cscheid, 05 Feb 2011

I have recently received a large amount of excellent writing advice, and I want to share some of it with you. Among other things, I was told to read The Science of Scientific Writing, by George Gopen and Judith Swan. Being told that you suck is great; you get to learn so much from it!

I know I’m not the best writer. I have read my good share of writing advice, and although I have gotten better at throwing away needless words, the structure of the sentences I write always feels clunky. To make matters worse, I had no idea why that happens. But now that I have read some of what the authors have to say, I am no longer entirely clueless. Gopen and Swan argue that good writing is about successfully managing the expectations of readers. That by itself would be little more than a truism. Unlike much that is written about writing, however, this article actually gives concrete ways to improve your own sentences. Here is an excerpt:

“We now have three rhetorical principles based on reader expectations. First, grammatical subjects should be followed as soon as possible by their verbs; second, every unit of discourse, no matter the size, should serve a single function or make a single point; and, third, information intended to be emphasized should appear at points of syntactic closure.”

This third principle was a true eye-opener to me. Gopen and Swan claim that readers spend more mental energy on the “stress position” of a sentence. According to them, this stress position “coincides with the moment of syntactic closure. A reader has reached the beginning of the stress position when she knows there is nothing left in the clause or sentence but the material being presently read”. In other words, the important clause in your sentence should be placed where the syntax of this clause is entirely determined by what came before it. When your sentences are written in this way, the reader’s effort is naturally directed at the point you’re trying to make, and not at the structure of the sentence. That is brilliant advice.

I urge you to go and read the whole thing. When you are done, you will probably want to know that Gopen has written an entire book on this topic, called The Sense of Structure: Writing from a Reader’s Perspective.

Incidentally, there must be a link between what Gopen and Swan say about writing and our theories about how people understand visualizations; I have to learn more about this!