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Good Writing Part III: Sentences and Paragraphs and the Importance of Location

This week, we continue our Summer Series on Good Writing brought to us by guest blogger, Dianna Bartel. After discussing why good writing is important, where to start, and which words are most effective, Dianna now explains how to put those words in the right place – both in the sentence and in the paragraph – to make our writing more clear and effective. Here’s Dianna:

 

Last time we discussed the importance of choosing simple and precise words. Now we move on to placing our carefully chosen words into sentences. As readers, we interpret sentences based more on the location of words, not the choice of words. In other words, readers expect a general format in each sentence. And no matter how perfect our word choice is, if we do not place the words in the right location, our meaning will be confused and muddled.

Here are some key points to consider regarding the importance of location in constructing sentences and paragraphs.

 

1) Establish importance in the sentence

Sentences can be chunked into two big pieces: the beginning and the end. The beginning of the sentence serves to define the topic of the sentence; hence, this is the topic position. The end of a sentence is where we automatically place more emphasis; thus, this is the stress position. And simply switching the words between these two positions will make a huge difference in how our sentences are interpreted.

Consider this example:

Topic                           Stress

Times are hard, but you deserve a raise.

You deserve a raise, but times are hard.

The exact same words, but the location of the words gives these sentences entirely different meanings. The first sentence sounds as though we can expect a raise, whereas the second sentence stresses the reason that we probably cannot get a raise. Either one is a correct sentence depending on what we want to communicate, but if we place the least important part of a sentence in the stress position, our readers will likely perceive our sentence as weak and not convincing. So bottom line – place the most important information at the end of the sentence.

 

2) Establish a main idea in the paragraph

We can think of each paragraph as a unit of thought that is focused on a single main topic. This is also true, and perhaps more obvious, at the level of sentences. Most writers get this part intuitively right; it is unlikely that we would write a single sentence about two separate topics. However, at the level of paragraphs, it is surprisingly common to see this principle violated. We have all read paragraphs that seem to have no clear point or drift among unrelated ideas. To ensure that our paragraphs are cohesive and effective, every paragraph needs to focus on one specific topic.

To keep paragraphs focused, the main point is stated in a topic sentence. We can think of the topic sentence as a signpost — something that alerts readers to the most important idea to follow in the paragraph. And when read in sequence, our topic sentences will provide a sketch of our document. Thus, topic sentences help protect our readers from confusion by guiding them through our reasoning.

Topic sentences also help shift our readers’ focus from one point to another (also called ‘making a transition’). Readers use topic sentences as mental cues for the information they will read in the rest of the paragraph, so the topic sentence usually appears at, or near the beginning of, a paragraph. Furthermore, when the topic sentence comes first, readers can pick up information about the content of our paper quickly and do not have to search for the main points.

To write a topic sentence, think about the information that needs to be communicated. What point do we want to emphasize? What do we want readers to understand? The answers to these questions will help formulate appropriate topic sentences. Consider the following examples of topic sentences:

Topic                                                               Stress

After nerve injury, there is evidence of synaptic reorganization in the CNS.

There is evidence of synaptic reorganization in the CNS after nerve injury.

The first sentence signals that the paragraph to follow will focus on the synaptic organization. It would be confusing to read a paragraph following this sentence that only talks about other details of nerve injury but doesn’t give further mention of the synaptic reorganization. Rather, we would expect such a paragraph to follow the second topic sentence.

Finally, if we have written a paragraph and wonder whether it might discuss more than one topic, split the paragraph into two separate paragraphs. Repeat as necessary. Short, clear paragraphs are better than long, rambling ones.

In summary, over the last few weeks we have highlighted some of the basic points of sound, effective writing. But there are plenty of principles that we haven’t even touched on. After all, there are entire books and classes devoted to scientific writing, which is precisely what we will end the series with next time – a review of various scientific writing resources.

 

** Let us know what else you think about constructing clear sentences and paragraphs **

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1 Comment

  1. This was helpful, and I go to Spring Arbor University.

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