• Beginnings

    Beginnings

    Yes, yes, it’s the first post of the blog—but, rather than going on about firsts and all that, let’s talk about more important “beginnings”—that is, the first sentence of the Abstract of your paper. After the title, this sentence is where the reader forms that all-important first impression—is this another drab, poorly-written, formulaic paper, or does this paper have something important to say and the writing chops to say it well? Should I keep reading, or should I click on the next abstract?

    So, why does the first sentence sometimes seem to be a throwaway sentence? For example, have you ever read (or written) this (I have!):
    Plants, as sessile organisms, are faced with continuously changing environmental conditions and have evolved multiple adaptations to environmental stress.

    Or these?
    For angiosperms, flowering is essential to reproductive success.
    We must increase crop yields to cope with increases in the planet’s population in the face of climate change. [IN YOUR FACE, climate change!]
    The plant hormone <hormone> plays key roles in fundamental plant processes such as <process 1>, and <process 2>.

    Your first sentence needs to catch the reader’s eye, encapsulate the importance of your work, and set the stage for the exciting discoveries you describe in the next couple of hundred words.
    Here are some examples:

    Example 1 Schmollinger et al., www.plantcell.org/cgi/doi/10.1105/tpc.113.122523, http://sco.lt/8FOn2n
    Nitrogen (N) is a key nutrient that limits global primary productivity; hence, N-use efficiency is of compelling interest in agriculture and aquaculture.

    This sentence brings the key aspects of the research out in just a few words—plants need nitrogen and we need to understand how they use it. Imagine how boring it would be if they had written:
    Plants, as sessile organisms, must gather nutrients from the soil; many nutrients require additional, costly supplementation to produce maximal crop yields….”

    Don’t make the reader wait until the second sentence to find out the topic of the paper.

    Example 2 MacLean et al., PLoS Biol 12(4): e1001835. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001835 ://sco.lt/5rlLfd
    “Pathogens that rely upon multiple hosts to complete their life cycles often modify behavior and development of these hosts to coerce them into improving pathogen fitness.”

    Now, here’s an example of an abstract that needed a bit more of an introductory sentence.
    Example 3 This otherwise excellent and interesting paper cuts to the chase too soon—thrown directly into the methods (and a sea of acronyms), the reader has no idea what is going on.

    Bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) physical maps embedding a large number of BAC end sequences (BESs) were generated for Oryza sativa ssp. indica varieties Minghui 63 (MH63) and Zhenshan 97 (ZS97) and were compared with the genome sequences of O. sativa spp. japonica cv. Nipponbare and O. sativa ssp. indica cv. 93-11.

    http://sco.lt/8v0qY5

    Clearly, you need a great opening sentence– how can you write that sentence?

    1. Have a very clear view of the big picture question of your research. You need to understand your work and its importance to convey this to the reader.

    2. Be precise. Frame the question as close to that big question as you can. So, for example, if you study salt tolerance, then start with a sentence about salt, not a general sentence about the environment.

    3. Revise! Sometimes you just need to write that generic sentence to get it out of your system. When you’re revising your abstract (for the umpteenth time), try deleting the first sentence—sometimes the second sentence is really that great opening line you need. Try writing two or three sentences, then condensing them into a single punchy, great sentence.

    4. Seek help. Have a friend (or, dare we say it, a professional editor) read your manuscript.