2. Design a concise Introduction by following ‘Chekhov’s gun’

Introduce only what will be useful to understand your results or project.


In the last post, we learned Maeda's simplification algorithm, a simple but powerful procedure to simplify your writing. Before we see lots of practical examples of how it can help you communicate your research, we need to learn a complementary principle by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, called ‘Chekhov’s gun’. It is widely used in movies, and will be very useful for the introduction of your articles, proposals, and talks


Chekhov's gun: everything in the Introduction must serve a purpose

Chekhov stated that in plays or short stories, everything that's introduced at the beginning must serve a purpose. He gave the example of a gun displayed on the theatre wall: the gun must be discharged during the play, or it might distract spectators, without adding anything to the play.

Anton Chekhov Profile Picture
Anton Chekhov

‘Chekhov’s gun’ is taught in all movie-making schools. Next time you watch a movie, observe how everything that takes place in the first 10 minutes either gives an idea of the character of the protagonists, sets the scene, or will be used later. If you can't spot how … watch the making-of, where the director generally explains this.


How Chekhov's gun applies to papers, proposals & talks

In research, Chekhov's gun means that you shouldn't confuse your audience and waste their time by mentioning notions you won't use later. In particular:

  • For a paper (or a talk), don't compose the Introduction like a review of your field. Instead, only introduce the concepts required to understand your results. (Incidentally, this means that you should compose the introduction after you've written the results).
  • For a proposal, don't write the background section like a review either. Instead, only introduce the concepts required to understand your 3 objectives and why you chose these objectives.


Unfortunately, the Introduction of articles and proposals often doesn't respect Chekhov's gun. Let's see an example.


Drop the ‘good student’ opening statements

Here's a very frequent kind of opening statement, which you should avoid because it introduces notions not needed later. I call it the ‘good student’ statement because when you were a pupil, it might have allowed you to have a good grade by demonstrating your eloquence. Alas, it's worthless in a professional setting. Consider this example. I once read a funding application whose background section started like this:

"Water is one of the most abundant compounds
     Bla-bla … 6 lines of details and references
Water is necessary for life and for most chemical reactions
     Bla-bla … 6 lines of details and references
We'll study reactions that don't take place in water, but in ammonia"

I just couldn't believe it. The authors had filled up two whole paragraphs of stuff that everybody knows on water, and they weren't even going to work on water!

If you recognize your style (and in my courses, there are always some researchers who do), you know what to do: please drop this kind of high school dissertation opener. Instead, go straight to the point.

"But … Shouldn't I write a general opening before diving in into my topic?"
Researchers often say they like to make general opening statements (presumably as they learned in high school). The problem is that reviewers just skim these statements until they find some meat (in general, they're looking for the gap that your study or proposal addresses). You're just wasting precious space and what's worse, in some cases you're confusing reviewers as to what your actual goal is.

If you want to start with a fancy opener, fine, as long as it's not boring. Be provocative ("After 30 years of research, we still don't know…"), intriguing ("How deep is the ocean?"), but not boring.

In the next posts, we'll explore how to apply Chekhov's gun and Maeda's simplification algorithm to scientific communication. Each post will focus on one medium: funding proposalsscientific papers, talks, article figures...

Til then, have a nice day and fruitful research.


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