OK, not that sort of introduction.
Last week I was drafting the Introduction to a new paper*, and I was struggling. People often assume that because I’ve written a book about scientific writing, I must be a gifted writer to whom the task comes easily. Nothing could be further from the truth: I’m just like most scientific writers. Yes, I find writing much easier than I used to (thank goodness); but I still have many days when producing the next sentence is like pulling teeth. My own teeth.
I find Introductions particularly hard. I think it’s because I know they’re critically important (a bad one turns a reader away before they learn what I want to tell them), but they’re also less rigidly scripted than most of the standard elements of the scientific paper.** Sure, we can identify a set of elements that nearly always occur in scientific Introductions (I discuss the CARES, or create-a-research-space model, in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing); but they’re general, even a bit vague. It isn’t like writing a Methods section, where there are quite strict conventions to steer by.
The combination of importance and freedom is what sometimes paralyzes me. The problem is that I convince myself that there’s one correct way to write the Introduction, and I’m stuck because I haven’t found it yet. But I unstuck myself last week by giving myself a stern talking-to. “Steve,” I told myself, “you’re not writing the Introduction. You’re writing an Introduction”. In other words: for any paper, there are many ways to write a good Introduction. You just need to find one of them.***
So that’s the key, or at least it was for me and my Introduction (and yes, all you had to read was the title of this post). But we can apply the logic more broadly. Language is an amazing thing; there’s never just one way to say anything (yes, that’s even true for the Methods). And that sets up a counterintuitive fix for writer’s block. When you’re really stuck, sometimes it helps to write two different versions of the passage you’re stuck on. This might strike you as ridiculous: if you can’t write one version, surely writing two versions will be even harder? No: because deciding to write two versions forces you to abandon the attempt to write that single perfect version. Now you’re writing a passage, not the passage, and that’s enormously easier.
Anyway, my Introduction got done. It’s pretty good, I think. A different one might have been just as good – and thank goodness I was able to convince myself of that, because that’s what got the job done.
© Stephen Heard January 11, 2022
*^It’s a pandemic-pivot project, and one I’m very excited about – I hope we can unveil it soon. There’s a lot of strong opinion out there about the use of humour in paper titles – does it draw attention, or does the air of unseriousness repel readers? What little empirical analysis there is suggests a negative impact on citation impact, but that analysis has been crude at best. We took a more careful look and – well, you’ll have to wait for the preprint.
**^Discussions are free-form too, and I could have written this post about a Discussion – it just happened to be an Introduction I was working on. If you’re stuck on a Discussion, just do a search-and-replace.
***^A different reason that there isn’t one perfect Introduction is that the tack you take will depend on the discourse community you want to talk to. The narrow readership of The Canadian Entomologist, the broader readership of The American Naturalist, and the broader-still readership of Science will have different needs for, and interest in, the context of your work. But that’s not my point today. Even for a single target journal, there are many ways to write an Introduction.