Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Good Sentence Is Hard To Find

It’s time for another series.  For this one, I’d like to focus again on writing but will narrow the focus to sentences—their form and content.  Now don't roll your eyes.  I promise this will be an interesting and informative exercise.  Many of us don’t really think a lot about sentences.  We string them together and hope they tell a good story.  However, sentences are the basic building blocks of our writing and deserve some in-depth scrutiny. 
I began thinking about sentences recently when I came across a book called, appropriately, “How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One”, by Stanley Fish.  Now, I’m not recommending that you run out to your local bookstore (or to Amazon) and buy this book.  Only those people who are really fascinated with sentence structure will enjoy this book.  If you are, however, one of those people who enjoys collecting and analyzing famous first sentences in literary works, for example, then this book is for you (admittedly, I’m one of these). 
For everyone else, there are a few nuggets in this book that I will try to condense and explain in this and later posts. 
Another caveat: although I will attempt to relate these insights about sentences to technical science writing, I’ll be using a lot of literary examples.  Also, because of the restricted style of scientific writing, some of the ideas I will cover may be difficult (or unwise) to implement in your technical papers.  However, the concepts and exercises may prove useful for developing general writing skills.  Even if you have no plans to write a novel any time soon, you may find the examples interesting and even applicable to writing a nontechnical science article, for instance, or letters of inquiry (for a job application), letters of recommendation, or descriptions of your research interests or accomplishments in your CV. 
So let’s get started. 
One of the first points I’ll be making is definitely applicable to scientific writing.  Above, I mentioned famous first lines in literature and will use this example to make the first point.  When we read a literary work that begins with a beautifully constructed, witty, or intriguing sentence, especially one that takes your breath away, we know that we are in the hands of a master and sink back into our chairs ready to savor what comes next. 
Everyone recognizes the first 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.”
That sentence, with its series of contrasting concepts, perfectly 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 indicates that the author is about to unfurl an interesting story.
How about a few more, but lesser known, first sentences? Here are some by female authors:
They shoot the white girl first. - Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. - Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. - Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)
He - for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it - was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. - Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928)
In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. - Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
The doctor’s waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence. – Flannery O’Connor, Revelation (1965)
We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. - Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. - George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. - Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. – Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard To Find (1953)
You’ll notice I included two by one of my favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor (hence the title of this post).  In any case, the point to be taken with these examples is that first sentences, whether in a novel, a short story, or a scientific paper, are important for setting the stage for what comes after.  How many times have you sat down to read a journal article and found the opening statement to be uninteresting, uninspiring, and trite?  How often do such papers go on to surprise you with their insights?  As I’ve described in previous posts, when I do reviews of manuscripts, I pay close attention to the title, the abstract, and the first (and closing) sentence of the paper.  If they are poorly written, with ambiguous wording or other problems, then I anticipate that the remainder of the manuscript is going to be torture to read.  And it will take 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’ve got to not only have good data, they must write memorable papers—and if they are smart, they will start off with a compelling sentence. 
In the next post, I’ll take a look at some first sentences in scientific papers.

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