By Susan Carter
Introductions and conclusions bookend or mirror each other. But they also differ from each other in significant ways. Doctoral writers need to be aware of the generic expectations of introductions and conclusions.
Recently, I was in a workshop with academic writers revising their introductions and conclusion. We were working on identifying strong rhetorical moves in these two significant sections, talking about what sort of moves, syntax, and word choice equated with persuasive beginnings and endings. The idea was that once we itemised what was strong, we could all improve the style and power of our own drafts.
I was drawing on the advice that I give doctoral thesis writers along the lines of ‘The introduction and conclusion sections of the thesis serve a bookend function and ensure that the reader understands the scope of the thesis and what it contributes. The first and last places are the most important and writers need to consider what they should achieve, what they should signal, and what work they can be made to do.’
Readers expect the covert convention that the introduction will be broad, general and contextual so that fine detail here will seem disjunctive. It is common to note an hourglass shape to the thesis, where a wide scope introductory framework narrows to the specific topic and focus, and then widens again in the conclusion.
I recommend consulting Paltridge and Starfield’s (2007) ‘typical moves’ that introductions make. These are broadly establishing the context, showing the gap and describing how the research will fill the gap. (Paltridge and Starfield 2007 break these sections down further, suggesting that some moves are obligatory. It is well worth reading this book.)
Then, the conclusion should leave the reader with a clear sense of what has been achieved: namely, that the aims identified in the introduction have been achieved and that a unique and important contribution to scholarship has been made. A conclusion often recalls specific points to emphasise what has been achieved. Generic conventions for emphasising the value of the original contribution become important to writers: the conclusion is where the examiner leaves the thesis.
In this workshop, though, we noticed the tense of these two sections. I’d never thought about tense before as it relates to introductions and conclusion. I’m pondering on the fact that tense signals the direction of gaze and focus: very simplistically I think of a speaker as looking backwards (with past tense use), sideways (with the present) and ahead (with the future).
Frequently the tense in the introduction was past or present perfect to describe the context, often describing what the problem was that prompted a need for research, and what was already known or tried as a solution. Introductions then shifted to the present tense for what the current project does, how it does it, and in which specific niche. The present tense describes how the gap in knowledge or understanding is filled by this project.
The conclusion may use the present simple tense in stating the original contribution, saying again what the thesis does and what it argues. The conclusion may reiterate how the different parts of the thesis work together in the elaboration of a convincing argument, or how the various elements in the research process have contributed to the achievement of certain results.
Often, though, the conclusion looks to the future as well, projecting how the findings may direct changes in practice, or how they raise further questions that offer promise. Limitations of the project are often framed as possible future research.
For many authors, the conclusion satisfyingly establishes a better understanding of something they are passionate about, as when social scientists show the wastage caused by inequity; scientists, the changes to natural patterns that suggest humans need to change their habits; or educationalists, shortfalls in practice that can be improved.
The idea that came from the recent class is this: The generic conventions of verb tenses in introductions and conclusions comply with the narrative logic that each research project is one part of a bigger, ongoing story. Every research project is based on past understanding. And it is appropriate that in the conclusion, the author looks to the future, and to what will follow.
Perhaps the situation is not so cut and dried as to be about simply about tense, although one writing exercise is to watch for tense in thesis section examples. It is more about gaze-direction, poise and tone. These relate to the social nature of every thesis or journal article, in entering a discussion that other people have already begun.
Do you also workshop how to review introductions and conclusions together as a set? Any other thoughts?
Paltridge, B. & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a secon language: A handbook for supervisors. London: Routledge.