Sunday, January 22, 2012

Back to the Future

We are discussing sentences and how to write better ones (see previous posts).

An interesting and useful type of sentence is one that covers several time zones: past, present, and future.  The quote from the movie, Back to the Future, is written in this form.  It takes the listener from the past (last night's visit from Darth Vader) to future consequences (date with Lorraine vs. brain melting).  Here are a few more fictional examples I made up to illustrate how this sentence form can work to connect thoughts or events happening at different points in time:
 -Having spent all of her life surrounded by modern comforts, she gazed in despair at the rickety outhouse at the end of a gap-toothed pier anticipating the noxious odors within and the indignities awaiting her when she finally would be forced to make use of the facility.
 -He thought about last night and what happened as he drove his car, now slightly dented and stained, to his office where he would pretend to be his usual carefree self, laughing at the boss’s jokes and flirting with the female staff.
 -I was already halfway out the door to get the mail when I spotted the rock, a chunk of gneiss by the looks of it, sitting forlornly in the middle of the living room floor and only belatedly noted the broken window.
 -After struggling to reach the top of the rise, she paused to take in the expansive vista of high desert and distant peaks tinged pink by the setting sun and then again wondered if she would find the child in time.
 In each case, the sentence takes us from a point in the past, through the present, and into the future.  They generate curiosity and anticipation in the reader.  As first sentences in a story, they would stimulate the desire to read on and discover what happens next.  Can we use this form in scientific writing?  Yes.  In fact, I think most of us have used it at one time or another, but never really contemplated what we were doing.  Here’s a typical example:
 After preconditioning the seedlings for two weeks to ambient conditions in the growth facility, we applied the flooding treatments, which were designed to simulate future sea-level rise scenarios predicted for the end of the 21st century.
Here’s another fictional example that might appear in an abstract or as an opening statement in the introduction:
 To resolve the longstanding controversy surrounding [an important topic], we conducted a meta-analysis of 56 key studies and discovered a methodological pattern explaining 84 % of the conflicting data, an insight that led us to develop a new experimental protocol for future studies.
If I read the above sentence referring to my primary topic of research, wild horses couldn’t tear me away from that paper.

In the last post, I pointed out that the first line in Darwin's treatise, On the Origin of Species, was written in this time-traveling form:

"When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent.”  

This sentence starts the reader in Darwin's past (his journey on the Beagle) and then makes reference to the distant past (geological) and how it relates to the present situation. 
This sentence type is clearly useful, but requires some practice to be able to implement successfully (in both fiction and in technical writing).  You can practice writing such sentences by making up a few lines, using a fictional or real situation. It's easiest if you restrict yourself to a specific opening word or phrase to begin, such as "after observing" or "had we".  For example: "After observing the response under control conditions for one hour, we then proceeded to apply the experimental treatments."  Another example: "Had we not included soil controls, our conclusions would have been different." Later, you can try a more complicated sentence that spans past, present, and future.  The point of such an exercise is that when you sit down to write your next paper, this form will be in your repertoire.  Practicing sentence forms is comparable to practicing scales as a musician.  If you practice writing different sentence forms, you will be able to automatically apply those forms to your writing with little effort.  An advantage of this sentence form is that it forces you to connect several events (separated in time) in a single sentence instead of a long paragraph.  If done well, it can not only save space, but can lead to an elegant and concise summary.

Photo Credit: Still image from Back to the Future, Universal Pictures. 

No comments: