Wednesday, August 18, 2010

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Most novels have unmemorable opening lines. Some, however, are eternally memorable, either because they are very good or very bad.

There is one opening line in particular that I have always found very strange:

Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel.
- Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

I was incredulous when I first read that, lo these many years ago. I thought it was the strangest first line of a novel ever, and I have never forgotten it.

One of my all-time favorite opening lines is:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
- Samuel Beckett, Murphy

When I first read that bleak line, also many years ago, I thought it was amazing, despite being a generally cheerful and optimistic person. It doesn't have the same impact on me these days, but I still remember the feeling of first reading it.

But what about the first lines of research articles or books?

Do you try to make your very first line -- of the abstract, of the introduction -- compelling, or do you take a more holistic approach, hoping that the reader will get through at least the first few sentences, or paragraphs, and, through the cumulative effect of several informative or interesting statements, get sucked into the rest of the paper, chapter, or book?

That is, how much do you try to pack into the first sentence?

Do you use the first sentence for giving context for your own work or do you dive straight into your most awesome result(s) and build the context around that in subsequent sentences?

I was recently working on the first sentence of a paper and was reminded, for no particular reason, of the days when my daughter was an infant and my husband and I carried a backpack that had all sorts of stuff in it that we might need on excursions, however, brief. Whenever we put things into the pack, we tried to organize it so that the items we might need first or most often or most quickly were the most accessible, but that actually described 90% of the items in the bag. We used to joke that everything had to be at the top of the bag.

When writing a first sentence, it is tempting to put everything on top of the bag. The perfect first sentence of a research article would have both the context and the coolest results in it, yet be reasonably short, very understandable, and of course compelling. Some topics lend themselves to this more than others.

In the manuscript I wrote recently, I decided to devote the first sentence to setting up the research question, and the second sentence to my awesome results. This seems to work OK, but I can't help wishing that I could combine them into one perfect (but short) sentence.

Can you think of any particularly good or particularly bad (or otherwise memorable) first lines in research articles, chapters, or books?

And then there is the issue of the title. To colonize or not to colonize: that is another question.


GMP said...

When you say "the first sentence or a research article," so you mean the first sentence overall -- which would be in the abstract -- or the first sentence in the body of the article?

I start an abstract with a succinct single-sentence statement of what we did ("We present such and such (awesome) calculation/measurement of such and such propert(y/ies) of such and such systems under such and such conditions."), followed by a couple of sentences of what we found and why it is awesome/important/novel (the main finding/point of the article).

However, I usually write the first sentence of the body of the paper as a statement on a well-known property, essentially serving to introduce the broad category of problems to which mine belongs. (For instance, if you are going to talk about heat and charge transport in metallic nanostructures you may open with a general-knowledge sentence such as "Electrical and thermal conductivity in bulk metals are connected through the Wiedemann-Franz law." For extra smugness you can preface the statement with "It is well known that...") In my opinion, the first paragraph of the article's body serves to stage the area and introducte important problems (among which is the one you are attacking in paper).

In my opinion, the first paragraph should be easily followed by someone with a BS in the general field. In contrast, the abstract should go straight for the jugular and quickly reveal what was done and how, and why the reader should care.

almost-PhD said...

Colonize! HAHA!! :-D

Sorry for the lack of a substantial comment, but that bit just made my day. Hilarious!

David Stern said...

A lot of my titles are questions or I am going for very short and to the point descriptors that seem to lay claim to the whole field. These are more likely to get hit in Google searches etc. Only one of my recent titles has a colon. If there is a colon, usually I put the methodology after the colon e.g. "A meta-analysis".

Ryan Morehead said...

One of the most famous papers in cognitive psychology has both an awesome title and first line. George Miller's "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information"

The first line reads: My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer.

Matthias Gallé said...

Sorry for the spanish, but I am not aware of any good english translation:
"Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo"
From "One Hundred Years of Solitude" of Gabriel García Marquez. It is the kind of sentence that gets you right into the plot of the book, but at the same time gives an idea of what will happen afterwards.

Joseph said...

I *wish* I could be witty. Sadly, I have to be "professional" for the forseeable future. Perhaps the first line, but even then probably not. I do fantasize about being able to do what I want in an article.

Regarding titles: I am very very tired of reading titles that uselessly include a colon (Generic Text: actual real title here) that at this point, I'm entirely in favor of compulsory colonectomy.

Naomi said...

For novels, I do my best to withhold judgment until the end of Chapter One. Keri Hulme's The Bone People still lingers with me, the opening line was dialogue.

With research papers, the opening paragraph and literature review often seem unnecessarily heavy handed (social science) so I usually skip to the Methods and Results section.

Anonymous said...

I find that either authors (of journal articles) or the editors are horrible writers.

Certainly at least the abstract needs to be in plain high school-level English.

A Sagan, DeGrasse Tyson, etc. doesn't come along often enough.

Thinkerbell said...

I have to admit I am a fan of colons myself. As far as opening sentences go, I begin with a general statement to lay out the field. But I do my best to make it an 'orginal' sentence that reflects some of my current interests or going ons - nothing wrong with a little personality.

Anonymous said...

"Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo"

Here's one translation:

Much later in his life, while facing the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía would remember that time long ago, when one afternoon his father took him to see ice for the first time in his life.

A more literal one:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Something in between:

Many years later, in front of the firing squad, colonel Aureliano Buendía would remember that distant afternoon his father took him to see ice.

Rosie Redfield said...

I try to put the big question that the paper addresses as the first sentence.

Something like "Many bacteria take up DNA fragments from their surroundings but the evolutionary benefits of this are controversial."

Derrick Stolee said...

In Russel Impaggliazzo and Ryan William's article "Communication Complexity with Synchronized Clocks" from the Conference on Computational Complexity starts with:

"Sometimes silence speaks."

Meaning: with synchronized clocks, two communicating parties get an extra bit of information by deciding not to say anything for a time period.

CrankyMathGuy said...

inBetween said...

Not a title or a first line, but my favorite reference was in a paper about human sexual behavior. The authors wrote something along the lines of "human females are always sexually receptive (ref)". The reference? a personal communication from a known philanderer in the discipline. I think it might have even been footnote #69.

Anonymous said...

In the first sentence, my students like to tell me how popular their chosen (computer science) field is. How boring! So is any sentence saying something like "In the modern world of today, ...". I like a paper to get to the content right away. What was the question? What did you do to answer it? That's what I'm interested in. Try to avoid the passive voice in at least the first few sentences!

Female Computer Scientist said...

I generally follow this advice when writing introductions and abstracts, because it makes for really crisp and clear writing. (Pay no mind to the awful font - there's great writing advice in there)

As for the very first sentence, I rarely talk about my work. It's almost always a high-level view of the problem area to draw people in. It's only toward the end of the introduction where I tease with a few lines about the awesome results, so people are compelled to read further.

engineering girl said...

The first sentence of patents tend to be pretty clear and concise, but have little entertainment value. Here we present (the invention)", or "The invention is (description" are common ways to begin a patent. Considering that patents are legal documents, this makes sense. Eloquence probably isn't going to get you far in a patent court case.

Research articles, I think you can be a little more creative though. Tell a story perhaps? Meh, I've only published one paper before, so I don't really know what I'm talking about. But there's no reason science can't be entertaining:)

MathTT said...

Novel first line that I love: "I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine's father over the top of the Standard Oil sign." (From "The Bean Trees" by Barbara Kingsolver.)

And I second Naomi's vote for "The Bone People," which I used to re-read almost every year, until a good friend borrowed it and never gave it back.

As for articles, I struggle the most with the introduction as a whole (and the abstract even more so), but I don't tend to labor over the first sentence.

In a novel, the first sentence is like a promise to the reader... stick with me, and more of this is to come. In a research paper, I'll read the whole abstract to decide if I'm going to put any more time into it. But I don't care so much that the first sentence packs a wallop.

LawrenceOfAcademia said...

I still remember this opening from a graduate textbook in applied physics:

Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics. Perhaps it will be wise to approach the subject cautiously.

EliRabett said...

Hard to top Marquez, but this one from Thomas Knutson ain't bad:

Michaels et al. (2005, hereafter MKL) recall the question of Ellsaesser: “Should we trust models or observations?” In reply we note that if we had observations of the future, we obviously would trust them more than models, but unfortunately observations of the future are not available at this time.

Anonymous said...

One thing that I do appreciate about science is that colonized titles are not imperatives as they are in the social sciences and humanities. Amusing as some of their titles are, the format has gotten really stale and boring.

revathi said...

Most of the first sentences in scientific articles are mundane and not worth reading. Some of them give an awful lot of references for each word making it even more useless. For example, carbon nanotubes (1-25)are prepared generally by chemical vapor deposition (25-50)!