- Retrieval is a potent learning event
- Memory regresses to the mean
- First and last things in a sequence are more easily remembered than the middle
I took the course about 20 years ago, so it’s possible some of these points have subsequently been disproven. But, I draw on this memory research when teaching, learning, and writing. In particular, I know that in a lecture, talk, grant proposal, or paper, people are going to remember the beginning and end more than the middle. That doesn’t mean that you should fill the middle with junk, but it does mean that you should pay particular attention to the first sentence and last paragraph of your paper.
Your first sentence (and title, and abstract) is like an advertisement – step right up! Read this great paper and learn exciting new things! You want to convince the reader that your paper will: (1) be clearly written; (2) be interesting; (3) present something important and worth the time to read. That’s a lot of pressure on a first sentence. But you should spend more time on the first sentence than any other sentence in the paper. Write a first sentence that will make people want to read more.
The most common weak 1st sentences I read are either (1) So vague that they really don’t say anything, or (2) a dull fact that may be more specific, but still doesn’t say what the paper will be about, or why I should bother reading it. The examples below are all slightly adapted from real theses or published manuscripts:
- Vague example: Emerging adulthood, the period of development between adolescence and adulthood, includes intensive identity exploration (Arnett, 2000).
- Boring example: By ages 20-24 years, 85% of women and 82% of men have had sex in their lifetime (National Health Statistics Reports, 2011).
- Example of both: Many studies have examined risky sexual behavior among college students (LOTS OF CITES).
These are points you may want to make somewhere in your paper. And, there is nothing grammatically or stylistically incorrect about these sentences. You are likely to even get published with them. But they won’t attract your readers from the start. Recently, I wanted to give my student examples of strong first sentences. We are working on a manuscript together, and have a shared folder of articles, so I decided to browse first sentences to point out good examples to her. I was surprised to discover that the vast majority of publications in this folder on associations between alcohol use and sexual behavior had first sentences that were virtually interchangeable with each other. They almost all started with a fact about how drinking in college is dangerous; how drinking and sex are associated; or how STI’s are elevated during adolescence and young adulthood. In some instances, these facts might work for the start of a paper, but in the majority, they were relatively dull and interchangeable.
So, how should you start you start your paper? Possibilities include:
- A question relevant to your research questions: Does fraternity involvement increase the risk of unprotected sex after alcohol consumption?
- An interesting or surprising fact related to your ideas: Historically, fellatio or cunnilingus, hereto referred to as oral sex, were perceived among heterosexual couples as not only more intimate than intercourse but also to be reserved for those who were married (Michael, Gagnon, Laumann, & Kolata, 1994). (from Chambers, 2007)
- A theoretical/conceptual question: Alcohol use among young people tends to lead to impaired decision making and risky behavior (Kaly, Heesacker, & Frost,, 2002; MacDonald, MacDonald, Zanna, & Fong, 2000; Steele & Josephs, 1990), but adolescents and young adults themselves perceive the outcomes of alcohol use to generally be positive (Lee, Maggs, Neighbors, & Patrick, 2011; Patrick & Maggs, 2011).
- Hammer at the public health significance, if you have something beyond the fact that everyone else uses: Hospital emergency departments (ED) remain a healthcare safety net for much of the inner-city ED population.1 (from Bazargan-Hejazi et al., 2012).
- A cultural observation relevant to your paper: From “Animal House” to “American Pie,” late adolescents and young adults (usually college students) are portrayed as talking about sex in the rare moments that they are not having sex or trying to have sex. (from Lefkowitz, Boone, & Shearer, 2004).
- The same facts that everyone else is saying, but say it well: Alcohol use is widely understood to be a common part of the collegiate experience (Schulenberg & Maggs, 2002; Straus & Bacon, 1953) based on a strong cultural expectation that drinking is central to the experience of the mythically carefree college years (Maggs, 1997). (from Patrick & Maggs, 2009).
With permission, here are a couple of examples of two of my current students’ early tries at a first sentence to their thesis, and the revised version:
- RW, early version: Although many adolescents and young adults engage in sexual behavior, their experiences are not uniform.
- RW, revised: Adolescent sexual behaviors and partnerships are important from developmental and risk-taking perspectives because the timing, sequencing, context, and patterning of sexual behaviors correspond to psychological and sexual health outcomes later in life (Haydon, Herring, Prinstein & Halpern, 2012; Sandfort, Orr, Hirsch, & Santelli, 2008).
- EW, early version: There is growing evidence that the effects of parenting may have implications well into emerging adulthood (Abar, Carter, & Winsler, 2009; Weiss & Schwarz, 1996).
- EW, revised: There is growing evidence that the effects of parenting may have implications for individuals’ study skills, GPA, and alcohol consumption well into emerging adulthood (Abar, Carter, & Winsler, 2009; Turner, Chandler, & Heffer 2009; Weiss & Schwarz, 1996).
Notice that in both instances, they have added more specifics, and are setting the reader up to understand the details of their own papers.
Don’t worry about writing this fabulous first sentence when you first start the paper. Write something as a placeholder, and come back to it after much of the rest of the paper is written.
I seem to have said enough about first sentences to warrant postponing a discussion of concluding paragraphs for a separate post. I’ll leave you with some of my favorite fiction introductory sentences, copied from American Book Review. Notice how they really make you want to read the next sentence.
- Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1878)
- If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
- I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002)
- In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
- High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. —David Lodge, Changing Places (1975)
“The post Intentional writing part 5: Start and end strong first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on November 18, 2013.”