The introduction is one of the most important sections of a report—or, for that matter, any document—but introductions are often poorly written. One reason may be that people misunderstand the purpose of introductions. An introduction introduces readers to the report and not necessarily, or only minimally, to the subject matter. Introduction does not equal background information; it may contain it but only minimally.
Readers have an understandable need to know some basic things about a report before they begin reading it: such as what is it about, why was it written, what's it for, for whom it written, and what are its main contents. Readers need a basic orientation to the topic, purpose, situation, and contents of a report—in other words, an introduction.
Imagine that, years ago, you were writing a recommendation report about CD-ROM computer devices. You might be tempted to use the introduction to discuss the background of compact disc development or its theoretical side. That might be good stuff to include in the report, and it probably belongs in the report—but not in the introduction, or at least not in much detail or length.
For 10-page, doublespaced reports, introductions might average 1 page. On that one page, you might have three paragraphs, averaging 6 to 8 lines each. One of those paragraphs could be devoted to background information, to introducing the subject matter. But the other two paragraphs must do the job of introducing the report and orienting the reader to the report, as discused in the following.
Common Elements of Introductions
The following is a discussion of the common contents of introductions. Each of these elements is not required in all introductions, and some elements combine into the same sentence. Rather than mechanically applying these elements, write the introduction that seems right to you, then come back and search for these elements in it.
Topic. Somewhere early in the introduction, you need to indicate the specific topic of the report. Some introductions seem to want to hold readers in suspense for a while before they indicate the true topic. That's a bit of a gamble. A better approach is to indicate the topic early—such that you could circle the topic words somewhere in the first three to four lines of the introduction.
Purpose and situation. Somewhere, the report needs to indicate why it was written, for whom, and for what purpose. If the report provides recommendations on whether to implement a program, the introduction needs to indicate that somehow. You might also consider indicating something of the scope of the report—what it is not intended to accomplish.
Audience. The introduction also needs to indicate who are the appropriate or intended readers of the report—for example, "experienced technicians trained on the HAL/6000." Also, an introduction should indicate what level of experience or knowledge readers need to understand the report, if any. If none is needed, say that also. If the report was prepared for council members of the City of Utopia, Texas, the introduction needs to express that.
Overview of contents. The introduction to a report should, if nothing else, indicate the main contents of the report. Often this is done with an in-sentence list, as the examples in this part of the chapter illustrate (a bulleted vertical list is a bit overdoing it). For most reports, some sort of scope indication is also needed in the introduction: some statement about what topics the report does not cover.
Background on the topic. This is everybody's favorite! Some minimal background is usually in order for an introduction—for example, some key definitions, some historical background, some theory, something on the importance of the subject. Information like this gets readers interested, motivated to read, grounded in some fundamental concepts. Watch out, though—this discussion can get away from you and fill up more than page. If it does, that's okay; all is not lost. That just shows the information is important and should be in the report—just not in the introduction. Move it in to the body of the report, or into an appendix.
Background on the situation. Another kind of background is also a good candidate for introductions—the situation that brought about the need for the report. For example, if there were a lot of conflicting data about some new technology, which brought about the need for the research, this background could be summarized in the introduction. For example, if a company needed new equipment of some kind or if the company had some problem or need and some requirements in relation to that equipment—discussion of these matters should go in the introduction.
Notice in the discussion of these elements the word "indicate" keeps getting used. That's because you'd like to avoid heavy-handed language such as "The topic of this report is..." or "This report has been written for..." Often there are nicer ways to express these things. For example, if your report is about grammar-checking software, just make sure that phrase occurs at some appropriate place early in the introduction—you don't need to drone something like "The topic of this report is grammar-checking software..." Of course, if this direct approach is the only or the best way to express it, then do it! Notice in the example introductions that this kind of phrasing does occur.
Example introduction with contract elements included.
Example introduction with most of the key elements present.
We don't normally think that there is more than one introduction in a report. However, in reports over 8 to 10 or more pages, the individual sections also need some sort of introduction. These can be called section introductions because they prepare you to read a section of a report—they orient you to its contents and purpose.
Of course, a section introduction need not have all the elements of a report introduction. However, it does have several that, if handled well, can make a lot of difference in the clarity and flow of a report.
Example section introduction. Notice that this section introduction not only mentions the preceding and upcoming topics but shows how they are related.
Topic indication. As with the report introduction, indicate the topic of the upcoming section. But remember—it doesn't have to be the stodgy, heavy-handed "The topic of this next section of the report is..."
Contents overview. Just as in the report introduction, it is a good idea to list the main contents. The in-sentence list serves this purpose well.
Transition. An element that is very useful in section introductions but irrelevant in report introductions is the transitional phrasing that indicates how the preceding section is related to the one about to start. In reports of any length and complexity, it is a good technique—it guides readers along, showing them how the parts of the report all fit together.
Revision Checklist for Introductions
As you revise your introductions, watch out for problems such as the following:
- Avoid writing an introduction consisting of only background information; avoid allowing background information to overwhelm the key elements of the introduction.
- Make sure the topic of the report is indicated early.
- Be sure to indicate the audience and situation—what the readers should expect from the report; what knowledge or background they need to understand the report; what situation brought about the need for the report.
- Make sure there is an overview of the report contents, plus scope information—what the report doesn't cover.