Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2013

The Hourglass Technique

Most of us during school and then in our careers have to write research papers and reports and analyze. Some of us go on to write journal articles or textbooks, nonfiction books, or even novels as freelancers. At some point, we have to take a subject, narrow it to a related topic, decide on a thesis to express our idea, and write an organized text to communicate that idea or plot and its conclusions and deliver a well-received document.

The problem is that too often we get lost in the process and end up straying off topic or have trouble connecting our ideas or forming a clear thesis from the topic and then an argument strategy that relates to that topic and its thesis. Why does that happen? Because we have so many ideas about our topic or so many argument points, we simply have too many "cooks in the kitchen" to suggest a simple metaphor.

What is the solution then? Is there a clearly stated technique we can apply that keeps us from saying too much or not being focused in a paper? Yes, there is. It's a technique I used when I taught research paper and students told me they were panicked about writing a longer paper on one topic. They wanted to write a good paper, but got lost in the process. It's the Hourglass Technique of Writing. It is really simple and actually derived from the concept of outlining, but more visual and interactive in nature (which helps a lot of writers arrange their thinking as they plan a paper).

We all know what an hourglass is – two connected glass bulbs with sand that slowly flows from the top bulb to the bottom bulb through a narrow passage that connects the two. A 3-minute egg timer is a good example. The sand at the top flows through the narrow passageway into the bottom bulb until 3 minutes are up. Then we simply turn the hourglass upside down to restart the timing process again.

Let's consider the image of the hourglass and think about how a broad subject for writing must narrow to become a focused topic. Then that topic needs to narrow further still to become a precise thesis statement. At that point, we're at the narrow connection where the two bulbs of the hourglass meet. Using this image, we can move from the broad to the focused idea and develop a precise and significant thesis that relates back to the original topic we had when we started and produces a precisely related thesis statement. That statement becomes the precise question or hypothesis we then use to develop arguments and the discussion and work toward a logical conclusion. This downward selective narrowing process can look something like this: Main Subject narrowed to your Topic; then your Topic narrowed further downward to a Working Thesis, and finally, that Working Thesis narrowed to your focused Thesis Statement at the narrowest point in your writing "hourglass".

This is the first step – narrowing our ideas, so we can see the direction we want to take for the whole paper. We create our thesis statement from the too broad a subject that intrigued us in the first place and left us with too many ideas and confusion about how to proceed to narrow our thinking.

So what's next? Well, we simply move to the bottom part of the hourglass – the lower bulb. Our thesis statement now becomes a new "topic" for developing 3-4 main argument points related to our main thesis. All these main argument points derive from and relate back to your main thesis and from there back to your original topic and overall discipline or genre needed for your work. However, we have narrowed our thinking, so each argument point is carefully set apart and becomes its own hourglass that narrows to a sub-thesis and then expands to produce related detail to argue that sub-thesis. Indeed, we can go through the same exact thinking process as we did with the major thesis statement and develop each argument point's expanded detail and that support.

Thus, when we have finished the journey from the top of the hourglass to the bottom, we have expanded our thinking from an original broad subject to a thesis statement and then from that statement to 3-4 main argument points. We then develop each argument point as its own hourglass to find our sub-arguments and their support. In effect, what you have is the reverse of the first narrowing process: You use your main Thesis Statement to determine your first main Argument to support it. Then you determine an Argument Thesis from which you develop Sub-Arguments and then expand those to Argument Support to deliver your details and thinking for each Sub-Argument.

Each argument in your paper can go through the same hourglass process where the argument becomes a sub-topic and then is narrowed to produced a sub-thesis statement and then expanded (just like an hourglass at the bottom) to gather support, illustrations, and explanations. All of these relate back directly to your main thesis statement and your original topic and genre.

Try the concept. Draw a group of hourglasses on a piece of paper and use them as separate thinking tools to help you narrow a topic visually and then expand the thesis you've discovered into main arguments that repeat the same process. You can even stack the hourglasses if you want to make the thinking process on your topic a bit more complex. Narrow each main argument into its own thesis and then expand it to contain its own argument and supporting evidence.

By segmenting your thinking, you'll be more precise, yet more abstract in your thinking, and definitely more creative. You'll find your thinking will be better organized and yet integrated and connected. It works. I use the concept all the time in different writing genres. Eventually, it becomes second nature and one of your key writing tools.

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