6

I'm trying to write my first introduction sentence, which should be catchy. I came up with a sentence along the lines of "imagine the world without this super thing, all these things wouldn't be possible". Obviously, this case will not occur in the next million years and I guess I won't be able to find any paper supporting my claims. However, the described consequences still seem realistic.

As the rest of the introduction is very technical and dry, I think a fresh start is quite nice, but I'm worried someone might say that this first sentence is not scientific as nobody can back up my statement.

Is having a bit more colloquial or lurid kick-off sentence considered to be a "good" or "bad" scientific writing style?

  • 7
    I remember my English for Academic Purposes (EAP) teacher naming those the "dawn of mankind introductions". I guess in his mind, it means you should avoid such "catchy" phrases. – PatW Sep 16 '13 at 13:54
  • 10
    imagine the world — No. Just no. You're writing a scientific paper, not a movie trailer. – JeffE Sep 17 '13 at 0:46
13

I think there is a non negligible chance that this will make a bad first impression on the readers.

Don't get me wrong: I love it when people depart from the dry and oft boring “academic style” of writing and try to invigorate their papers: more concise writing, less use of conditional, more direct statements, use of active voice, stating one's opinion when need be, etc. But this should be done with the goal of making your paper easier to read, and not hyping it. If you start with a broad claim that has little to do with your actual conclusions, you may alienate some readers (“hey, I read the paper because the first line said that a world without gluons would be beneficial in the long term, but then it's only a boring particle physics paper!”).


To give a specific example, when I read papers dealing with physical and chemical properties of water, oftentimes the authors think it wise to start their introduction with a broad statements like:

Water is the most abundant molecule of the human body, and the second most common molecule in the Universe. Its presence or absence has dramatic consequences for human life and civilization: droughts cause famines and floods cause death and disease. Though it has a special relationship with our everyday lives, there is still much we need to learn about it.

and then end with:

In conclusion, we reported the most accurate measurement yet of the bending vibration frequency of heavy water, with an uncertainty of 10–9.

It annoys me.

  • I think I've read that paper on water. – Ben Norris Sep 16 '13 at 22:29
7

Is having a bit more colloquial or lurid kick-off sentence considered to be a "good" or "bad" scientific writing style?

It depends. If your attention catching statement is relevant, true, and tasteful, then it is probably "good" scientific writing style. However, if the connection to the rest of your paper and its findings is not immediately apparent, the veracity of the statement is in doubt, or it might be considered not tasteful, then it would be "bad" scientific writing style.

See also Eykanal's answer to this post about the appropriateness of humor in academic writing. These points apply here too. Don't compromise the integrity of the results--is it relevant? Use this type of statement sparingly. And last but by no means least, this may best be reserved for someone who is fairly well-known in their field--don't jeopardize your career!

I would add one more point to Eykanal's excellent advice above. Don't be afraid to be interesting! Just be sure that your interesting statements are in good taste.

3

With regard to citations: Generally, statements that are "common knowledge" don't require citations. Nor do statements that are purely conjectural, or are not intended to be taken literally. The opening sentences you have in mind seem to satisfy at least one of these criteria.

I won't venture an opinion on whether or not a creative opening sentence is a good idea or not.

3

I once wrote a journal paper[*] whose abstract was in the form of a limerick:

The analysis of control flow
Involves finding where returns may go.
      How this can be done
      With items LR(0) and (1)
Is what in this paper we show.

The reviewers seemed OK with it (which is to say, none of them took issue with it in their reviews), but the editor nixed it on the grounds that ACM's indexing software wouldn't deal with it properly.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that humans may not be the only "readers" of your paper, and non-standard writing styles may confuse such non-human readers.

[*] The paper showed that algorithms for computing LR(0) and LR(1) items, used in parsing context-free grammars, could be used for control-flow analysis of tail-recursive programs. I still think it's the best abstract I've ever written. :-)

  • Um...how do you read the fourth line so that it fits the meter? – JeffE Sep 17 '13 at 0:45
  • I agree, that was a flaw -- that line didn't quite scan. I'd be hopeless at sonnets. :) – debray Sep 17 '13 at 2:47
2

First of all, a good (not catchy) title catches readers, not a first sentence in an introduction. The problem of trying to be catchy is that people's opinion about catchy may not be the same as yours, in which case it backfires. yes, science can be dry and the temptation is large to be catchy or funny, but it rarely works. Rarely, partly because each paper is read by only a few, and partly because the diversity in opinions.

The introductory sentence should try to provide the interesting perspective within which your results fit. It is difficult to get right but since it is not the first you write, you can use the results and your hopefully thought through title to ponder what is the perspective you wish your work to fit.

0

it's well known in writing that you should "murder your darlings", which is excising the unusual phrasings you think are so sparkling, i.e., your darlings. there are many, many web sites covering this tactic. when you edit this way, the result is a clean text which will better accommodate OP's tendency to playfulness.

  • I really have no idea what this means. Can you expand your answer? – StrongBad Jan 18 '15 at 16:12

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.