How to Write a Research Paper Introduction in 4 Steps

Academic Writing updated on  September 5, 2023 6 min read

Having a hard time learning how to write a research paper introduction? Follow these four steps:

  1. Draw readers in.
  2. Zoom in on your topic and its importance.
  3. Explain how you’ll add new knowledge.
  4. Tell readers what they’ll find in your paper.

To understand why a great introduction matters, imagine a friend inviting you to lunch with another friend of hers. You show up at the restaurant and find them waiting for you at the table. You sit down, and her friend says, “So I wanna tell you about my major goal in life.”

Pretty awkward, right? You don’t even know this guy’s name yet, and he’s already diving into the heavy stuff. You’d probably prefer to have your friend introduce him, then spend some time learning about his background and personality before you get into deeper conversation.

Research paper readers need this kind of warmup, too. A good introduction, or intro, lives up to its name—it introduces readers to the topic. It prepares them to care about and understand your research, and it’s more convincing.

Steps to write a research paper introduction

By following the steps below, you can learn how to write an introduction for a research paper that helps readers “shake hands” with your topic. In each step, thinking about the answers to key questions can help you reach your readers.

1. Get your readers’ attention

To speak to your readers effectively, you need to know who they are. Consider who is likely to read the paper and the extent of their knowledge on the topic. Then begin your introduction with a sentence or two that will capture their interest.

For instance, you might begin with an interesting quote or an example of a situation that illustrates your argument (as we did above). Or you could start by simply stating a fact that most people aren’t aware of, which may be a better approach in scientific fields. Whichever method you choose, remember that this is academic writing—keep your phrasing formal and don’t sensationalize.

Key questions:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What will your paper talk about?
  • What will grab your audience’s interest in the topic?

2. Explain why your topic matters

Just as you’d like to understand where a new acquaintance is coming from as you get to know them, your readers want to understand the background of your research. Once you’ve got their attention, explain why they should care.

You can give background for your research by discussing previous research on the topic. While this part should be shorter than a literature review, it can explore some of the same kinds of connections and themes. Make sure the sources you cite relate to the argument you’re making or the problem you want to solve. The information you provide here should lay a factual foundation for your research.

Key questions:

  • Why should readers care about your topic?
  • What do readers need to know to understand your research?
  • What have other researchers said about the topic?
  • What is the field’s overall view of the topic?

3. Lay out your argument and plan

After showing your reader the existing knowledge on the topic, you can turn to how your paper will contribute new knowledge. Tying your research to previous research is the most important aspect of this step.

Explain what knowledge is missing from the existing research and how you plan to uncover that knowledge. This is the most common place for the thesis statement, which succinctly tells readers the purpose and main idea of your paper (though it could also appear at the end of Step 4).

Key questions:

  • How does your research relate to the studies you described in Step 2?
  • What question are you aiming to answer, or what problem are you looking to solve?
  • What methods will you use to answer that question or solve that problem?

4. Define your direction

Besides introducing your readers to the topic and your related findings or argument, you’re introducing them to your research process and the paper itself. This means you need to help them understand how the paper is organized and where it’s going. Add a sentence, or a few sentences, describing the sections of your paper in order or the main ideas it will cover.

While longer papers typically need to include this step, shorter ones, such as a five-paragraph essay, can usually skip it. In these cases, the thesis statement outlines the paper’s structure.

Key questions:

  • What goal will each section of your paper accomplish?
  • What should readers take away from your paper?

Tips for writing a research paper introduction

As you go through the steps above, keep in mind the principles of quality academic writing. Specifically, understanding how to organize and summarize will empower you to complete each step with excellence.

Keep it smooth

A good flow helps readers follow your logic. As you progress from Step 1 to Step 4, the information you give should grow more and more specific. It’s similar to how, when you meet a person, you learn basics like their name and appearance first. Then you learn about their background and more specific details, like their political views.

To make your introduction flow, start with an outline. The outline functions like a skeleton. It provides a structure for the details that make up your introduction like muscles and other tissues. It helps you make sure you don’t miss any important elements. Then, as you flesh out the details, use transition words and phrases between them to show how they relate to each other.

Keep it brief

How long should a research paper introduction be? It depends on the overall length of your paper, but the intro is typically one of the shortest sections. For example, in a short paper like an essay, you can complete each of the steps above in just a sentence or two. But in a longer one, such as a dissertation, each step may take a couple of paragraphs.

In a sense, the intro is a summary of the rest of the paper, and summarizing is all about prioritizing. As business guru Karen Martin said, “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”

Martin was talking about deciding which tasks are more urgent in a business, but the same principle applies to summarizing. You must decide which ideas are the most fundamental and leave the rest out. Think about it: when you’re first meeting someone, they don’t give you an exhaustive list of all their traits. They introduce themselves with just a few of their most prominent ones.

Besides narrowing your focus, another way to keep your introduction short is to write concisely. Plain, direct language helps hold the reader’s attention, but wordy sentences will make them nod off and lose interest.

Do it last

Since the introduction of a research paper is basically a summary, you may find it helpful to write it last, after you’ve finished the rest of your paper. If you write it first, there’s a good chance you’ll have to change some of its main points later. This can happen because the other sections of your paper, which your intro is based on, may evolve while you’re writing them.

Of course, you should always go back and take a second or even third look at every section of your research paper to check for errors and other necessary changes. But if you write your intro last, editing it is likely to take much less time.

Research paper introduction example

The following introduction is taken from a research paper exploring the potential uses of the peach palm. We’ve highlighted each step we mentioned above.

Note that some of the steps may overlap a bit; the goal is to include all four components. In this example, the thesis statement appears in Step 4 rather than Step 3.

Tools for writing a research paper introduction

Now that we’ve introduced you to the basics of writing a research paper introduction, we’d like to introduce you to QuillBot. At every step of writing your intro, it can help you upgrade your writing skills:

  • Cite sources using the Citation Generator.
  • Avoid plagiarism using the Plagiarism Checker.
  • Reword statements from previous research (but still cite them) using the Paraphraser.
  • Write spectacular and concise thesis statements (or even your whole introduction section!) using the Summarizer.

Writer, meet QuillBot. QuillBot, meet a soon-to-be-elite academic writer!

What are the 3 stages of an introduction in a research paper?

A research paper introduction starts by acquainting readers with the topic generally. Then it explores the background of the research. Finally, it explains the specific purpose of the research and its contribution.

What is a good hook for a research paper?

Quotes, anecdotes, and interesting facts are all effective hooks to begin the introduction of a research paper. Which one you choose depends on the subject of your paper and your field of study.


Hannah Skaggs

Along with Mitchell Allen

Hannah, a writer and editor since 2017, specializes in clear and concise academic and business writing. She has mentored countless scholars and companies in writing authoritative and engaging content.

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