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I am writing a research proposal and I can not choose the right very first sentence to start the introduction. My research is purely theoretical. Let's assume I want to study a mathematical model of dynamics of wolfpacks distribution in last 100 years in country C. There is a separate section for objectives so I would not start from aims.

What would you write to start?

I have several ideas but neither of them looks totally convincing for me.

  1. Wolves are very important
  2. Wolfpacks distribution is very important
  3. Wolfpacks distribution dynamics is very important
  4. Analysis of ecological data is important
  5. In recent years study of wolves/wolfspack distribution/wolfpacks distribution dynamics has received much attention
  6. Many problems of something are related to wolfpacks distribution dynamics
  7. Mathematical modelling of ecological processes has been proved to be useful in analysis of many things over years.

If I were writing a paper I would not care much about it but here people say, that the first words are of particular important and I don't want loose points.

EDIT: As question got popular and everybody wants to correct my orthographic error in "wolfs", I correct it myself.

  • 4
    1, 2, 3, 4: extremely weak -- important to who? 6: If you can't tell us the something, it probably doesn't exist. 5: Has it really? 7: Almost a tautology, but it's the only one in this set that doesn't provoke immediate pushback. Why aren't you discussing this with folks at your own school? – keshlam Sep 7 '15 at 22:41
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    Just a tip for #7 - never use the word "thing" if you can avoid it. There's just about always a more descriptive noun that you could use instead. – Nuclear Wang Sep 8 '15 at 7:26
  • @keshlam The phrases were not meant to be just copied and pasted --- something like "important to who" would have been added. Probably I should have specified it explicitly. Unfortunately I don't have many people having successful experience in writing such things nearby. There is one person but I would like to have more opinions. – demitau Sep 8 '15 at 8:03
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    Nitpick, but it is wolves, not wolfs. – kleineg Sep 8 '15 at 12:33
  • Okay, another nitpick, but it should be "important to whom". (prepositional pronoun)... sorry, I can't help myself with the grammar stuff. :) – Beth R. Sep 10 '15 at 0:09
51

The first paragraph of any paper or proposal is always the hardest for me to write, and the first sentence is the hardest part of that paragraph. In my experience, no matter what I write, it sounds hackneyed; fortunately, the same is true of everybody else's first sentences, including all of the sentences you and other other answers have suggested. I used to spend days agonizing over the precise choice of words in each opening sentence.

So a few years ago, I adopted the following strategy, which works surprisingly well:

  1. Typeset the phrase INSERT FIRST GRAF HERE in bold red 18-point text at the top of the first page of your proposal. Promise yourself that you will write this paragraph only at the very end, after you've written and polished everything else.

  2. Start writing the second paragraph, which explains in broad strokes the substance of your proposed research. Assume that the first paragraph has already explained how novel/important/cool the research area is.

  3. Make sure your introduction includes a few paragraphs describing specific prior work and its impact, as well as the specific work you are proposing and its potential impact. Keep it high-level; this is just the elevator pitch. You'll include a more detailed description of both of these points later.

  4. When you are completely finished writing and polishing the rest of the proposal, delete the phrase INSERT FIRST GRAF HERE from the top of the first page and submit the proposal.

Yes, I really have done this, multiple times; and yes, the resulting proposals were funded.

To put it more bluntly: Just get to the point.

  • 2
    Wait, in step 3 do you write the first paragraph of the proposal, or the second? Does the first paragraph ever get written? – Lyndon White Sep 8 '15 at 0:59
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    Brilliant advice, and also works for papers. The best first paragraph? Usually the second paragraph. Continue to cut off from the top iteratively until satisfied. :) – Namey Sep 8 '15 at 1:20
  • Absolutely. This trick is one of those I learned when breaking through a near-total writing block. – keshlam Sep 8 '15 at 2:54
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    @PeteL.Clark See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_style#Paragraphs and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nut_graph — Of course I would be embarrassed to use the word "graf" in an actual proposal or paper, which is precisely why I use it in embedded notes to myself. – JeffE Sep 8 '15 at 13:31
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    @demitau However even having everything else written I am having a hard time in choosing the first phrase. — You've missed my point entirely. You don't need a first sentence. So don't write one. Have a little respect for your readers; assume their attention span will last longer than the first six words. — I can't choose whether I should start from motivation for my work or from the context description. — Flip a coin. – JeffE Sep 8 '15 at 13:33
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While I think JeffE's answer is still the best and most generic, there is a second strategy to reinforcing your front lines: throw the best names in the field on the front lines, by using citations. I believe in citing heavily. First, it's good practice and great for cross-referencing later. Second, people you cite might be reviewing you if they're in any way relevant (so better make sure you're representing their main points right). Finally, it allows you to skip explaining things that others have already done a good job with.

Moe (2014), Larry (2015), and Curly et al. (2013; 2015) have indicated that this a critical period for studying wolf dynamics, due to (timely problem, such as tundra erosion in the Arctic) and advances in (your method), which can identify key tipping points. These techniques can not only reverse the decline of wolfpacks, but in fact introduce a new world dominated by wolves, in a Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968) type scenario. A society of wolves will completely reshape how science in wolfpack dynamics is conducted, enabling self-directed wolf research.

Well, maybe not the last couple. However, in total, that paragraph does the following rhetorical moves:

  • Top people say: This is the time to solve Problem
  • Problem + My New Method = Solution
  • Solution => Broader Impacts
  • Solution => Change in Research Practice

While you don't want to oversell, those are the main points you want to reinforce. Say them if you believe them and think others will consider them if you can back them up with sound methodology. In general, I would say introducing a research concept requires saying:

  1. Why it is important: What are the consequences? Why do we need more basket-weaving Maker Spaces? As a general rule, the more people it kills and the faster it kills them, the more money is spent on researching it (hence why rail guns and cancer medicine are both well-funded).
  2. What is the research impact (ceiling): How long have people been debating it? How much will it change how everyone does their research in the future?
  3. Why now: Why can we do it now, but it wasn't done before? Additionally, what makes you so special? Why can you do it but others won't/can't?
  4. What is the research impact (floor): Even if your approach fails miserably, what would be learned then?

You have the whole proposal to prove this (show, don't tell), but it's good to at least summarize a couple times in the proposal.

  • 1
    P.S. Be polite and please don't steal my basket-waving Maker Spaces idea. Given the recent fervor, I think NSF might offer at least a community-building grant on that... ;) "The intersection of wearable computing and Maker Spaces through solar basket-hats will revolutionize STEM research, which has previously been dominated by crude tin-foil hats that barely store any electronic information." – Namey Sep 8 '15 at 1:56
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    Good answer. You're aware of this post, right? :) – ff524 Sep 8 '15 at 2:02
  • I do recall running across that, now that you mention it. Though after re-reading, I'm really starting to reconsider if I should instead pitch some boat-programming... – Namey Sep 8 '15 at 3:01
5

I find the way you have expressed your example and interest somewhat confusing and potentially weak, independent of all your suggested phrasings.

I am going to take the fact that you don't know the plural of "wolf" as a subtle clue that you are not actually interested in "the dynamics of wolfpacks [sic] distribution in last 100 years in Country C" and are just choosing an example. But because you have chosen an entirely made up example it's not clear to me what you mean when you say your research is "purely theoretical". Doing purely theoretical research in a very (almost ridiculously) specific mathematical modelling problem just doesn't make much sense to me: if you are interested in the underlying mathematics of the model then it must be more generalizable than just wolves in Country C or what's the point? Or, if you are specifically interested in wolves in Country C then shouldn't there be some practical reason for this? Well, in fact there doesn't have to be: maybe every single animal group in every single country is worthy of some academic studying a mathematical model of the dynamics of their distribution across a given time scale. But there's the problem: this probably is worthy of study in some abstract, all knowledge is sacred sense, but as you are writing a competitive research proposal, something which is worthy of study only in some abstract way along with thousands of other similar things does not sound very competitive for funding.

I suggest that your problems may be more fundamental than writing: you need to identify why and in what way your proposed research is valuable. Really valuable: as in more valuable than someone else's. This is often truly difficult and makes the writing of such proposals emotionally intense (I speak from experience). In particular in mathematics there is some tension between the pure and the applied: tension not so much in the subject matter itself but in its relative value in the sense of research funding. If you are going to put in a mathematics research proposal, it needs have clear value as a piece of theoretical mathematics or have truly promising applications. Or both. (Since you do mathematics, you surely know that "or" is inclusive!) Both would be great. The problem is that what you're proposing sounds like it is attempting to stake out a position of value somewhere strictly between theoretical and applied, but that is not a locus of recognized value. In general, if there are clearly defined, venerable successful topics of interest A_1,...,A_n, and you pitch a proposal that is some kind of convex combination of them, then unless at least one of the coefficients has value very close to 1 then you are likely to lose out to all of the people who are vigorously doing any one of A_1,...,A_n. Again, I speak from experience.

  • 1
    I agree that it is somewhat confusing but I wanted to hear some general words to adapt them in my situation later. I have not said that I have a purely theoretical interest, I have said it about my research -- in fact I am doing pure math that is motivated by problems coming from mathematical models analysis in other sciences. Of course I am mentioning it in the proposal text. Your comments more related to the proposal text overall whereas I am really asking about its very start (I have already written and 90% polished proposal as suggested in the JeffE's comment). – demitau Sep 8 '15 at 7:54
  • @demitau: I adjusted the language slightly. When I said research interests, I meant the research you are discussing in the proposal. Yes, my comments are about the proposal as a whole, which is more important than the first sentence. However the first sentence should speak to the core research interest in your proposal. None of your proposed first sentences prioritize the theoretical aspects of the mathematics, which is problematic (and perhaps indicative of a larger issues in the text; you haven't shown us that). – Pete L. Clark Sep 8 '15 at 8:16
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    I am a pure mathematician, and I have never read a paper or research proposal in pure mathematics which begins by talking about wolves...or any other "motivating" real world objects. I would go so far as to say that pure mathematics is not really motivated by real world objects like wolves...at least not as strongly as it is motivated by other considerations. If I were reading your proposal then already from the first sentence I would feel that you are not working in "my field".... – Pete L. Clark Sep 8 '15 at 8:23
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    ....But then the part about being "purely theoretical" is going to have the opposite effect for many applied mathematicians. Do you see what I'm trying to say? Even in your very brief schematic description of your research you are saying things which are convincing both groups that you are not fully in their club. That's exactly what you don't want to do: rather, you want to convince each group that you are a full-fledged member. – Pete L. Clark Sep 8 '15 at 8:26
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    @demitau: You specified that your research is "purely theoretical". Are you saying that you are working in the field of "pure mathematics"? And that your current research proposal is in the field of "pure mathematics"? ... If so, the description of your topic (essentially mathematical modeling of animal behavior/migration patterns) sounds more like "applied mathematics". I think this is causing some confusion for Pete L. Clark (and myself, and perhaps others..). – Beth R. Sep 10 '15 at 0:23
4

Just a quick comment -- Whichever sentences you choose, PLEASE run a spelling and grammar check! No matter how strong your first and any subsequent sentences might end up being, if they contain many spelling and grammar errors, then you're just defeating your own purposes.

Please note, I'm still not clear what you meant by saying, "Let's assume I want to study a mathematical model of dynamics of wolfpacks distribution..." ... In other words, is this what you will be writing about, or are you just using it here as an example?

Either way, you should pay attention to these types of spelling and grammar errors:

  1. The plural of "wolf" is "wolves" (not "wolfs"!)

  2. "wolfpack" is a singular noun. Therefore, when referring to distribution, you would say either: "wolfpack distribution" or "(the) distribution of wolfpacks"

  3. Where you wrote: "In recent years study of..."
    That should be: "In recent years, the study of..."

  4. "Wolfpacks distribution dynamics..."
    should be: "Wolfpack distribution dynamics...", or "The dynamics of wolfpack distribution..."
    (note the use of the singular noun, wolfpack)

  5. "Mathematical modeling of ...has been proved to be useful..."
    should be: "....has proven to be useful..."

  6. Be sure you're using the correct spelling of "modelling" vs. "modeling". The accepted spelling can vary by country/region. In the U.S., it is typically spelled with one 'L' (modeling). In the U.K. & Canada it is generally spelled with two L's (modelling).

As others have stated, if you really can't think of a good first sentence (or a good first paragraph), just start working on the rest of it. You can always come back to finish the introduction later.

I often wait until the very end before I write the very beginning. :-)

1

If I were you, I would start with

I want to study a mathematical model of dynamics of wolfpacks distribution in last 100 years in country C.

  • I agree with this answer: Start by telling what you want to do with just a single sentence, but I would add the aim of the specific approach; evaluate the properties of the model? Use it to predict future wolfpack distributions? – MrGumble Sep 8 '15 at 14:35
0

I am not an ecologist, but I would start with something along the following lines:

Among the rich toolset of ecological research methods, mathematical modeling plays a prominent role (-potential citations-). In particular, it is a popular method for studying distribution of species within a geographical area and, especially, the distribution's dynamics (-citations-).

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    I'm not an ecologist either, but I know what my biology teacher at high school would have written in the margin of that version: "Much wind and waffle". Cut to the chase and say what you actually want to do, before the reader gets bored and moves on to the next proposal in the pile! – alephzero Sep 8 '15 at 0:17
  • @alephzero: I understand your point. However, I am sure that you are familiar with the term introduction and its role, which is to provide context to the core message. So, in my opinion, several paragraphs (and, especially, two sentences) is not "much wind and waffle", but setting the stage for a proposal, considering potential variations in skills and research interests of people, who might need to read and understand it, especially, from a high-level perspective. – Aleksandr Blekh Sep 8 '15 at 3:02
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    This suggestion contains a lot of words I feel to be "fill words" that do not contribute to the content of the sentence [rich, prominent, popular, especially]. Some also feel subjective to me. What is a "rich" toolset? tens, hundreds, thousands? As mentioned - the "prominent" role of the method can be reasoned by citation (what would be a very universal claim; one can't know all sources that may rely on other methods). One of my professors provided us with a long list of fill words to avoid. I found this helpful, especially to get sentences shorter and more precise. – André Kleinschmidt Sep 8 '15 at 14:30
  • @AndréKleinschmidt: When delivering a proposal's (or any academic work's) core message, I also think that it should be more precise (to a certain degree, otherwise it will be too "dry"). However, for introduction, using several adjectives are OK, especially when they are to a large degree supported by literature, as I suggested. – Aleksandr Blekh Sep 8 '15 at 17:38

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