Adventures in funneling: how to tell your reader what your paper is about
As I discussed in a previous post, I’ve edited many papers in which it took the authors much too long to clarify what the specific topic of the research was. On a couple of rare but memorable occasions, multiple readings of the whole paper still did not reveal the topic. The only thing that was clear was that the authors had several potential, but ill-formed, hypotheses that didn’t suggest any coherent story.
One of the kindest things you can do for your reader (and for reviewers, and therefore for yourself) is to prevent them having to struggle to understand, at the most basic level, what you are writing about.
Different journals have different requirements or conventions about how much introductory material you need to include to prepare your reader for understanding your study. Some journals prefer a relatively thorough literature review, while others want you to get to the point within just a few paragraphs. If the journal is not specific on this point, you will have to strike an appropriate balance between thoroughness and brevity. (I’ve always chosen to err on the side of thoroughness, lest reviewers think I’m uninformed on my topic. In any case, it’s much less painful to trim away unneeded details than to have to respond to a reviewer’s questions as to why you didn’t include seminal studies X, Y, and Z in your introduction.)
Regardless of which style your chosen journal prefers, there are three things you must do to ensure that readers understand your topic and how you are going to tackle it:
- Introduce the general area of study.
For example, if you are studying ways to improve people’s willingness to engage in retirement planning, you’d be well advised to start by convincing the reader that there is a problem to be solved in this area. You may want to lead with statistics that show how few people have invested in their retirement, or survey data that demonstrate a reluctance to engage in retirement planning activities, or data that document ignorance about what a healthy retirement plan looks like. You haven’t yet opened the door to your own study, but you’ve led your readers to the right neighborhood, and the astute ones will already have a strong hunch about the problem you’re going to address.
Two mistakes I commonly see writers make at this stage are that they interpret the words “general area” to mean “the known universe,” or they are so immersed in the subject matter that they think they are giving a 10,000-foot view when they are actually already down in the weeds, where the reader can’t see much and will quickly lose interest in looking for the point. In the retirement planning example, the “known universe” problem would be illustrated by an author who spends the first two paragraphs on an exposition of the sorry state of personal finances (waiting too long to get to retirement planning specifically). An “in the weeds” example might begin with some statistics about very specific aspects of retirement planning, such as, “Americans, on average, save about 5% of their earnings. The average individual retirement account at age 65 is in excess of $200,000.” Given this introductory information, your reader might as well toss a coin as try to predict whether your study will be about Americans’ wretched savings habits, the relationship between personal savings and IRA accumulation, or perhaps people’s intuitions about how much money they need to retire. There might be a good reason to include both of these sentences in your paper, but they definitely don’t belong together at the beginning, where they are forced into a desperate duel to win the reader’s guess as to what your paper will be about. A better first sentence might say, “Although most Americans look forward to enjoying their retirement years, relatively few are actually prepared financially for this life transition.” The general problem is clear from the start: People aren’t prepared financially for retirement.
- Describe what is already known about this problem.
One of my favorite old arcade games was called Space Wars, which involved two players duking it out with their own space ships. You could control several parameters of the game. Two were particularly interesting and are relevant here. One feature, called “hyperspace,” allowed you to disappear from your current location and reappear in a new and random location. Another was that you could set the amount of gravity that you and your opponent had to deal with. If you set the play to high gravity, then whenever you or your opponent got near the star in the center of the screen, you’d be drawn into it (and implode).
Why do I bring this up? Because some Introduction sections I read are more like hyperspace, when they should be more like high gravity (minus the implosion). A “hyperspace” introduction has no logical path for the reader to follow; it might discuss past research on financial planning, then move to studies about consumers’ opinions on how much money they need to retire, then compare financial planning strategies in various countries. The reader gets dizzy from traveling all over the knowledge solar system, not knowing where she will end up next.
Instead of hyperspace, consider high gravity: After introducing the problem (that Americans are poorly prepared financially for retirement), you might start building a case by citing some studies that document the poor preparation. (If the topic is controversial, discuss the controversy.) Next, you could consider what the gaps are in the literature, i.e., why a new study is needed. Is there simply no research on this problem? If there isn’t, then consider studies about preparing for some other distant life event, like children’s college expenses, or a big vacation, and discuss the methods employed to understand that problem. Is there a technique that other researchers have used that seems reasonable to try? If so, explain the technique (with references) and why you think it is applicable. The path of breadcrumbs is leading right to the doorstep of your study. If someone stopped your reader a paragraph away from the end of the Intro, she should still be able to render a pretty good guess about how that section will end.
- Tell the reader what your contribution will be.
It should all make perfect sense by the time the reader gets here, but surprisingly many authors fail to actually come out and state what they are going to do. I’ve ridden the subway to your neighborhood; I’ve used your directions to get me to your house. Now I’m standing on your doorstep, and I’d like to know for sure that the reason I think I’m here is actually the right one before I amble into your Method section.
Here’s a nice example of the way that the final sentences of an Introduction section lead the reader directly to the point of the study. It’s from a paper titled, “Influence of future time perspective, financial knowledge, and financial risk tolerance on retirement saving behaviors.” I’ve shortened it a bit for illustrative purposes:
[F]our substantive research questions are addressed: (1) Does future time perspective interact with financial knowledge to influence saving tendencies? (2) Does the effect of risk tolerance on saving depend on how much an individual knows about financial planning for retirement? (3) Does the effect of risk tolerance on saving depend on one’s level of future time perspective? And finally, (4) Does the effect of risk tolerance on saving depend on a combination of future time perspective and financial knowledge? All four questions will be answered by examining the pattern of two- and three-way statistical interactions among the three variables using regression models designed to predict retirement saving tendencies. (Jacob-Lawson & Hershey, 2005, p. 334)
That’s high gravity in action. The logic moves inevitably closer to the heart of the study, without detours or guesswork.
If you find it difficult to create such a clear, high-gravity path for your reader, the likely reason is that you aren’t sure yourself what your paper is about. Maybe you have more data than belong in a single paper. Maybe you tested hypotheses that weren’t closely related and therefore don’t hang together in any coherent way. Those problems are fixable by dividing the work into more than one paper, or reporting them as separate aspects of a larger problem. It’s definitely worth the effort to address each of the three points above before you submit your paper. When it comes to science writing, high gravity won’t cause your readers to implode; they’ll actually be grateful for the smooth ride.
Jacobs-Lawson, J. M., & Hershey, D. A. (2005). Influence of future time perspective, financial knowledge, and financial risk tolerance on retirement saving behaviors. Financial Services Review, 14(4), 331.
Need help crafting your next paper or revision? That’s what we do.