The Information Level


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In simplest terms, when you write in order to inform, you want your readers to understand something they did not already know. Note the two parts of this proposition: (1) readers understand (2) something they don't already know. You're not doing much informing if your readers already know what you're saying. You're also not informing if your readers can't understand what you say.

In the set of sentences on the 1992 election, one or two sentences did not inform because, depending on how much you already knew, they gave you only old information.
 
In order to inform, you must give readers NEW information.
 
In the sentences on the '77 British Open, only two or three sentences informed you because you could understand only those two or three sentences (again, depending on how much you already knew). But note: all the sentences in the set had the same important, new information. You readily understood those sentences that contained some old, familiar information: golf, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Scotland, the British Open, 1977. You could not understand a sentence that gave you only the important, new information.
 
In order to inform, you must give readers OLD information.

 
---> Repeated, old information is important to those who don't know what to expect.

With the repeated, old information restored, example #1 becomes self-contained and accessible to the non-specialist. That is, the reader needn't look to a source outside the text (e.g., a list of stock symbols) to understand its information:

1. 100 shares of Texas Oil & Gas common stock traded at $23.00 per share.
100 shares of Texas Utilities common stock traded at $43.875 per share.
100 shares of Texaco common stock traded at $33.25 per share.
 
---> Old information is important to those who don't know the context or situation.


With old information added to example #2, the message becomes unambiguous. Remember that the amount of old information you need depends on how much your reader knows about your situation, not on how much you know:

2. PLEASE SEND ME FIFTY DOLLARS AMERICAN EXPRESS OFFICE IN NICE LETTER OF EXPLANATION FOLLOWS LOVE LOU.
 
---> Old information is important for guarding against errors in transmission.

With the missing information restored to example #3, the text can still inform even though it contains some errors. When you cut information you assume your reader already knows, you lessen your margin for error: