By DJ Williams, Co-Founder Journal of Positive Sexuality, Social and Behavioral Scientist Idaho State University
Many new writers underestimate the importance of writing a good Introduction (I’m capitalizing here, given it is the formal title of a manuscript heading). The Introduction broadly serves to orient readers to the topic, summarize the existing research, and point out gaps in knowledge, thus setting the stage for showing the importance of the entire paper. The Introduction, then, is critical to illustrating whether or not, or how much, the paper can make a useful contribution to the academic literature.
Estimate the Total Manuscript Length
Before beginning writing, it is helpful to estimate the approximate length of the entire manuscript. Academic journal articles often range considerably in manuscript length, depending on the particular journal and/or type of article being submitted (i.e., commentary, case study, full-length research study, etc.).
Think about page length parameters
You’ll need to think about the page length parameters of the particular journal wherein you intend to submit your paper. The Journal of Positive Sexuality generally prefers shorter papers given its diverse readership, but also is open to publishing longer, more research-intensive papers, too. The Introduction is the first of usually four to six major headings (sections) of the paper. So, when creating your outline, think about how long your total manuscript will be, then estimate how many pages you’ll need for each of your half-dozen or so major sections.
Estimate the length of each section
Your Introduction is your first major section, while your Conclusion is your last, and probably shortest, major section. Don’t forget that your reference list will also be part of the total manuscript length. For example, if my total manuscript length will be approximately 20 pages, I can figure that my reference list likely will be two to four pages, which then leaves 16-17 pages of actual text. If my manuscript outline has, say, five major headings, and the last of these is a page or less Conclusion, then I have about 15-16 pages to divide between the other major sections. I can then estimate that my Introduction needs to be approximately three to four pages, which leaves roughly 12 pages for the main body of my paper. The point here is that you need to figure out the total manuscript pages you have to work with, then how much new material, beyond the Introduction, you need to say, then allot space for your respective headings, including the Introduction, accordingly.
The “Hourglass” or “Freeway” Approach
A few sexuality topics have received very little scholarly attention, but most have been the focus of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of academic publications. Generally, you’ll want to start with a broad approach in summarizing the relevant scholarly literature. You’ll then narrow your focus as you continue your writing until you have shown a clear need for the current paper and how your paper contributes to the knowledge base that you’ve discussed.
The “Hourglass” Approach
Some writers think of crafting an Introduction similar to visualizing the shape of an hourglass—address the literature broadly then narrow down more directly to your particular topic as you write.
The “Freeway” Approach
Others use a freeway metaphor—beginning with a broad approach, akin to several lanes of roadway, but then narrow down your writing to a single lane.
When writing your Introduction, be sure to prioritize recent studies (within the last five years). If there are studies, especially recent ones, that are particularly relevant to your paper, then you may want to discuss them a little bit more than the others you cite.
Editing the Manuscript, and the Introduction
I usually wait until after the entire draft of the paper is completed before carefully editing and revising my Introduction. The reason for this is that sometimes the other sections of the paper end up being a little shorter or longer than I anticipated. In other words, I may have to cut a little bit somewhere if other sections are too long, or I can add a bit more discussion in places if sections are too short. In such cases, the Introduction can be a good place to add material or trim. There may be some bits there I can cut out, or if I have additional space, I may want to highlight something in the Introduction in more detail. Most importantly, I need to make sure that my Introduction sufficiently summarizes the existing scholarship, while then showing how my paper, as a whole, will be a meaningful contribution to that body of knowledge.
Crafting an academic paper is a creative art that requires some careful initial planning and organization, then continual revising as you go in order to improve it before submission. Your audience will appreciate a good summary of the literature and a clear understanding of why your paper is important to read.