The Hourglass Paragraph Structure

Ben Neely · January 6, 2023

As a post-doc at MUSC we had a grant writing class, and Dr. Ed Krug introduced me to one of my failsafe writing crutches: the hourglass paragraph structure (note: I don’t know if this is an actual term, though it does sound very official). I am not 100 % sure this is exactly what Ed taught us, but over the years this is how I implement it to write paragraphs in introduction and discussion sections of papers when I am stuck. I am not an exceptional writer by any means, and like all writers I sometimes have trouble getting things on paper. This formulaic trick doesn’t work without a general outline first, so note that my first step is to outline out what a paper could look like, or at least sections. I am very vanilla here with the classic five paragraphs (start, 3 points, end) and typically focusing on the top three take home points (for intro or discussion sections). But onto the actual hourglass paragraph formula.

The hourglass structure is start broad, go specific, and come back out broad.

Specifically, it is:

  1. Broad statement, often leading from the last paragraph.
  2. Some slightly specific statement derived/within that broad statement.
  3. Supporting/Contrary example of specific statement 1 (based on literature or results).
  4. Supporting/Contrary example of specific statement 2 (based on literature or results).
  5. Supporting/Contrary example of specific statement 3 (based on literature or results).
  6. Bring it back to the specific statement but in context of initial broad statement (possibly with the next parapgraph in mind).

You can stop reading here, but below is an off the cuff example.

I am about to leave work for the weekend, so this is a completely fresh example. I am going to use a fictitious example of why pelicans shouldn’t be pets. Excuse me if this is horrible, I am just tossing this down and it was the easiest idea that came to mind.

  1. Pelicans are majestic creatures that live throughout the coastal united states.
  2. Although they are wild animals protected by law, there has been a growing movement to keep pelicans as pets.
  3. Since pelicans are birds, one of the most off-putting traits for a new owner is the amount of guano they produce, which is estimated to be 20 lbs per bird per day (ref).
  4. Additionally, though the pelican’s beak is iconic, it is also quite dangerous and has been known to cause bodily harm to humans, including broken bones (ref).
  5. Finally, a pelican requires a constant diet of fresh fish, which according to LaCruset et al. was shown to encourage rodent harborage in the home environment (ref).
  6. It is evident that given the many difficulties and dangers of keeping pelicans, keeping them as pets should not be pursued.

This is a horrible paragraph, but the point is that I wrote something down. If I had an actual outline with actual references you can see that this could easily create the bones of a paragraph quite easily. And really, that is the goal when you have writer’s block: get something down and come back to it later.

But let’s get ChatGPT involved too and compare notes

There are some resources around that describe what a good abstract is (ex. Nature Summary Paragraph, or abstracts in general), but since we are on this LLM ChatGPT kick, I wanted to see if ChatGPT could write me something, but then also tell me what the paragraph structure it used was. I am going to stick with an abstract in Nature. I really want to be clear I wrote the paragraph above first and then the following happened.

Me: Can you write a 200 word abstract for the journal Nature Methods that describes the problem with people keeping pelicans as pets, with some issues including feed and care, and being attacked by the pet pelican.

ChatGPT: Pelicans are large, majestic birds that are native to a variety of habitats around the world, including coastal areas, rivers, and lakes. Despite their impressive size and beauty, pelicans are not suitable pets for a number of reasons. One of the main problems with keeping pelicans as pets is their diet and care requirements. Pelican species vary in terms of their preferred foods, but many are fish-eaters and require a consistent supply of fresh fish to stay healthy. This can be difficult and expensive for pet owners to provide, particularly if the pelican is being kept in an urban or suburban environment.

Another issue with keeping pelicans as pets is their potential for aggression. While pelicans are generally not aggressive towards humans, they can become territorial and may attack people who come too close to their nests or chicks. This can be dangerous, especially for small children or elderly individuals who may not be able to defend themselves against a large, powerful bird.

In addition to these practical concerns, it is also important to consider the welfare of the pelican itself. These birds are social animals that are adapted to living in large flocks and flying long distances. In captivity, they may be deprived of these natural behaviors, leading to stress and boredom.

Overall, while pelicans may seem like appealing pets due to their size and beauty, they are not well-suited to life in captivity. It is important for potential pet owners to carefully consider the needs and well-being of these animals before deciding to bring one into their home.

Me: That is actually 260 words, but never mind, I like it. Can you describe to me the paragraph structure you used to make this abstract?

ChatGPT: Sure! Here is the paragraph structure that I used to create the abstract:

Paragraph 1: Introduction to the topic of pelicans as pets and a brief overview of the main issues that will be discussed.

Paragraph 2: Discussion of the difficulties and expenses associated with providing the appropriate diet and care for pelicans as pets.

Paragraph 3: Discussion of the potential for pelicans to exhibit aggressive behavior towards humans, particularly in the context of territoriality and protecting their young.

Paragraph 4: Discussion of the welfare concerns related to keeping pelicans as pets, including the need for socialization and the opportunity to engage in natural behaviors.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion that pelicans are not suitable pets due to their care and welfare needs, and the importance of considering these factors before deciding to bring one into a home.

Me: Based on this discussion do you think you would like a pelican as a pet?

ChatGPT: As an artificial intelligence, I don’t have personal preferences or desires. However, based on the information I have provided about the challenges and difficulties of keeping pelicans as pets, it seems that they would not be well-suited to life in captivity. They have specific diet and care requirements, and may exhibit aggressive behavior towards humans under certain circumstances. Additionally, they may be deprived of the opportunity to engage in natural behaviors and socialization in a domestic setting. For these reasons, it is important for potential pet owners to carefully consider the needs and well-being of pelicans before deciding to bring one into their home.