Many writers have difficulty writing a successful Introduction to a technical or scientific paper; in many of the papers that we analyze and edit, the Introductions lack pizzazz, are uninteresting, or simply don’t do their job, which is to introduce the paper, adequately.
A lackluster Introduction can be deadly for a paper and the paper’s writer in that if it doesn’t engage and/or intrigue readers, they may choose not to read the paper itself. Another issue is an Introduction that misleads the reader, in that such an Introduction casts doubt on the credibility of the writer. That is, if the writer has assured the reader that the paper is going to address an issue in a certain way, but it actually addresses another issue or takes an approach that differs from the one expected, the reader will lose faith in what the writer is saying.
So, what’s an Introduction supposed to do? Well, it’s supposed to “introduce” the paper, hence its name. But let’s break this down. An effective introduction tells readers what they can expect in the paper; that is, the problem that’s addressed, the approach taken to solve the problem, and why the problem is important. In addition, an effective Introduction states the document’s purpose and its scope (what it does and doesn’t cover). And an Introduction can provide the necessary and relevant background information to enable a reader to read and digest the information (this information may also, of course, be in a section by itself called “Background”). Some organizations include background information in their introductions without labeling them as such. I don’t suggest this, as one of our goals in writing should be to ensure that each section is clear, both in terms of its intent and its function.
The Introduction should, of course, be written last, and a good way to approach it is simply to extract the following from your paper: problem, approach taken to solve problem, why the problem is important, document purpose, document scope, and relevant background information (if you want to include background information in the Introduction). Of course, you’ll want to mesh this information by using transitions and other language to create flow.
Finally, as with any section of a technical or scientific document, avoid cutting and pasting text from the body of the document itself: remember that each section has its own purpose and cutting and pasting from one section into another ignores this. In addition, cutting and pasting can make you look lazy and/or as though you’re unsure of what you’re trying to accomplish with the paper and each section. Think of the Introduction the same way that you do when you’re introducing yourself to a potential employer: you want to be interesting, engaging, and give that person some insight into what makes you you. Technical and scientific documents are the same way—they’re unique and deserve to be introduced as such.