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Dr. Stirewalt's 5-paragraph rule for writing Introductions

Of the many tasks involved in writing a good conference paper, I find writing the introduction section to be the most difficult. This is unfortunate, as a poorly structured argument sets the wrong tone for what might otherwise be really good research. To help manage this painful process, I have developed a heuristic, called the five-paragraph rule, that is useful for organizing introductions. The heuristic prescribes that good introductions should contain a sequence of five major pieces, each of which should fit into a single paragraph in order to force the writer to communicate at the appropriate level of abstraction.

The heuristic borrows ideas from persuasive argument and structured analysis/structured design (ala DeMarco/Yourdon), and it is reminscent of a similar structuring mechanism from freshman level courses in English composition. My success in publishing papers increased dramatically once I began to use this heuristic to structure my introductions.

The heuristic is: Design your introductions to comprise five paragraphs whose purpose and contents are as follows:

1) Introductory paragraph:
Very briefly: What is the problem and why is it relevant to the audience attending *THIS CONFERENCE*? Moreover, why is the problem hard, and what is your solution? You must be brief here. This forces you to boil down your contribution to its bare essence and communicate it directly.

2) Background paragraph:
Elaborate on why the problem is hard, critically examining prior work, trying to tease out one or two central shortcomings that your solution overcomes.

3) Transition paragraph:
What keen insight did you apply to overcome the shortcomings of other approaches? Structure this paragraph like a syllogism: Whereas P and P => Q, infer Q.

4) Details paragraph:
What technical challenges did you have to overcome and what kinds of validation did you perform?

5) Assessment paragraph:
Assess your results and briefly state the broadly interesting conclusions that these results support. This may only take a couple of sentences. I usually then follow these sentences by an optional overview of the structure of the paper with interleaved section callouts.