Introductions: not a funnel but a T

The world being pushed into a funnel shape

Some people find the traditional description of an introduction as a ‘funnel’ really helpful.  Some people, on the other hand, really struggle to move their writing from general to specific in incremental steps.  What’s more, when looking at journal articles to try to find some good examples, I only found one (one!) that fit the traditional ‘funnel’ model. So perhaps we need to think about this differently.

When I did my survey, however I did find some definite patterns.

The introduction should have:

  1. A broad statement of the topic–what you are going to discuss
  2. A specific statement of your argument
  3. [Sometimes a road map of the work as a whole]
  4. The  answer to your research question

When you’re taught to write at school, lots of people seem to have been told to start with a ‘global’ statement and then ‘funnel’ it down to a specific argument for their essay.  This means many people start with a mouth of a funnel that is the size of the whole world, and then struggle to get it down to something that will fit in a 20 minute conference paper, or a 7,000 article, or a 10,000 chapter. I can tell you now, no book in the world is long enough to start with a truly global statement and funnel it incrementally down to your specific argument.

The Universe, the Solar System, the World, the Asia-Pacific region, the Australian Continent, the State of Victoria, the City of Melbourne, North of the Yarra, the suburb of Parkville, the University of Melbourne, Melbourne Students and Learning (previously the Division of the Provost), Student Services, Student Programs, Academic Skills, first floor, third cubicle on the right, at the desk, on the chair, me. 

The world being pushed into a funnel shape
This is such a bad idea

Moreover, in the diagram, ‘your focus’ is still the size of North America.  It ought to be the size of… say… Hackney:

Instead, it can be helpful to think of introductions as a T shape.  A broad (but not all encompassing) top statement, just enough to give the reader some context, and then focus right down on your specific topic or argument.

What you’re doing is, of course, describing your position in the field (which I covered in this other post in which ‘I’m defining the field by… standing in a paddock.’

 So, you want a sentence that positions your argument, and helps orient the reader, but doesn’t worry too much about explaining everything that ever happened anywhere.  The same is true for any context you give.  You need to ask: What background information is useful to the reader, and what is extraneous?  You don’t need a Brief History of Everything, so you only need to explain a few pertinent facts, theories or technical terms.  You can then write the background information, which will be specific and useful.
In the final work, some people arrange the context then the introduction; others the introduction then the context.  It doesn’t matter–as long as you draft the introductory information first!

A broad statement (in the wide top of the T); and a statement of position (in the narrow downward stroke)

What are some ways to  sketch that broad bar of the ‘T’ in writing?  Here are some potential first sentences

In the late sixteenth century, playwrights like William Shakespeare were often also producers and shareholders in their companies and theatres.

Insomnia is a common medical problem which has received much research attention in the research (Finch, Machel and Wong, 1999). Using CBT to combat insomnia, however, is a relatively new field (Bankole, Chang and Singh, 2012).

The social construction of the habitus of the studio for artists has been the subject of philosophical speculation from Plato to Bourdieu.

These are all big statements, they use generalising terms like oftencommon. They use big but defined periods of time, from Plato to Bourdieuin the late sixteenth century, relatively new. They flag the major thinkers, figures, or researchers who will be used, William Shakespeare, Finch etc, Bankole etc, Plato, Bourdieu. They include some key terms that I would expect to be significant for the rest of the written text, playwrights, producers and shareholders, insomnia, studio, artists. Finally, they mark their methodological approach, historicism, CBT, Bourdieu’s ‘habitus’.

Then you move on to the narrow downward tail of the T.

This history provides evidence of how ‘race’ has been performatively coded by different directorial approaches to The Floating World.

My discussion will centre on the three alter egos of Calvino that appear in the novel: the earnest writer Silas Flannery, the devious translator Ermes Marana, and the impossible-to-please female reader, Ludmilla.

I propose to answer this question by reconciling the seemingly incompatible readings of Murakami’s works in Japan and in America with the author’s works.

The above are slightly adapted quotes from a first year English Studies reader from a course I taught recently (from Gilbert 2001, Feinstein 1989, Chozick 2008).  In English Studies it is perfectly acceptable to use the first person when setting out your argument, especially in single author papers. Even if you are from a field where you don’t  use ‘I’ in your final draft, use it in your first draft.  You are doing the writing, you are making the argument, writing ‘I’ helps you to own that, even if you later tidy it away behind a passive, impersonal construction.

This is all first draft, first thoughts, first writing stuff.  Being specific and taking control of your topic not only creates a good introduction, but a good introduction creates a good thesis.


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