How to Write a Proper Dissertation Introduction

When writing a dissertation, thesis, or some other academic text, the introduction is, of course, the first thing a reader will lay eyes on, besides the title and abstract.

Not only does it provide an overview of the rest of the work, but it sets the tone and creates the first impression a reader has with your work. Even if the rest of the dissertation is flawlessly written and brilliantly argued, a subpar introduction can subvert the whole effort.

Mastering the elements of a well written introduction – clarity, succinctness, cogency, and adhering strictly to the topic at hand – will set you on the right track and serve you well as you develop the subsequent sections of the dissertation.

Craft a proper title.

Technically, this is distinct from the introduction, but the title is an introduction in and of itself. Poorly written titles have the same effect as poorly written introductions: they leave the reader uncertain about what the paper is actually about and may convey the notion that the work itself is unsatisfactory.

Above all, make sure your title is specific. Concretely describe the focus of your research. If your title is so generic that it could just as easily be applied to a dozen other papers in the field, change it. Using the “title: subtitle” format is often helpful; for example, The cinema of attraction: Early film, its spectator, and the avant-garde.

State the thesis clearly

The thesis statement (or just “thesis” for short) is the declaration of your argument—the central point you want to make. (Lest there be any confusion, note that all academic papers have a “thesis” or “thesis statement,” not only theses per se.) The thesis statement argues, explains, or analyzes something. With few exceptions, it should appear in the first paragraph of the introduction. You want to make clear to the reader as soon as possible what this paper is all about. If you can’t say it succinctly, in one simple sentence, the premise of your research might be flawed (confusingly framed, too broadly drawn, etc.).

As with titles, the number one rule is be specific. Use straightforward, concrete, precise language, and don’t conceal the thesis beneath a lot of verbal window dressing—which leads me to the next point…

Keep it simple; don’t try to “get fancy”

Scholars often seem to operate under the mistaken assumption that academic writing should be complicated and verbose, and that they must dazzle the reader with a multisyllabic vocabulary and elaborate sentence structure. If you have a natural gift for this kind of writing, then embrace it, but if not, that’s fine; don’t force it. Stylistic and verbal flair does enhance the quality of the prose, but it is secondary to, and often gets in the way of, clarity.

And trust me, your professors will not be fooled by empty modifiers and redundant verbiage that “sounds” academic but doesn’t actually contribute anything to the text. Your first job is to get the point across. Usually, the best way to say something is the simplest. This applies to any section of the dissertation but especially the introduction, where “economy of words” is imperative.

Minimize background information

Probably half of the dissertations or theses that I edit are guilty of this infraction: cramming too much background information into the introduction. A little bit goes a long way.

Typically, especially in the social sciences, after the introductory paragraph, it’s good to establish some context for your research. Orient the reader within the field and familiarize him with the problem addressed by your research, but keep the focus narrowly drawn. Cut out tangential information, that which is only minimally, indirectly relevant to the subject at hand.

Unless you’re writing a history paper or analyzing the development over time of some phenomenon within your field, do not expound on the historical background. Some recent history is usually edifying but, as a general rule, the farther back you go, the less relevant it is. You have more leeway to explain background/context in the literature review, but even there, it is almost always best to keep it to a minimum.

David Henderson