That said, I do think that if you are not already writing introductions the way I’m about to describe, it may actually change your life.
There is a tendency when writing an introduction to write about past research in a list. I see it in undergraduate papers, master’s theses, dissertations, manuscripts I review, and yes, published articles. It is not necessarily incorrect, nor is it terrible writing. However, it is another area where you can move to intentional writing, working harder as the author to make the reading easier for others. It is easier to write a list of past research, but it is easier to read a summary of past work that integrates across studies. Undergraduate students are more likely to have one paragraph or so per study, and writers with more experience tend to have a sentence or so per study. The sentences are often linked with phrases like “similarly,” “in contrast,” or “other work has also found.” But nevertheless, the writer leaves the work of drawing connections to the reader. When a writer does the integrative work for the reader, the reader can quickly arrive at the big picture of past work, and see how it relates to the authors’ own ideas.
Here’s an example. In this paper, I could list past work as follows:
College students are more likely to drink, and drink more heavily, on their 21st birthday compared to other days (Smith, Bogle, Talbott, Grant, & Castillo, 2006). Rutledge, Park, and Sher (2008), in a more representative study, found similar increases in drinking on 21st birthdays. Neal and Fromme (2007) found that alcohol use was elevated on holidays like New Year’s Eve, as well as on football weekends. Similarly, Del Boca, Darkes, Greenbaum, and Goldman (2004) found that alcohol use increases on New Year’s Eve and other holidays. Other researchers have also found elevated rates of drinking on Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day (Glindemann, Wiegand, & Geller, 2007). Another event with higher rates of drinking is Spring Break (Patrick, Morgan, Maggs, & Lefkowitz, 2011). Grekin, Sher, and Krull (2007) found that increased drinking during Spring break occurred only when students were with friends.
I find that paragraph really challenging to process, because the connections are rarely drawn for the reader. In contrast, here is the start of our paper as actually published (Lefkowitz, Patrick, Morgan, Bezemer, & Vasilenko, 2012):
College student alcohol use is known to increase during the celebration of special events such as 21st birthdays (Rutledge, Park, & Sher, 2008; Smith, Bogle, Talbott, Grant, & Castillo, 2006), football games (Neal & Fromme, 2007b), Spring Break (Grekin, Sher, & Krull, 2007; Patrick, Morgan, Maggs, & Lefkowitz, 2011), and holidays like Halloween and New Year’s Eve (Del Boca, Darkes, Greenbaum, & Goldman, 2004; Glindemann, Wiegand, & Geller, 2007).
In the latter example, we have summarized across studies, integrating studies that have similar findings.
I’m not comfortable highlighting any examples of published work that is not well integrated, but if you look at 10 articles you have recently read, I guarantee you will find several that list rather than integrate. And here’s another example of well integrated writing, from Dalton and Galambos (2009):
Moving away from parents is a major task of the transition to adulthood. Although some studies have indicated an association of leaving home with less depression and better relations with parents during the transition to adulthood (Aseltine & Gore, 1993; Smetana, Metzger, & Campione-Barr, 2004), others have found that living away from parents was related to a significantly higher risk of binge eating (Barker & Galambos, 2007), more depression (Galambos & Krahn, 2008; Seiffge-Krenke, 2006), and higher alcohol use (Kuo et al., 2002). In any case, living away from parents creates opportunities to engage in sexual activities due to freedom from parental detection.
In this example, I particularly appreciate the way they have set up the “some studies have found X, whereas other studies have found Y” in an integrated way.
We recently discussed this writing issue in my graduate seminar. Some students expressed concern that when they summarize and integrate, they may misrepresent, or at a minimum, miss the nuances, of past research. Of course, you should never misrepresent someone else’s work, or selectively omit things that contradict your argument. However, it is okay if you don’t provide every detail of their work. If someone found that peer rejection was associated with anxiety, depression, and substance use, but your paper focuses on substance use, you don’t need to mention anxiety and depression.
There are other benefits to moving toward more integrated writing. You will find that you have a much better sense of past work when you force yourself to summarize rather than list. In addition, integrated writing often means fewer words, and who doesn’t want that?
“The post Writing an introduction: Integrate, don’t list, past research first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on February 13, 2014.”