Advanced Writing Strategy: Place Information So People Can Find and Remember It

Getting What You Want from Your Science Writing (Part IX)

Your writing will be more easily understood on the first read if you place the information where your readers expect to find it. Good writers think about their readers expectations when they write, and their writing has a natural “shape” to it.

Western readers read from left to right, and readers expect old material, which provides context, on the left. The new material is on the right. Use this information to guide you when building tables and graphs to present data. Put the “known” (old) material that provides the context for your reader on the left, and the “unknown” (new) material on the right.

Ex:

In the topic position of a sentence, your reader will expect context and “old” information as well. The reader needs perspective on the story. The topic positions in a string of related sentences should be consistent to guide the reader through the paragraph or section.

A reader also expects a story or sentence or paragraph to be about whoever or whatever shows up first. Make sure that if your work is about neurotransmitters, you don’t start off by talking about reproductive hormones (unless you can make a really strong connection between the two that uses sensible transitions and related topic strings).

The “stress” position comes at the end of a sentence, and readers will naturally remember and emphasize the information that appears in the stress position. If you start with the exciting material at the beginning of the sentence but have a so-so ending, you can lose your writing momentum, hurting the “shape” of your overall piece.

For the most effective endings, shift the less important, less exciting information to the “left” (or the beginning of the sentence):

Ex:
The data supporting the existence of dark matter do not make believers of us for the most part.

For the most part, the data supporting the existence of dark matter do not make us believers.

Also, when you edit, look at the endings of your sentences, see if you can trim them to give them more punch.

Ex:

Sociobiologists are making the provocative claim that our genes largely determine our social behavior in the way we act in situations we find around us everyday.

Sociobiologists are making the provocative claim that our genes largely determine our social behavior.

When you introduce a technical term for the first time—or even a familiar but important term—design the sentence so that the term appears at the end, in the stress position. Your reader is more likely to take note of the term if you do.

The typical sentence order that a reader expects is: Subject-Verb-Object (or predicate adjective/noun). So, keep these parts of the sentence as close together as possible. Avoid interrupting the subject and verb or verb and object with long phrases or unnecessary information.

Ex:

A discovery that will change the course of world history and the very foundations of our understanding of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things is imminent.

By the time the reader makes it to the end of the sentence, she has forgotten what it is that “is imminent”.

So, keep the subject (discovery), verb (is) and predicate adjective (imminent) as close together as possible for a stronger sentence.

A discovery is imminent that will change the course of world history and the very foundations of our understanding of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things.

Ex:

The neurotrophins, including nerve growth factor (NGF), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), neurotropin-3 (NT-3) and neurotrophin-4/5 (NT-4/5) are a family of related polypeptides which regulate the survival and differentiation of discrete, and sometimes overlapping, neuronal populations.

The neurotrophins are a family of related polypeptides that regulate the survival and differentiation of discrete, and sometimes overlapping, neuronal populations and include nerve growth factor (NGF), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), neurotropin-3 (NT-3) and neurotrophin-4/5 (NT-4/5).

Even better:

Survival and differentiation of neuronal populations is regulated by a family of related polypeptides that includes nerve growth factor (NGF), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), neurotropin-3 (NT-3) and neurotrophin-4/5 (NT-4/5). These polypeptides are called neurotrophins.

Now your introduced term is at the stress point of the paragraph. Context would decide how I would handle the “discrete” versus the “overlapping” populations issue, but I think it needs its own sentence, separate from the definition of neurotrophin.

Keep your reader in mind when you write. Give your reader context and perspective on new information before you introduce it. Place information where your reader expects to find it, and put information you want your reader to remember in the stress position of sentences and paragraphs. When you do these things, your writing is easier to understand on the first read, and more people will read what you write.

Happy writing.

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Michele Arduengo

Senior Content Developer / Social Media Lead at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele manages the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys leisure reading, writing creative nonfiction and knitting, and the occasional cross-country skiing jaunt.

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