We mentioned earlier that many academic writers attend to their introductions only after they have drafted their essays. This is a vital step in revising, not only because the opening section of your paper exerts a formative influence on readers, but also because the introduction to an academic essay situates your claim within an ongoing conversation about the phenomenon or issue under consideration. Recall that we spoke of conceiving of your claim as an assertion that contradicts a previous way of thinking or common understanding. You may have found a gap in the way something has been conceived, or may choose to redefine something, or to classify or categorize it in a new way. These are contradictions as well.
The “CARS” Model
Though openings to academic essays come in a variety of forms, the form of the typical introduction has been identified by linguistics scholar John Swales as “Creating a Research Space” or CARS:
- Move 1: Establish that your particular area of research has some significance.
- Move 2: Selectively summarize the relevant previous research.
- Move 3: Show that the reported research (or current understanding) is not complete.
- Move 4: Turn the gap into the research space for the present essay.
Here are some examples of academics using the model. (These examples and the attendant analyses are found in Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2012: 78-83).
Example 1: Ameratunga, Shanthi, Martha Hijar, and Robyn Norton. “Road-Traffic Injuries: Confronting Disparities to Address a Global Health Problem.” Lancet 367, no.9521 (2006): 47-54.
In 2002, an estimated 1-2 million people were killed and 50 million injured in road-traffic crashes worldwide, costing the global community about US $518 billion. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has described the situation as “a worsening global disaster destroying lives and livelihoods, hampering development and leaving millions in greater vulnerability.” Without appropriate action, road-traffic injuries are predicted to escalate from the ninth leading contributor to the global burden of disease in 1990 to the third by 2020. . . . In this Review, we aim to summarise the characteristics of the rise in road-traffic injuries and present an evidence based approach to prevent road-traffic crashes. Our Review uses the substantial work undertaken by international experts contributing to the 2004 world report and data published since that time.
In the opening lines of this review article from The Lancet, population health researcher Shanthi Ameratunga and her colleagues Martha Hijar and Robyn Norton demonstrate that the CARS model can work well when employed gracefully, generously, and without exaggeration. Rather than baldly asserting the importance of the topic, they offer hard evidence about global death rates, injury numbers, and monetary costs. And rather than claiming to overturn or better the research of distinguished colleagues, the authors acknowledge and build on “the substantial work undertaken by international experts.” Not also their use of active, concrete verbs (kill, injure, cost, predict, escalate, prevent, highlight) and their canny choice of a supporting quotation from Red Cross/Red Crescent that contains language as vivid and precise as their own (worsening, destroying, hampering).
Example 2: Dawkins, Richard. Climbing Mount Improbable. London: Viking, 1996.
I have just listened to a lecture in which the topic for discussion was the fig. Not a botanical lecture, a literary one. We got the fig in literature, the fig as metaphor, changing perceptions of the fig, the fig as emblem of pudenda and the fig leaf as a modest concealer of them, “fig” as in insult, the social construction of the fig, D.H. Lawrence on how to eat a fig in society, “reading fig,” and, I rather think, “the fig as text.” The speaker’s final pensée was the following. He recalled to us the Genesis story of Eve tempting Adam to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Genesis doesn’t specify, he reminded us, which fruit it was. Traditionally, people take it to be an apple. The lecturer suspected that actually it was a fig, and with this piquant little shaft he ended his talk. . . .But our elegant lecturer was missing so much. There is a genuine paradox and real poetry lurking in the fig, with subtleties to exercise an inquiring mind and wonders to uplift an aesthetic one. In this book I want to move to a position where I can tell the true story of the fig.
With these opening lines from Climbing Mount Improbable, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins uses just about every rhetorical trick to hook and hold our attention: humor, metaphor, concrete nouns, active verbs, varied sentence length, literary references, and more. He begins by placing us directly in the moment: “I have just listened to a lecture.” With a few well-chosen words, he constructs a breezy précis of what he has just heard: “We got the fig in literature, the fig as metaphor.” Dawkins’s lightly sarcastic tone—“I rather thank,” “the speaker’s final pensée,” “this piquant little shift”—risks turning some readers off. But his offer to tell us the true story of the fig, an emblem of evolutionary improbability at its most intriguing and bizarre, will keep most of us turning the pages.
As you can see, openings not only pave the way for the articulation of your central claim, but they also establish your credibility (as you summarize past research on the subject or acknowledge the status quo thinking on the subject), and reveal exactly what motivates you to offer an alternative approach (as you gently by firmly say what’s limited, incomplete, or wrong-headed about what’s been said before). In other words, the CARS pattern operates as a kind of academic etiquette—a writerly move performed so as to place you at the table. Once seated, we are ready to listen to your argument or analysis.