In a one-on-one writing consultation, the most common thing—hands down—for me to discuss with a student is the effectiveness of an introduction. Masters or PhD, humanities or sciences, native or non-native speaker of English, it doesn’t matter. Most draft writing comes with introductions that are inadequate to the task. Which is why I am grateful to John Swales for his essential Creating a Research Space (CARS) model. His model consists of three moves: establishing a research territory; establishing a niche; and occupying the niche.
While I value Swales’s insightful and durable model, I have never particularly warmed to the language he uses. I find it a bit removed from the language that we naturally employ when talking about our research; for me, it seems useful to use more hospitable language, language that reflects the instinctive way we talk about our research. I very much like the way that Booth, Colomb, and Williams talk about the moves of the introduction; indeed, as I have said before, I generally like the way that they talk about all parts of the research process. Their introduction model also has three stages: a common ground, a problem, and a response. Although I generally like their wording, I’ve moved away from using the phrase ‘common ground’. I find students sometimes interpret common ground as requiring an actual consensus rather than just an established context (which may, of course, be highly fractious). To avoid this misunderstanding, I find it easier to use the word ‘context’ to characterize the opening of an introduction.
Drawing on these two sources, here is the way I present introductions:
1. Context: What your audience will need to know in order to understand the problem you are going to confront. This background material will be familiar rather than novel to your target audience; it may act as a refresher or even a primer, but will not cover new ground. I usually suggest that students try to form a template sentence that they can then use as a prompt to help them sketch out each of the three moves. For instance, “Over the past two decades, research in this field has focused on … “.
2. Problem (and Significance): What isn’t yet well understood. That is, the problem statement will explain what you want to understand (or reveal or explain or explore or reinterpret or contest) and why it will matter to have done so. For instance, “However, [topic] is still poorly understood (or under-examined or excluded or misinterpreted). This lack of attention is significant because knowing [about this topic] will provide a benefit OR not knowing [about this topic] will incur a cost”.
Given the importance of establishing significance and given the frequency with which this step is neglected, I have often wondered about framing it as a separate step. I haven’t done so, for two reasons. First, the three moves are so well established; it seems needlessly confusing to disrupt that familiarity by talking about four moves. Second, and more important, the problem and significance are genuinely connected; it doesn’t make sense to treat the problem and significance separately, even if doing so would encourage us to pay more attention to the significance. The significance is requisite for the problem, not separate from it.
3. Response: What you are actually going to do in your research. For instance, “In order to address this problem, I will …”.
The beauty of this basic model is, of course, is that it makes a great deal of intuitive sense. When students hear it for the first time, they generally feel an immediate sense of familiarity. That intuition doesn’t, however, necessarily make it easy for them to deploy it in their own writing. I focus on four things about this model that may help writers deepen their understanding and thus be better able to use these moves proficiently.
The way it encourages us to take the perspective of the reader. These three moves tell readers what they need to know; having these needs met will then motivate them to continue reading. Our natural inclination is often to express our research as a by-product of our own thinking process. These three moves remind us to disrupt that inclination: instead of telling a story about the twists and turns of our research process, we need to tell the story about our research that the reader needs to hear. Take the example of context. As writers, we often struggle to define the correct amount of context to provide; if we approach this question from the perspective of the reader we are more likely to provide the right amount of context. The reader needs enough to appreciate the topic but doesn’t want us to take them through all the contextualizing information we have at our disposal.
The way it forces us to express the significance of the problem. The significance is generally the least apparent thing to the reader and yet is often the most neglected by the writer. The key here is to remember that the significance needs to be connected to one’s own discourse community. Some novice writers suffer from the sense that there isn’t much significance to their research because they are looking for significance in an unduly broad sense. Remembering that the current work needs to be valuable in the narrower context of the existing work in the field—responding to it, extending it, altering the way it may be done in the future—can help us to craft a clear and credible statement of significance.
The way its explicit breakdown shows us what may still be underdeveloped. By breaking down the introductory passages into distinct parts, this model helps us to see what is already there and what still needs to be addressed. It is very common, for instance, for writers to have a clearly articulated response but a confusing context and weakly expressed problem. For those writers, the response is what they have right, but they don’t yet know how to provide the necessary preceding information. Making the breakdown explicit can help us see what we still need to develop.
The way its scalability helps us to see how we must repeat and reinforce our key issues. Once these three moves are clear to you, you will see them—writ small or writ large—throughout your text. Take the literature review, for instance. Understood as a deeper iteration of the context, we are better able to understand what the work of reviewing the literature means. And we will grasp more easily that a literature review needs to be repeatedly connected to the problem that will be articulated in its wake.
These general observations can help writers to understand the three moves as central to our overall project of connecting our research to our intended audience. I’m out of space for today, but I will return to this topic soon. In particular, I will focus on this notion of scalability in a post devoted specifically to thesis introductions. Given the length of thesis introductions, the three moves have to be used in such a way that the reader doesn’t drown in an initial sea of detail.
Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. C., & Williams, J. M. (2008). The craft of research (3rd ed.). Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.