(Joseph Williams uses this proverb in his book Style.)
When I make a judgment on an article for a peer-reviewed journal, if the first paragraph is excellent, clear, and well-written, then I know immediately that the article will probably be an acceptance or a revise-and-resubmit. Why? Because the introduction is the hardest part to write. If the scholar is able to pull that off, then I can predict she will be able to write an entire article, or be competent to correct problems I see in the remainder of the article.
Conversely, if the introduction contains freshman-level errors of composition, does not give me a clear idea of what the paper is going to be about; if the thesis is weak; then I suspect the article will be a rejection. Why? Because the introduction is the part of the paper that the writer should have written with the greatest care.
In either case, the quality of the introduction has about 95% predictive value.
Writing a good introduction means that you've gone half-way toward convincing the reader that you are a competent scholar. It should also give you the confidence to proceed, having the same rhetorical effect on yourself.
Yes, if you've got a good introduction you have by definition, (a) positioned your claim in a relevant conversation (addressed your audience and identified the scholarly literature), (b) made an interesting, comprehensible claim, (c) outlined your main arguments in its favor, and (d) presented the structure of the text to follow.
After getting all that settled, it would be a real pity if you didn't just write the paper too!
Thomas's list is excellent; I would add that the very best introductions do all of those four things without direct highlighting ("signposting") of them. For example, the structure is implicit, not stated as "I will address four examples" or the like.
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