I have some very specific advice about how to write an introduction to a standard social science paper. People often tell me that it's not how things are done in their field, and this doesn't bother me too much, except in the sense that we all have our own pet gripes about academic writing, even very successful academic writing. I like to think that writing an introduction my way at least has the effect of clarifying your ideas and bringing your paper, and therefore your writing problem, into sharper focus. How you choose to realize that vision in the final draft is a matter I leave to you and your reviewers and editors.
One of my most useful pieces of advice is to propose a paragraph with a key sentence that begins "This paper shows that..." (Indeed, I usually propose you make this the first sentence of the third paragraph.) It is a very good sentence to be able to write, making it as clear and declarative as you can. Find a way of saying it without too many qualifying clauses and without long lists. Remember that it should be supported by your data—i.e., that the paper will show your reader what your data showed you was the case—but that it will be about the real world—i.e., you've collected your data to be representative of the facts as they are. "This paper," in other words, "shows that" something is true. You've discovered this thing to be true and you're going to tell your reader about it.
Like I said yesterday, and as Hemingway said a long time ago, this is a very difficult thing to do. After all, you are going to take something that has very little in common with life as we live it, namely, some black marks on a white page, and use it to represent actual people accomplishing actual things in their actual lives. The problem can be compared to depicting a three-dimensional object, like an apple, with a two-dimensional drawing. Except that it's worse: writing is one-dimensional—one word follows the other in a sentence—while life is four-dimensional—it occupies space and endures in time. You are going to take some relatively meager means, then, and accomplish some rather exalted ends. If you succeed, you'll make your truth part of the reader's experience.
In one of my favorite books, How to Draw Hands, Oliver Senior makes an important observation that goes for writing as much as for drawing:
If ... the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise.
In social science, the problem of representing the facts as they actually are often leaves writers feeling themselves similarly "constrained". And this may well explain why so much academic writing stands in the same relation to social reality as a bunch of bananas or a bent fork stands to the human hand. They "adopt or invent a convention or a symbol" to stand for things that they are unable to describe.
I want to go into this general problem a bit more in subsequent posts. But today I just want to point out the one general "workaround" that people use to avoid the problem of representation in their writing. They simply don't claim to show anything. Instead, they announce that they will "explore" or "discuss" or "shed light" on something. Against this, I urge writers not to substitute "This paper shows that" with the unfortunately conventional "This paper explores how..." because it says more about "the peculiar nature and limitations of [their] tools and materials" than (what I'm sure they think) it says about the openness of their minds and the humility of their disposition.
Yes, as a scientist you should explore reality. But as a scientist who addresses him or herself to other scientists in writing you should have something to show them. Your explorations should have, let's say, discovered something. My advice, therefore, is to practice telling your peers "This is what I've found!" not just "This is where I looked."