Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Third Minute of Your Reader's Attention

A good introduction to a journal article need not take more than three minutes to read. In the first minute, you construct a world of practice; in the second, you frame an object in theory; in the third you state your thesis. After the three minutes are up, your reader should know what you are trying to show them and how you intend to show it to them. This morning I want to talk about the third minute—the last paragraph of the introduction.

Remember that your reader already knows what (worldly) practice you are writing about and what (scientific) theory you are guided by. The third paragraph could begin "This paper shows that...," and then state your thesis in clear, plain language. The sentence will take maybe five seconds to read. Next, there should be two or three sentences—ten to twenty seconds' worth—about your method. Then, two or three sentences summarising your analysis (stating the sub-theses that amount to your larger thesis, which you've already stated). Finally, there should be two or three sentences that summarise the implications section of your paper, answering the question, "So what? Why is this important?"

This paragraph is useful to think about in part because it is possible for me to structure it at such a fine level of detail without knowing what you are writing about. If we assume (as we should) that the reader has already given you their attention, and we assume (as we can) that the reader can read 200 words in about a minute, then we can reasonably ask what the reader should be experiencing basically second for second. Reading, after all, is a linear process. We are designing an experience for the reader one word at a time; we control exactly what is "going through the reader's mind".

About five seconds to state your thesis. Fifteen seconds of method. Fifteen seconds of analysis. Fifteen seconds of implications. And, yes, please remember, friends, that, like you, the reader is always fourfiveseconds from wilding. They have given you their attention. Don't take their kindness for weakness.

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