Imagine you have performed a series of high-quality experiments in a “hot” field. Your results make an important contribution to the current body of knowledge. Imagine now that you’ve written a catchy title that will even attract the attention of reporters from the lay press, not to mention of your colleagues and other interested parties. Imagine further that you’ve written a first-rate abstract that expertly summarizes the paper you’ve written. You are all set now, right? Actually not.
How to lose readers with a bad opening paragraph
If you write a bad opening paragraph to your paper, you risk losing readers long before they get to your discussion. That stringer from the major news outlet may close your article and move onto someone else’s. Even your colleagues may scratch their heads and wonder what is going on. The opening paragraph of your introduction is too important to treat casually. One good way to lose a reader’s attention is to jump in with hyper-technical terms and concepts that the reader may not be familiar with. Another way is to open with a cliché or stock phrase (e.g., “More and more research…” or “Accumulating evidence has…”).
Here’s how to write a great opener that will keep your readers engaged and eager to read the entire manuscript.
As with any great piece of writing, the opening paragraph of your manuscript should grab the reader’s attention.
“Call me Ishmael.” (Opening line of Moby Dick, by Herman Melville)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” (Opening line of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens)
These famous openers made indelible impressions on readers at the time. Whereas a scholarly article need not rise to the level of Melville or Dickens, it should nevertheless grab the reader’s attention and lead them along into the remainder of the introduction.
Often the best way to grab the reader’s attention is to remind them of the big picture that your (relatively) small contribution is helping to draw. For example, imagine your study is a case report of a rare cause of myocardial infarctions (heart attacks). Your purpose in publishing the case is to raise the index of suspicion on the part of your colleagues if they should encounter a similar patient in the future.
Here are some examples of opening lines of the introduction to such a case study.
No clinician wants to miss a diagnosis of a myocardial infarction.
Missed diagnoses of myocardial infarctions are major reasons for malpractice claims.
It is easy to miss unusual presentations of a myocardial infarction.
What each of these opening lines has in common is that it deals directly with the big picture. In this case, the big picture is myocardial infarctions. The particular section of the big picture that you are drawing is the principle that “an unusual presentation of a common disease is more likely than a common presentation of an unusual disease,” a concept that most physicians learn in training. All three of these opening lines resonate with the big picture and the underlying principles.
Now that you’ve grabbed the reader’s attention, you should lead them down the path toward the subject matter of your article. This is a good time to remind the reader of the scope and magnitude of the problem you are studying. Returning to the example of the unusual myocardial infarction case, this would be the time to provide data on the incidence of myocardial infarctions, with associated morbidities, mortality, and ancillary costs to society. Many authors begin with these statistics, so much so that many readers’ eyes glaze over while reading. However, if you’ve first grabbed their attention with a great opening sentence, they will likely read your statistics with a more focused perspective.
The big picture, in focus
By the end of the first paragraph of your introduction, you have grabbed the reader’s attention and have drawn their attention to the big picture that frames the particular problem you are solving with your manuscript. Perhaps you have even begun leading the reader down the path from the general topic to the specific detail you wish to focus on.
How a journal article is like a joke
Comedians all know that a good joke has a beginning, middle, and an end, or a grabber, a build-up, and a punchline. A journal article is not very different. A good opening paragraph is like a joke opener such as “So, this guy walks into a bar…” With a good grabber, the reader is likely to stick around for the punchline. With a good opening paragraph, your reader is much more likely to stick around for your conclusions.
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