The sentence not to start your paper with

The first sentence is vital in any piece of writing, including academic writing. It’s one of the first things a reader will see and it gives them a lasting first impression of your paper. It needs to draw the reader in and show them how important, interesting and relevant your research is.

Think about some of the recent articles you’ve read. How helpful or influential was the first sentence? Take a few of ScienceDirect’s Top 25 articles, for example:

Dynamic instability, the stochastic switching between growth and shrinkage, is essential for microtubule function.

The concept of Social Media is top of the agenda for many business executives today.

Ubiquitous sensing enabled by Wireless Sensor Network (WSN) technologies cuts across many areas of modern day living.

What do these sentences have in common?

  • They’re short
  • They tell you clearly what the paper is about
  • They’re definite, straightforward statements
  • They answer the question “so what?”
  • They make you want to read on

These are some of the qualities of a great first sentence. Of course, not all great starts look like this. Some begin with a question to get the reader’s mind whirring, others put forward a problem that the paper aims to address, others might look at the background of the topic, starting with a fascinating statistic. What all of them do is make you want to read on.

Conversely, what makes a bad start? Here’s what not to do in your first sentence.

Make it long. You’ll also lose readers if your first sentence is long-winded and complex. Your research might be complex, but you don’t need to cover all the nuances and exceptions in the first sentence. Try to keep it simple (avoid sub-clauses) and short.

Make it irrelevant. If you begin your article with an irrelevant sentence, you’re likely to lose readers. Sure, there may be a lot of background and contextual information to cover in your paper, but save that: the first sentence is where you need to nail the topic, not talk around it.

Be vague. Leaving your first impression open to interpretation is risky. Vagueness is never good in an academic paper – you should always be specific and clear in what you’re saying. This is especially true for the first sentence.

Avoid “so what?” Your first sentence doesn’t have to answer this question directly, but it can help your readers immensely if it gives them an idea of why they should read further.

Be boring. A dull opening could be the exit point for your readers. What would you want to read? Think about why you’re interested in the topic and enthuse other people with an interesting first sentence – they’ll keep reading.