Always Write the Introduction Last

Here are some excerpts from the introductory sections of the very first drafts of some book chapters:

[BLAH, BLAH, BLAHBITTY BLAH]

and

[Introductory blather goes here]

and

Blah, blah, stuff, blather.

There’s a good reason for this, based on the basics of scientific writing, namely that the Introduction should give the reader a rough guide to the complete work– exactly what you’re going to say, before you go on and say it. In order to do a good job with the Introduction, you need to have a very solid idea of the shape of the finished product, and exactly what you need to mention up front for everything to hold together.

Which is why the Introduction is pretty much the last section I write. If you try to write it first, you’re setting yourself up for a miserable slog, because you don’t know just what you need to say in that section, and so you end up typing and retyping the same vague blather over and over, or frittering away hours on researching stuff that you may or may not actually need, because you don’t know yet whether it will be relevant to the whole thing.

That’s my advice for anyone setting out to write non-fiction, whether it’s a term paper, a research article for a journal, a grant application (OK, that might be stretching the term “non-fiction” a bit…), or a pop-science book: Write the Introduction last.

I know this. And so why is it, exactly, that every time I start something new, I find myself trying to start at the beginning and write straight through to the end?

Monday and Tuesday, starting from the beginning: 2,600 words, total. Friday, skipping the Introduction and starting on the middle bits: 2,600 words in two hours, and almost all of them are better words than the words I laboriously dragged out on Monday and Tuesday.

Arrrgh.

Comments

  1. #1 Sue VanHattum
    March 31, 2012

    Maybe you need to do that as a way to think about what the book will become. You know you’re going to trash it later, but you need to do that slogging in order to get a better hold conceptually on the rest of the book?

  2. #2 Andrew G.
    March 31, 2012

    Speaking of writing, is there an errata list somewhere for “How to teach relativity to your dog”?

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    April 2, 2012

    If you already have a good idea of where you’re going with the particular piece (this is frequently true of scientific papers, especially if you have presented a preliminary version at some meeting), then it makes sense to write the introduction first. Yes, you might edit it later, but it will be tweaking, not a complete rewrite.

    If you really don’t know where you’re going, I have to disagree with Sue here. An outline is a much more efficient approach. You may be able to write parts of the introduction right away, but you will be using a fair amount of lorem ipsum on the first iteration, because you will need to edit it heavily depending on what you have written further down.

    The trick is how you handle the borderline cases.

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