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The Science of Scientific Writing

If the reader is to grasp what the writer means, the writer must understand what the reader needs

George Gopen, Judith Swan

The Topic Position

To summarize the principles connected with the stress position, we have the proverbial wisdom, "Save the best for last." To summarize the principles connected with the other end of the sentence, which we will call the topic position, we have its proverbial contradiction, "First things first." In the stress position the reader needs and expects closure and fulfillment; in the topic position the reader needs and expects perspective and context. With so much of reading comprehension affected by what shows up in the topic position, it behooves a writer to control what appears at the beginning of sentences with great care.

The information that begins a sentence establishes for the reader a perspective for viewing the sentence as a unit: Readers expect a unit of discourse to be a story about whoever shows up first. "Bees disperse pollen" and "Pollen is dispersed by bees" are two different but equally respectable sentences about the same facts. The first tells us something about bees; the second tells us something about pollen. The passivity of the second sentence does not by itself impair its quality; in fact, "Pollen is dispersed by bees" is the superior sentence if it appears in a paragraph that intends to tell us a continuing story about pollen. Pollen's story at that moment is a passive one.

Readers also expect the material occupying the topic position to provide them with linkage (looking backward) and context (looking forward). The information in the topic position prepares the reader for upcoming material by connecting it backward to the previous discussion. Although linkage and context can derive from several sources, they stem primarily from material that the reader has already encountered within this particular piece of discourse. We refer to this familiar, previously introduced material as "old information." Conversely, material making its first appearance in a discourse is "new information." When new information is important enough to receive emphasis, it functions best in the stress position.

When old information consistently arrives in the topic position, it helps readers to construct the logical flow of the argument: It focuses attention on one particular strand of the discussion, both harkening backward and leaning forward. In contrast, if the topic position is constantly occupied by material that fails to establish linkage and context, readers will have difficulty perceiving both the connection to the previous sentence and the projected role of the new sentence in the development of the paragraph as a whole.

Here is a second example of scientific prose that we shall attempt to improve in subsequent discussion:

Large earthquakes along a given fault segment do not occur at random intervals because it takes time to accumulate the strain energy for the rupture. The rates at which tectonic plates move and accumulate strain at their boundaries are approximately uniform. Therefore, in first approximation, one may expect that large ruptures of the same fault segment will occur at approximately constant time intervals. If subsequent main shocks have different amounts of slip across the fault, then the recurrence time may vary, and the basic idea of periodic mainshocks must be modified. For great plate boundary ruptures the length and slip often vary by a factor of 2. Along the southern segment of the San Andreas fault the recurrence interval is 145 years with variations of several decades. The smaller the standard deviation of the average recurrence interval, the more specific could be the long term prediction of a future mainshock.

This is the kind of passage that in subtle ways can make readers feel badly about themselves. The individual sentences give the impression of being intelligently fashioned: They are not especially long or convoluted; their vocabulary is appropriately professional but not beyond the ken of educated general readers; and they are free of grammatical and dictional errors. On first reading, however, many of us arrive at the paragraph's end without a clear sense of where we have been or where we are going. When that happens, we tend to berate ourselves for not having paid close enough attention. In reality, the fault lies not with us, but with the author.

We can distill the problem by looking closely at the information in each sentence's topic position:

Large earthquakes
The rates
Therefore...one
subsequent mainshocks
great plate boundary ruptures
the southern segment of the San Andreas fault
the smaller the standard deviation...

Much of this information is making its first appearance in this paragraph—in precisely the spot where the reader looks for old, familiar information. As a result, the focus of the story constantly shifts. Given just the material in the topic positions, no two readers would be likely to construct exactly the same story for the paragraph as a whole.

If we try to piece together the relationship of each sentence to its neighbors, we notice that certain bits of old information keep reappearing. We hear a good deal about the recurrence time between earthquakes: The first sentence introduces the concept of nonrandom intervals between earthquakes; the second sentence tells us that recurrence rates due to the movement of tectonic plates are more or less uniform; the third sentence adds that the recurrence rates of major earthquakes should also be somewhat predictable; the fourth sentence adds that recurrence rates vary with some conditions; the fifth sentence adds information about one particular variation; the sixth sentence adds a recurrence-rate example from California; and the last sentence tells us something about how recurrence rates can be described statistically. This refrain of "recurrence intervals" constitutes the major string of old information in the paragraph. Unfortunately, it rarely appears at the beginning of sentences, where it would help us maintain our focus on its continuing story.

In reading, as in most experiences, we appreciate the opportunity to become familiar with a new environment before having to function in it. Writing that continually begins sentences with new information and ends with old information forbids both the sense of comfort and orientation at the start and the sense of fulfilling arrival at the end. It misleads the reader as to whose story is being told; it burdens the reader with new information that must be carried further into the sentence before it can be connected to the discussion; and it creates ambiguity as to which material the writer intended the reader to emphasize. All of these distractions require that readers expend a disproportionate amount of energy to unravel the structure of the prose, leaving less energy available for perceiving content.

We can begin to revise the example by ensuring the following for each sentence:

1. The backward-linking old information appears in the topic position.
2. The person, thing or concept whose story it is appears in the topic position.
3. The new, emphasis-worthy information appears in the stress position.

Once again, if our decisions concerning the relative values of specific information differ from yours, we can all blame the author, who failed to make his intentions apparent. Here first is a list of what we perceived to be the new, emphatic material in each sentence:

time to accumulate strain energy along a fault
approximately uniform
large ruptures of the same fault
different amounts of slip
vary by a factor of 2
variations of several decades
predictions of future mainshock

Now, based on these assumptions about what deserves stress, here is our proposed revision:

Large earthquakes along a given fault segment do not occur at random intervals because it takes time to accumulate the strain energy for the rupture. The rates at which tectonic plates move and accumulate strain at their boundaries are roughly uniform. Therefore, nearly constant time intervals (at first approximation) would be expected between large ruptures of the same fault segment. [However?], the recurrence time may vary; the basic idea of periodic mainshocks may need to be modified if subsequent mainshocks have different amounts of slip across the fault. [Indeed?], the length and slip of great plate boundary ruptures often vary by a factor of 2. [For example?], the recurrence intervals along the southern segment of the San Andreas fault is 145 years with variations of several decades. The smaller the standard deviation of the average recurrence interval, the more specific could be the long term prediction of a future mainshock.

Many problems that had existed in the original have now surfaced for the first time. Is the reason earthquakes do not occur at random intervals stated in the first sentence or in the second? Are the suggested choices of "however," "indeed," and "for example" the right ones to express the connections at those points? (All these connections were left unarticulated in the original paragraph.) If "for example" is an inaccurate transitional phrase, then exactly how does the San Andreas fault example connect to ruptures that "vary by a factor of 2"? Is the author arguing that recurrence rates must vary because fault movements often vary? Or is the author preparing us for a discussion of how in spite of such variance we might still be able to predict earthquakes? This last question remains unanswered because the final sentence leaves behind earthquakes that recur at variable intervals and switches instead to earthquakes that recur regularly. Given that this is the first paragraph of the article, which type of earthquake will the article most likely proceed to discuss? In sum, we are now aware of how much the paragraph had not communicated to us on first reading. We can see that most of our difficulty was owing not to any deficiency in our reading skills but rather to the author's lack of comprehension of our structural needs as readers.

In our experience, the misplacement of old and new information turns out to be the No. 1 problem in American professional writing today.

In our experience, the misplacement of old and new information turns out to be the No. 1 problem in American professional writing today. The source of the problem is not hard to discover: Most writers produce prose linearly (from left to right) and through time. As they begin to formulate a sentence, often their primary anxiety is to capture the important new thought before it escapes. Quite naturally they rush to record that new information on paper, after which they can produce at their leisure contextualizing material that links back to the previous discourse. Writers who do this consistently are attending more to their own need for unburdening themselves of their information than to the reader's need for receiving the material. The methodology of reader expectations articulates the reader's needs explicitly, thereby making writers consciously aware of structural problems and ways to solve them.

Put in the topic position the old information that links backward; put in the stress position the new information you want the reader to emphasize.

A note of clarification: Many people hearing this structural advice tend to oversimplify it to the following rule: "Put the old information in the topic position and the new information in the stress position." No such rule is possible. Since by definition all information is either old or new, the space between the topic position and the stress position must also be filled with old and new information. Therefore the principle (not rule) should be stated as follows: "Put in the topic position the old information that links backward; put in the stress position the new information you want the reader to emphasize."





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