Writing your dissertation introduction
Depending upon where you are studying you may be required to write a separate dissertation introduction chapter or it may be combined with the background chapter. Regardless, they are related to each other, usually follow each other, and generally comprise (in combination) approximately ten to twelve per cent of the dissertation's overall word count. It does not matter if it slightly exceeds this but you should remember that the majority of the marks that you will receive for your work relate to the data and analysis you present, not the introduction or background sections. If your introduction exceeds twenty per cent of your total word limit you have written too much and you will need, once you have written the entire first draft of your whole dissertation, to edit the introduction (see the later section on editing).
The introduction concerns the structure of the dissertation itself rather than the unique subject material of the dissertation and is frequently a difficult section to write. This is because during the writing of the dissertation, the exact focus of the dissertation is likely to alter (which is also why you may make slight modifications to the dissertation title - with the agreement of your supervisor). As you write, interpret data, analyse and relate your findings to existing literature some of the assumptions with which you started are likely to change. As a result there are many writers who suggest that the introduction should be last structural component of the dissertation that you complete. By this, however, they do not mean that it should be the last piece of the work that you start to write - rather they mean that it is likely to be the section that needs the most rewriting and tweaking as a consequence of your having written the rest of your work.
Academic convention states that a dissertation is usually written in the present tense as it reflects not what the thesis will address but rather what it does address. This can be seen in phrases such as 'this dissertation explores theoretical concepts...', 'the thesis includes an evaluation of...', and so on.
When you first write your introduction you should endeavour to ensure that it addresses four considerations. First, it should act as a chapter in which you 'feel your way into the subject'. This is because, when you first write it, you are likely to be trying to work out what you are going to write and how you are going to address the various concepts with which your dissertation is concerned.
Secondly, and most importantly, your introduction should explain to the reader the structure and approach that your work will follow. Therefore it is likely to contain sentences such as:
- The primary purpose of this dissertation is to analyse the effects of X on Y.
- In so doing, this dissertation addresses a number of key aims and objectives.
- In discussing the methodology used within this dissertation, Chapter Three notes not only the positives and negatives associated with using qualitative and quantitative analysis but also highlights the ethical considerations that underpin this piece of work.
Thirdly, the introduction is the reader's guide to your piece of work. It should inform them of what to expect within your piece of work and where they will find different components of that work. Accordingly, the introduction should explain why you are undertaking the research (the rationale - your personal reasons for writing it) and should thereafter offer an insight into every chapter. Do remember, however, that unless your supervisor has specifically required the dissertation to be reflective, you will not use the first person in writing any part of the dissertation, including the rationale. Phrases such as 'this interests me because' are inappropriate.
Fourthly, it should also make reference to the ultimate conclusions and recommendations (if appropriate) that your work will proffer. Thus, your introduction is likely to include some form of statement that follows this general approach:
- Finally, the conclusion not only offers a range of recommendations based upon the findings within this dissertation but also suggests a number of related areas that would benefit from further academic study.
Having drafted such an introduction you should then start writing the main body of your work. You need to bear in mind that sections of your introduction will need to be rewritten once you have finished your whole first draft. Further, the draft introduction will probably be too long - this is to be expected and you should not worry about this as editing will sharpen the focus of the introduction. Thus, as shown in the examples above, Chapter Three may ultimately become Chapter Four, your recommendations may alter and the limitations of your research similarly may be changed (perhaps because you uncover an article that addresses them in a way you did not know existed when you started your research). Moreover, as you become more involved in the main body of your text, the tentative aspects of the introduction are likely to become less relevant. Therefore, be prepared for the possibility that the introduction may be rewritten several times over, and that the majority of it will be completed after you have written the rest of your dissertation.
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