well in the first
paragraph, it is possible since they are not separate tasks. One can write
engagingly in a particular genre while articulating a distinctive position
on an important point.1
The rest of the introduction should build on and elaborate the
central point of the first paragraph. That is presumably true for any
piece of (linear) writing, but an introduction to a social science document
has, in my view, a rather distinctive flavor. It is a more personal, direct
invitation to the reader to come at least partway behind the veil of
ignorance than is available at any other point in the document. This is
the section of the article, book, or journal in which the language can be
relatively informal, and in which the writer can display aspects of her
personality or even reveal relevant bits of information about his private
life. It is also the section in which the writer more or less directly tells the
reader what motivates the project, that is, what matters enough so that the
writer was willing to make all of the effort that we know to be essential
for completing a good document. Basically, the goal of the introduction
as a whole is the same as the goal of the first sentence and paragraph—to
induce readers to keep reading and thereby to teach or persuade them of
something that they previously did not know or agree with.
An analogy might be useful here. I think of an introduction as
rather like a good cover letter that is part of a package of materials sent
by a job applicant to a departmental search committee. The package
will contain book chapters or articles, syllabi, and other evidence of the
content and quality of scholarship and teaching. It will also contain a
curriculum vitae, designed to convey the candidate’s academic history
as succinctly and objectively as possible. Finally, it will include a cover
letter which, in my view, is the candidate’s chance to show what really
motivates and ties together the items on the vitae or in the writing and
teaching materials. As a wise friend once counseled me, “Remember that
you are hiring a person, not a set of articles or teaching record.” The
cover letter can demonstrate how the person thinks and why she cares
and you should care about a particular subject, ideally in a way that will
convince a search committee that this is someone who would greatly
enhance the department.
I find that analogy helpful, but it still does not directly explain how
to write an introduction that draws readers in, focuses their attention,
and articulates a distinctive position on an important subject. There
are no cut-and-dried rules, of course; otherwise I would not have been
asked to write this essay. Nevertheless, a few precepts emerge from my
starting point.

First, the introduction should, in the words of the classic cliché,
focus on the forest and not on the trees. That is probably the best way
to entice readers and direct their attention the right way. Thus for a
book, a detailed outline of each chapter, the methods, or the underlying
epistemology are not appropriate. Each of those elements should be
edited down to a few sentences; the reader needs a quick architectural
tour of the entire project, not a summary of each chapter or an abstract
justification of the enterprise. In parallel fashion, for an empirical
article eschew a summary of the findings table by table in favor of a
few sentences indicating the most crucial or surprising or interesting
pattern of results. For a philosophical or analytic article, a summary
of the logical or normative stances that led to the conclusion should be
edited down to a statement of the conclusion itself, perhaps with notice
of a few key landmarks along the way. Finally, for a journal issue or
symposium, the introduction should identify (or invent, as the case may
be) a few central themes that tie the whole set of articles together and
that reveal something important about each.
To put the same point a different way, the introduction should bear
a closer resemblance to the conclusion (not to a summary) than to any
section of the intervening chapters of the book, sections of the article,
or elements of the symposium. The point is not to summarize all the
steps or all the underpinnings; it is to explicate the central message of
the document, with just enough hints of how the author reached that
message to assure readers that you are a reliable source of further
In my experience as a journal editor,2 this advice about “focus on
the forest and not on the trees” requires different modifications of the
usual style in different subfields of political science. Political theorists
typically frame their papers in one way, and scholars of international
relations in another. Like all generalizations, this one has important
exceptions but even if my claim that these styles are characteristic of
certain subfields is exaggerated, the styles themselves should sound
familiar—and my suggestions with regard to revision of each will, I
hope, be helpful.3

To begin with, papers submitted to Perspectives on Politics in the
subfield of security studies were almost always structured around several
dominant paradigms.4 The modal manuscript started by outlining
three standard theories: realism, liberalism, constructivism (sometimes
subdivided into realism and neo-realism, liberalism and neo-liberalism,
and so on). The next paragraph then diverged slightly—some authors
claimed that they would show how to combine these apparently different
theories to prove X; others promised to show that one theory is right
and the other two wrong, as evidenced by an explanation of X; a few
argued that none of the three quite suffices to explain X, so he or she
would provide a new theory (or more frequently, a variant of one of the
old ones). Our advice, as editors of Perspectives,5 usually ran along what
became a well-worn track: begin the introduction with your own central
point, minimize the literature review (or move it to much later in the
article if it seems essential), tell us early on why we should care about
your concern, and then tell us what kind of evidence you will use. Only
after the introduction, if then, should the three dominant paradigms be
wheeled into action.
The modal political theory manuscript sent to Perspectives on Politics
had a very different feel.6 The modal first paragraph focused on one or
several persons rather than one or several paradigms, and it frequently
included dates: “Machiavelli’s theory of X, in The Prince, 1513, states
such-and-such, but Locke’s theory of X in Two Treatises of Government,
1689, states so-and-so.” (Theorists will note the implausibility of this
comparison.) A contemporary political theorist’s last name was the
first word in early (and later) paragraphs of an astonishing number of
papers ; the paragraph then summarized what that theorist has written
about Machiavelli or Locke, or what that theorist has written about
another theorist’s view of Machiavelli or Locke: “Smith argues that
Machiavelli believes XX. Smith disagrees with Jones who argues that
Machiavelli believes YY.” And so on, through many Smith’s and Jones’s.
Our editorial advice for revision? First, we had something close to a
rule that Perspectives would not publish any theory article with a name
and a date in the title—it is completely unappealing to non-theorists.

Second, we urged authors to rewrite the manuscript so that the whole
article as well as each paragraph started with an idea—preferably the
author’s own—and not with proper nouns. We urged authors to try
writing at least the introduction (and preferably the whole paper) from
the assumption that readers care about the arguments but are indifferent
to which contemporary scholar is making them; names matter only after
the central claim, its key supporting arguments, and its most important
implications are introduced.
Papers in the sprawling and disparate field of comparative politics
(a.k.a. the rest of the world, for we Americanists) varied greatly. I have
space here to describe only one modal type: a tightly focused case
study with huge capital-T Theory framework that occupied most of
the introductory paragraphs. When I earlier served on the editorial
board of a distinguished university press, we received a manuscript with
a title something like Birth, Life, and Death: Agricultural Communities
in Bulgaria, 1757–1767. That book became the board’s touchstone for
determining how well framework and evidence were aligned; it could
similarly be the touchstone for many comparativists’ papers. That is,
scholars often introduced an intriguing and provocative case or small
set of cases only after describing a large theory (about, say, the causes of
civil war, the corruption of democratic governance, the rise in income
inequality). Their goal was presumably to show that the particular case
was the grain of sand illuminating a substantial and important part
of the political universe; sometimes that claim was justified, but too
often the big framework merely made the case seem puny. Our advice
to comparativists, therefore, was often to first orient readers to the most
intriguing elements of the particular case(s), to temper the theoretical
claims and exposition at least in the introduction, and finally to promise
to show concretely how the theory and the case are linked. The theory
might illuminate the case(s); the case(s) might require a modification or
development of some aspect of the theory; the introduction might even
insist that the case is intrinsically important on its own terms. Only
after the reader is really persuaded that framework and evidence will be
persuasively linked should the author move into the body of the article.

Papers in American politics submitted to Perspectives typically
promised in their introductions to “fill a gap in the literature.” Perhaps
because this subfield is blessed with many data sets or formal analyses
that can be mined over and over for worthy insights, it becomes easy
to believe that identifying an undeveloped idea or mode of analysis is
sufficient to motivate readers. In my view, however, it is not; I have told
students in my graduate seminars that they will fail the course if their
final papers are predicated on filling a gap in the literature (no one has
yet called my bluff on that assertion). Many literatures have many gaps—
perhaps for good reason. . So our advice to scholars of American politics
was to explain in introductions what led you to this topic and this angle
of vision. What can you—not “the literature” or its holes—teach or show
them? Only after the authorial voice is firmly established should you
explicate others’ arguments on the subject (preferably by focusing on
ideas, not names and dates—see the paragraphs above about political
theory manuscripts).
These quick characterizations are, of course, unfair to the many
fine authors who write compelling introductions followed by convincing
arguments and evidence. But perhaps they are helpful as negative ideal
types—common ways of starting a document that, in my opinion at least,
ought to be eschewed.
Let me add a few comments about writing introductions to an issue
of a journal or edited volume. That is an unusual task which few are ever
in a position to take on, but some of my suggestions might be useful for
introductions to other types of collected works. The crucial act is to find
(or invent) a theme that runs through all (or at least most) of the pieces.
Sometimes that is easy, and occasionally impossible—but I discovered in
editing Perspectives on Politics that it is usually not as hard a task as I had
initially imagined. When it works well, finding or inventing a common
theme leads readers (as well as the editor and even the authors) to look at
an article or chapter in a new light, thus broadening the potential audience
and showing that authors are more multi-faceted than even they thought
they were. The danger in this exercise is that the editor will distort the
central meaning of piece in the effort to tie disparate works together;
there is a fine line between revealing a hidden meaning or message, and
imposing one’s own point of view on a document written with something
else in mind.
A final suggestion: I am constantly on the watch for a clever or
illuminating quotation from my favorite authors to serve as an epigraph,
final sentence, or jolt of pleasure in the middle of an introduction. Here
too there are dangers; I hope never again to read that W. E. B. Du Bois
predicted that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem
of the color line or that John Kennedy asked Americans to think not of
what their country could do for them. . . . Nevertheless, a few people
simply have extraordinary talent as writers or happened onto the perfect
combination of words and ideas in a brief compass, and we may as well
take advantage of their brilliance or luck. In addition, one can sometimes
make a sharp or pointed observation by using a phrase from Shakespeare,
the Bible, the Koran, or Jane Austen that would sound too blunt coming
directly from the editor of a volume or journal issue.
An introduction should end with an idea, fact, or question that leaves
the reader wanting to find out more. Like everything else in this essay, that
is much easier said than done. In the spirit of that observation therefore, I
close with one of my own favorite quotations. It too is perilously close to
being a cliché, but it still comforts me when I despair of my own writing.
Red Smith, the elegant sports writer, once explained that “there’s nothing
to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter
and open a vein.” We no
longer use typewriters, but the process has not changed.

1. The final paragraph may be even more important because it is your last chance
to imprint on readers the central point that you want them to remember after
they have forgotten your name or the document’s title. After all, as Daniel
Kahneman and colleagues demonstrated in a classic and gruesome experiment
involving interviews with people having colonoscopies, the peak and end moments
of an extended experience are what people remember and use in evaluating
it. DA Redelmeier, J. Katz, and D. Kahneman, “Memories of Colonoscopy: A
Randomized Trial” Pain 104(1–2): 187–94, 2003.
100 Publishing Political Science
2. I edited Perspectives on Politics from 2003 through 2005, its first three volumes.
3. An earlier version of the next few paragraphs were published in Qualitative
Methods, the newsletter of the Organized Section on Qualitative Methods of the
American Political Science Association, in fall of 2005 (volume 3, issue 2): 11–3.
4. A colleague once observed that the standard IR article consists of pushing a huge
rock of theory up a steep hill, in order to roll it down to smash a few pebbles of
fact at the bottom. Articles in the other main segment of international relations—
international political economy—often had a similar structure, but in this brief
essay I am ignoring them.
5. Unlike most academic journals, I and the five associate editors worked closely
with a subset of people who submitted manuscripts in order to develop those
manuscripts into a format appropriate for Perspectives. Our model was more that
of an activist editor at a top-notch university or commercial press than that of
a conventional journal. All articles in Perspectives, however, went through the
standard double-blind peer review.
6. Here I am mostly ignoring interpretivist and post-modern political philosophy.
Introductions to papers in this genre tended to be very abstract and to present
complex ideas in complicated sentences. Our main advice to writers in this
arena was to write the whole paper, and especially the introduction, with less
idiosyncrasy and more conventional clarity.