Barry W. Hamilton, Ph.D.

Northeastern Seminary (Rochester, NY)


The ‘funnel paragraph’ is commonly taught in high school and college first-year English classes.  The principle is to start with a broad topic sentence and narrow down the topic sentence-by-sentence until the end of the introductory paragraph.  The paragraph should end with the thesis statement for the research project.  By starting with a broad topic sentence, the writer starts with what the reader should already know and moves toward what the reader doesn’t know, but should after reading the paper.  The thesis statement connects known and unknown—a bridge to new knowledge. 


Compare the ‘funnel paragraph’ to watercolor painting—when the artist begins a watercolor, s/he prepares a “wash”—the plain white surface of the paper is covered with the background color that establishes the fundamental tone of the painting.  Likewise, the ‘funnel paragraph’ sets the tone for the research paper, attracting the interest of readers and leading them to the thesis statement, that tells them what the paper is going to accomplish.


Remember those Bible stories in children’s Sunday school classes?  Church publishing houses made props for those stories in paper or flannel (the latter was called ‘flannelgraph’).  The teacher would select a background setting—an artist’s concept of a Bible story scene—Palestinian house, a dirt road, palm trees, hills in the distance, etc.  Then s/he would add figures to the background while telling the story.  The ‘funnel paragraph’ is like that background—it establishes a background for the account of your research.


The ‘funnel paragraph’ can also be compared to the opening music at the beginning of a film production.  The opening music hints at the nature of the production, and generates expectations in the audience.  Compare the difference between the opening music for Gone with the Wind, which sets a tone of nostalgic grandeur, with the musical accompaniment that opens a Three Stooges production.  Like a drama or film, the first paragraph of a research paper establishes the audience’s expectations.


Your opening statement should be a ‘focused generalization’ that sketches the background for your thesis statement, not an overgeneralization that insults your readers.   This pegs your specific topic to the scholarly community that might be interested in your work.  It increases the odds that readers will recognize your topic, rather than view your research as esoteric. 


Place keywords strategically in each sentence of your introductory paragraph, if possible, moving from general to specific.  Notice how the focus moves from ‘wide angle’ to ‘telephoto’ in the following example:


“Scholars (or teachers or researchers) have generally noted the persecution that frequently accompanied the revivals of holiness evangelists in Texas in the late nineteenth century.  Evangelists like William B. Godbey were often threatened with rope and ‘six-shooter’ by angry mobs and anonymous notes signed by ‘Judge Lynch’ or ‘Ku Klux.’  However, no one has closely examined the gender composition of these mobs, some of whom threw eggs or dirt clods at the evangelist.  Not a single woman is mentioned as taking part in these attacks.  According to the eyewitness accounts, these mobs were composed entirely of men, apparently angered over the preaching of sanctification to revival audiences, of which the majority attending were women.  This disparity reveals the sexual politics of the early holiness movement in Texas, in which women sought transcendence—or even deliverance—from an oppressive marriage, through the experience of entire sanctification.”


Remember—start with the ‘focused generalization’ and move with progressively more focused sentences until the last sentence of the opening paragraph is the thesis statement.  The reverse order never works.  And don’t hold your audience in suspense until the conclusion—this drastically reduces the rhetorical effect of the thesis statement.  Put the thesis statement in the first paragraph.  If you take two or three paragraphs to get to the thesis statement—especially in a relatively short paper—you risk losing your readers’ attention.  And keep the length of the first paragraph to about four or five sentences.  Keep your style formal and direct.




Page Last Modified


24 February 2006