Paragraph and Sentence Level Overview


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Some Principles of Clear and Direct Writing

There follow a few guidelines for concise, readable writing. These guidelines are not iron-clad rules: there are occasions and audiences for which writing should be more complicated, even slightly more difficult to follow.
 
- Principle 1: Use SUBJECTS to name your main characters.

Subjects of sentences should be the characters involved in the passage. Characters are not just people. The term means whatever you can tell a story about by making it the subject of a lot of sentences. But the clearest sentences have characters that are people or concrete objects that you can name in a word or two.

For the following examples, notice how 1b reads more clearly than 1a. (The one word SIMPLE SUBJECTS are italicized within the WHOLE SUBJECTS which are underlined. Verbs are boldfaced.):

1a.) The Federalists' argument that destabilization of government was the result of popular democracy was based on their belief in the tendency of self-interested groups toward sacrificing the common good for their own narrow objectives.

1b.) The Federalists argued that popular democracy destabilized government, because they believed that self-interested groups tend to sacrifice the common good for their narrow objectives.
Keep your subjects short and concrete, naming your main characters. This method works even if the main characters are abstractions instead of people. For example:

2a.) Few aspects of human behavior have been so difficult to explain as rationalthinking. Rationality depends on a range of short term behaviors, such as not jumping to a hasty conclusion or action, having the patience to gather evidence, and the ability to bring together evidence and reasons in support of claims. But perhaps the hallmark of human rationality is the capacity to think about thinking, to reason about reasoning, to reflect on the quality of the thinking that assembles those reasons and claims into an argument.

To avoid long, indistinct subjects, you can usually revise such sentences by recasting their abstract subjects around flesh-and-blood characters.

2b.) Psychologists have found it difficult to explain what we do when we behave rationally. We think rationally when, in the short run, we do not jump to hasty conclusions, but instead patiently gather evidence, and bring evidence and reasons together to support claims. But we are perhaps most rational when we reason about our reasoning, when we reflect on how well we thought when we assembled our reasons and claims into an argument.
 
- Principle 2: Use verbs, not nouns, to name those characters' actions. (Avoiding nominalization: turning verbs into nouns.)

Once readers get past a short, concise subject, they look for a verb that expresses a specific action. The sooner they find one, the clearer they judge the sentence to be. Compare the verbs (boldfaced) in the following two examples:

1a.) The Federalists' argument that destabilization of government was the result of popular democracy was based on their belief in the tendency of self-interest groups toward sacrificing the common good for their narrow objectives.

1b.) The Federalists argued that popular democracy destabilized government, because they believed that self-interested groups tend to sacrifice the common good for their narrow objectives.

The only verbs in 1a, was and was based, are empty. The verbs in 1b express action: argue, destabilize, believe, tend, sacrifice. The actions in 1a are hidden in abstract nouns.

1a.) The Federalists' argument that destabilization of government was the result of popular democracy was based on their belief in the tendency of self-interest groups toward sacrificing the common good for their narrow objectives.

These nouns that are derived from verbs are called nominalization. Writing that feels highly professional and abstract almost always has lots of these abstract nominalizations. But using these nominalizations as subjects causes the writing to have weaker verbs instead of the stronger ones it could have used, and it also requires adding extra prepositions and articles.

* Use verbs to communicate actions; do not bury actions in abstract nominalizations, especially in subjects. Match key elements in sentences -- subjects and verbs -- to key elements in your story -- characters and actions.

For more on characters and actions, click here.
For more on nominalizations, click here.
 
- Principle 3: Get to a verb quickly. (Sometimes we call this principle "short to long.")
 
The chunk of the sentence before the main verb is called the "topic" position. Readers generally expect clear, familiar information in the topic position.

Contrast the following sentences: (Whole subjects are underlined; simple subjects are italicized; main verbs are boldfaced):

1a.) Parents who believe that school uniforms would solve most of the discipline problems in our schools argue in favor of them, but many others who fear that government already intrudes too much into our private lives object.
1b.) Some parents argue that school uniforms would solve most of the discipline problems in or schools, but many others object because they fear that government already intrudes too much into our private lives.

The principle of quickly getting past a subject to a verb implies three subordinate ones:
 
-Principle 3A: Avoid long introductory elements before a subject.

Readers do not want to work through wordy introductory phrases before they get to the main subject and its verb. It is most effective to start a sentence directly with the subjects.
 
- Principle 3B: Keep whole subjects short.

This principle connects to our first one, to make subjects distinct characters, because distinct characters usually have short names.
 
- Principle 3C: Avoid interrupting subjects and verbs with long phrases and clauses.
When readers do not see a verb right after a subject, the sentence is probably more difficult than it has to be. Shift an interrupting element to the end or beginning of its sentence, depending on where it fits better. Compare the following:

2a.) Some scientists, because they write in a style that is so impersonal and objective, do not communicate with lay people easily.

2b.) Some scientists do not communicate with lay people easily, because they write in a style that is so impersonal and objective.

For more on short to long, click here.
 
-Principle 4: Begin sentences with information that is familiar to readers. (Sometimes we call this principle "old to new.")


This principle has the same effect as the first three. It lets readers build up momentum in a sentence, but it depends less on the grammar of the sentence than on the psychology of its reader. We read more easily when we start with simple and familiar information and then build up to new and complexinformation. Compare:


1a.) Particular ideas toward the beginning of sentences define what sentences are "about." The cumulative effect of a series of repeated subjects indicates what a passage is about, so our sense of coherence depends on subjects of sentences. Moving through a paragraph from a consistent point of view occurs when a series of subjects seems to constitute a coherent sequence. A seeming absence of context for sentences is one consequence of making random shifts in subjects. Feelings of dislocation, disorientation, and lack of focus occur when that happens.

1b.) As we read, we depend on the subject of a sentence to focus our attention on a particular idea that tells us what that sentence is "about." In a series of sentences, we depend on repeated subjects to cumulatively tell usthe topic of a whole passage. If we feel that a series of subjects is coherent, then we feel we are moving through a paragraph from a coherent point of view. But if we feel its subjects shift randomly, then we have to begin each sentence out of context, from no coherent point of view. When that happens, we feel dislocated, disoriented, and out of focus.

Most of us have a problem with (1a) that we do not have with (1b). Each sentence in (1a) starts with long abstract subjects and information that to us is newer and less familiar than the information at the end of those sentences. This principle of how to begin a sentence implies how to end it.

For more on old to new, click here.
 
- Principle 5: End a sentence with long and complex units of information.
Information at the end of the sentence makes more of an impact on readers. We call the end of the sentence the "stress" position.
 
- Principle 6: Keep your subjects consistent. Avoid beginning several sentences in a row with unrelated subjects. (We sometimes describe the beginnings of sentences as "topic strings.")


When sentences in a series all begin differently, we are likely to judge the passage to be unfocused, disjointed, even disorganized. More consistent subjects make reading easier. Be careful not to vary subjects randomly, but limit them to just a few different characters.

For more on topic and stress, click here.
 
-Principle 7: Announce the point (the subject and sub-claim) of your paragraph within the first few sentences of a paragraph. (We describe the beginnings of paragraphs as "issues" and the rest as "discussion.")