The Essex Law School writing group* kicked off the autumn term with a discussion of our approaches to writing introductions to articles and book chapters. We shared our experiences and looked critically at three introductions by members of the group. Here’s a summary of the tips that emerged.
Do keep an introduction relatively short. Many of us have the temptation to pack too much in. An introduction should
(a) explain what the article is about,
(b) make a claim about its value in advancing knowledge (see below) and
(c) provide a navigational aid to readers (Part 1 will …, Part 2 … etc).
‘Background’ and ‘context’ is often better presented in a separate section after the Introduction.
Do keep the footnotes short. Avoid over referencing. An introduction is about your own contribution.
Don’t be overly technical. Write in straightforward, relatively non-technical language – even if the article is destined for a specialist journal. Future readers (students, REF panellists, scholars new to the field) may not be experts in the sub-field but will need to know what the article is about.
Do be sufficiently bold in your claims about the value of the article. Many of us have to fight the temptation of diffidence. Don’t be tentative. Get the reader to want to read your work. The introduction should clearly put a stake in the ground for how the article will make a contribution to taking the conversation about the topic forward or fill a gap in knowledge that deserves to be filled. The vocabulary should reflect this and for example you could use expressions such as “I argue” or “I propose concrete solutions to this problem”.
Maybe we should ditch the heading ‘Introduction’? There’s a quite general practice in legal writing to label the introduction ‘Introduction’. We discussed whether a more descriptive heading might add power to the writing (e.g. ‘Two pressing questions’).
Don’t put everything in the introduction. The introduction should provide a taster of what is to come.
Don’t be afraid of bringing in the human. Much legal scholarship is necessarily fairly abstract but we liked the idea that a human angle at the start of an introduction could provide a powerful way of starting. So portray the relationship between law and social norms. For example, an introduction can start by relating the facts of a case, showing the consequences produced by the current rules for individuals.
Do finish your introduction by reminding to your reader what your main idea is. At the end of your introduction, your reader should know exactly what you are going to demonstrate and why this is important.
* We are a group of academic colleagues working in different fields of law and with diverse experiences of writing; we meet a couple of times a term.
This blog post was coordinated by Andrew Le Sueur,
drawing on contributions from several colleagues.
(Suggested citation: A. Le Sueur et al., “Writing an introduction: dos, don’ts and maybes”, available at https://law-academics-unblocked.org/2016/10/31/writing-an-introduction-dos-donts-and-maybes)