Karen L. McKee.
When we read a literary work that begins with a beautifully constructed, witty, or intriguing sentence, especially one that takes our breath away, we know that we are in the hands of a master and sink back into our chairs with a sigh, ready to savor what comes next.
Everyone recognizes the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …”
That beginning, with its rhythmic series of contrasting concepts, foreshadows what is to come in the telling of a story of parallel lives in London and Paris. One might argue that it’s not the best opening sentence in literature, but it certainly makes an indelible first impression and announces that the author is about to unfurl a fascinating story. There are many other great examples of memorable first sentences in the literary world, but the point I want to make is that first sentences, whether in a novel or a scientific paper, are important because they capture the reader’s attention and set the stage for what comes after.
As I pointed out in a previous essay, judicious use of narrative techniques to write scientific papers can help you craft something that people enjoy reading. How many times have you sat down to read a journal article and found the opening statement to be uninteresting, uninspiring, or trite? How often do such papers go on to surprise you with their insights? When I review manuscripts for journals, I pay close attention to the title, the abstract, and the first and closing sentences of the paper. If they are poorly written, with ambiguous or pedestrian wording or other problems, then I expect that the remainder of the manuscript is going to be torture to read. And it usually takes a dramatic turnaround in the writing (or very important data) to change that initial impression.
Given the competition for space in journals, authors cannot ignore the fact that they not only need outstanding data, they must write memorable papers; and if they are smart, they will start off with a compelling sentence or two.
What Is A Narrative Beginning?
Many scientific authors are taught to use expository writing and passive voice when preparing scholarly articles for publication. That is, information is presented objectively as a series of facts, often without any hint of human involvement (e.g., “the samples were analyzed” rather than “we analyzed the samples”). The ostensible purpose of such writing is to convey a sense of objectivity, unencumbered by human biases.
In contrast, narrative writing uses descriptive elements to create a vivid image in the reader’s mind. The two types of writing are not mutually exclusive, however. A scientific paper can include narrative elements designed to enhance the reader’s comprehension and subsequent recall of the material.
A narrative opening passage in a scientific paper sets the stage for the reader by using a vivid description, active (versus passive) voice, sensory language, or an appeal to the reader’s curiosity, to name a few techniques. Let me hasten to point out that by a narrative beginning, I am not talking about starting a scientific paper with: “It was a dark and stormy night outside the laboratory …”.
Instead, a narrative beginning might, for example, explain the author’s motivation in conducting the research: “Our previous research on this topic produced unexpected results, which prompted us to pursue a new line of inquiry into the cause of … ”. Such a sentence provides background information while acknowledging that the authors are not detached observers but are active participants in the research being reported.
One advantage of narrative writing is that it can make the scientific article not only more comprehensible but more enjoyable to read, perhaps leading to a wider readership and more citations. A recent study assessed narrative structure in 732 abstracts of journal articles about climate change by looking for the following features: (1) setting (e.g., a vivid description of when and where the research took place), (2) narrative perspective (e.g., first versus third person), (3) sensory language (e.g., expressions of emotion, attitude, belief, or interpretation), (4) conjunctions (which reveal a logical order), (5) connectivity (e.g., repetition or reference to prior statements), and (6) appeal to the reader (e.g., how the reader or society might benefit from the research) (Hillier et al., 2016). The climate change papers with narrative abstracts were cited more often than those without, and high-impact journals tended to feature more papers written in a narrative style.
Let’s consider what we are talking about with an example. A lot of scientific papers start off in the same generic way and, consequently, all sound alike, as in this opening sentence of a hypothetical paper about sea-level rise:
“In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have turned their attention to the problem of rising sea level and its effects on coastal communities. This article presents a new method to assess relative vulnerability of coastal areas to sea-level rise.”
You’re probably thinking, “What’s wrong with this?” The passage is understandable and clearly written. Yes, but the wording is indistinguishable from dozens of other papers on the subject and sounds stale and boring. Also, the motivation for the work is ascribed to an anonymous group of researchers rather than the authors.
Here’s another way to start this paper:
“Sea level is rising and threatening coastal communities worldwide, but some areas are at greater risk of flooding than others. Which ones? To answer this question, we developed a new method to assess relative vulnerability of coastal areas to sea-level rise.”
This second construction not only focuses on the scientific topic, it articulates the issue in a way that sounds fresh and original. The rephrasing also makes the focus of the research sound much more immediate and pressing than the original passage does. In addition, it’s clear who conducted the research (“… To answer this question, we developed … “). Finally, the revised passage tells a story because I’ve restated the issue as a problem to be solved followed by the solution. Such a simple change can make a reader interested in learning more. Those of you who are familiar with Randy Olson, the marine scientist turned filmmaker and author, will recognize that this construction follows his ABT model. ABT stands for “and”, “but”, and “therefore”. Instead of stating a series of facts linked by “and”, the ABT model introduces conflict (but) and resolution (therefore) to a scientific statement.
Of course, a narrative beginning may not be feasible in all scientific journal articles. I’ve used expository beginnings in most of my papers because it was expected by the journals and was unlikely to raise the eyebrows (or ire) of reviewers. Also, crafting a narrative opening that works well in a technical paper is not easy. The decision to use a narrative beginning should be made only after careful consideration of both pros and cons.
How Do Coral Reefs Grow?
You may be wondering at this point if any good examples of narrative beginnings exist in the scientific literature. They do. Let’s look at an example from a paper published in Frontiers in Earth Science (Blanchon et al. 2017), which describes a new model to explain how coral reefs build vertically. Here are the first two lines of the introduction:
“Swimming over the surface of a coral reef, it’s not difficult to imagine that successive generations of coral would produce an interlocking framework and, over time, lead to simple vertical reef accretion. This assumption of what you see on the surface is what you get in the interior, underlies all major explanations of how reefs develop …”
Needless to say, this is not your typical opening to a technical paper published in a geology journal. But this narrative opening is highly effective for three reasons.
First, by conjuring an indelible image in the reader’s mind of what they might see swimming over a coral reef, the authors draw the reader into their narrative—right at the beginning of the paper. They invite the reader to imagine themselves making first-hand observations of a coral reef and coming to the logical conclusion that such reefs keep up with rising sea level by gradually growing upward, adding layer upon layer of coral material with each successive generation. This visual description effectively sets forth the assumption held by many researchers that gradual growth of corals explains how they develop vertically in concert with rising sea level—an assumption that the authors are about to challenge. Using sensory language (swimming) and a narrative perspective that includes the reader (“it’s not difficult to imagine”, “what you see”) are two ways to turn expository writing into narrative writing (Hillier et al., 2016).
Second, these first sentences articulate a conflict to be resolved, which is a key move in crafting a scientific story and is a great way to pique the reader’s curiosity and keep them reading. The story conflict in a paper might be explicitly stated or just implied. In the coral reef paper, the conflict is between what previous observers have assumed and what the authors think is really going on. The conflict sets the stage for the rest of the scientific story. The authors then proceed to describe how they tackled the problem (Methods), what they found (Results), and what it means (Discussion).
Third, the initial sentences in this paper effectively prepare the reader for an alternative explanation for vertical reef development, i.e., hurricanes play a role in reef development through non-biogenic depositional processes. And the authors accomplish this preparation by stating their idea after first acknowledging the validity of the traditional viewpoint:
“There is good evidence in some areas that this assumption is correct, and reefs do consist of vertically-building coralgal framework, especially barrier reefs and atolls in the Indo-Pacific … But in an increasing number of areas, coring has shown that not all reefs develop this way … Studies of fringing reefs in the tropical Western-Atlantic in particular, are beginning to show that hurricanes play a prominent role …”
With this passage, the authors tip their hat at the evidence for the traditional viewpoint before they present their counter-argument. This argument/counter-argument approach to setting forth one’s ideas is explored in a book called “They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing” by Graff and Birkenstein (2014). These authors present a basic template for developing a cogent argument in any academic writing, which can be summarized thus: “They say that [insert assertion], but I say [insert counter-argument]”. The essence of their rhetorical model is that the writer not only makes a well-supported claim (I say), they do so by stating that claim in relation to the claims of others (they say). The coral reef paper used this rhetorical technique quite effectively to articulate the argument and counter-argument that their research addressed. Of course, this rhetorical argument could have been introduced with traditional expository writing, but I think that the narrative approach was far more persuasive and memorable.
I have no idea if the authors of the coral reef paper consciously set out to use a narrative opening. In any case, it’s an excellent example of how to use narrative to open a scientific paper.
Another way a narrative beginning may be achieved is by providing historical context for the research. Here is an example from the journal Nature (Libby et al. 2012), entitled “Tail-assisted pitch control in lizards, robots and dinosaurs”:
“In 1969, a palaeontologist proposed that theropod dinosaurs used their tails as dynamic stabilizers during rapid or irregular movements, contributing to their depiction as active and agile predators.”
In addition to the acknowledgment of a historical figure in the field of paleontology, the sentence uses active voice (“a palaeontologist proposed”, “dinosaurs used”) and expressive diction (“dynamic”, “rapid”, “irregular”, “agile”). The sensory language used throughout this abstract is a hallmark of narrative writing.
Here is the second sentence of the abstract:
“Since then the inertia of swinging appendages has been implicated in stabilizing human walking, aiding acrobatic manoeuvres by primates and rodents, and enabling cats to balance on branches.”
This sentence gives a brief review of the literature but does so by using examples described with graphic language.
And here is the last sentence of the abstract:
“Leaping lizards show that inertial control of body attitude can advance our understanding of appendage evolution and provide biological inspiration for the next generation of manoeuvrable search-and-rescue robots.”
This sentence appeals to the reader by stating what future benefits might arise from the research. The authors even got in some alliteration and a reference to a comic book exclamation (“leaping lizards”).
Intriguing First Sentences
A final approach that I’ll mention is to begin a paper with a sentence that makes a startling or counterintuitive statement or points out a controversy in the field. Here are a few examples from recent issues of Nature:
“The tropical forests of Borneo and Amazonia may each contain more tree species diversity in half a square kilometre than do all the temperate forests of Europe, North America, and Asia combined.” ~ Temporal coexistence mechanisms contribute to the latitudinal gradient in forest diversity by Usinowicz et al. (2017)
“The presence of life on early Earth is still controversial owing to the scarcity and poor preservation of the Eoarchean records.” ~ Early trace of life from 3.95 Ga sedimentary rocks in Labrador, Canada by Tashiro et al. (2017)
“There were several surprises that came out of the first perijove (PJ1) encounter (on 27 August 2016) of NASA’s Juno spacecraft with the low-altitude regions of Jupiter’s polar auroral regions.” ~ Discrete and broadband electron acceleration in Jupiter’s powerful aurora by Mauk et al. (2017)
“During 2015–2016, record temperatures triggered a pan-tropical episode of coral bleaching, the third global-scale event since mass bleaching was first documented in the 1980s.” ~ Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals by Hughes et al. (2017)
“The transition from dominant bacterial to eukaryotic marine primary productivity was one of the most profound ecological revolutions in the Earth’s history, reorganizing the distribution of carbon and nutrients in the water column and increasing energy flow to higher trophic levels.” ~ The rise of algae in Cryogenian oceans and the emergence of animals by Brocks et al. (2017).
These examples all effectively grab the reader’s attention and explain in clear and vivid language what topic the paper addresses and why it’s important. Such sentences are not always easy to write and require some thought, but raise the reader’s comprehension by putting the research into a broader context.
In conclusion, with some thoughtful changes in language, we can craft scientific articles that are more enjoyable to read, more memorable, and easier to comprehend. Just as the first sentence in A Tale of Two Cities presages an intriguing literary tale, the beginning of a scientific paper should draw the reader in and prepare them for an equally engrossing experience.
Karen L. McKee.