Monday, December 14, 2009

Closing the Gap

"It may seem obvious that a scientific document is incomplete without the interpretation of the writer; it may not be so obvious that the document cannot "exist"without the interpretation of each reader."~Gopen and Swan (1990)

This is the final post in the series on the "Science of Scientific Writing" by the authors cited above.  The objective of their paper was to introduce some principles of writing that will help to close the gap between writer interpretation and reader comprehension. 

In the previous posts, we've worked through five principles designed to improve comprehension of scientific writing.  There are two more principles that provide further guidance in writing to meet reader expectations.  Here's number six:

In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.

When the writer fails to provide context, the reader is left floundering.  Writers often neglect to provide context because the information seems obvious to them and they fail to recognize that the reader may not be similarly acquainted.

The earthquake example we considered in previous posts did not provide context for the abstract, but instead jumped right into the technical information:

Large earthquakes along a given fault segment do not occur at random intervals because it takes time to accumulate the strain energy for the rupture. The rates at which tectonic plates move and accumulate strain at their boundaries are approximately of abstract.

Isabella's version added the necessary context by explaining in the first sentence that this discourse was about how strain buildup causes earthquakes:

Earthquakes occur when a certain amount of strain caused by the movement of tectonic plates has been accumulated. 

The reader is now prepared mentally to consider more technical aspects of earthquake frequency.  As the writer proceeds through the technical information, she should provide context for each new bit of information introduced in the piece.  This approach requires that the writer ask herself if the reader will understand what is being introduced in each succeeding sentence or if some explanation or backward linkage to "old information" is required.

We've now come to the final principle, which is:

In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.

The foregoing principles relate to sentence structure and how it sets up reader expectations.  For example, the reader expects to see the person or thing that the discourse is about in the "topic position" near the beginning of the sentence.

Squirrels hide acorns. The topic is squirrels.
Acorns are hidden by squirrels.  The topic is acorns (or oak trees, seed dispersal).

The writer must choose the appropriate sentence structure that is consistent with both the material being presented and with reader expectations.  If the reader has been told that the discourse is about acorns and seed dispersal, then the second sentence provides the substance to be emphasized in the expected position in the sentence.

We've now covered all seven principles of scientific writing:

 1.  Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
 2.  Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize.
 3.  Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.
 4.  Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
 5.  Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
 6.  In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
 7.  In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure. 

Keep in mind that these are principles, not rules.  You will not necessarily be able to apply all seven in every sentence or even in every paragraph.  In some cases, you may have to make a choice between two structures. Also, some highly skilled writers can violate reader expectations quite effectively, for example to make a memorable point.  

The key is to recognize when you consistently violate reader expectations in one or more of these principles.  A writer who continually fails to put new information in the stress position during early writing attempts typically continues that structural pattern in subsequent writing.  It becomes a habit that is difficult to break, particularly if the writer is unaware of how it affects reader comprehension.  If you get reviewer comments that your writing is "unclear" or "ambiguous" on a frequent basis, you may be violating one of these principles.

As a further exercise, I suggest you select a couple of papers in your field--one that you think is particularly good (clear, understandable, compelling) and another that is difficult to follow, that requires frequent rereading of sentences to understand.  From those papers select a paragraph or two and dissect them based on what we've covered in this series.  I think you'll find that the better paper adheres to the seven principles, and the difficult paper violates one or more of them.  By doing this exercise with someone else's writing, you develop an "eye" for discourse that needs revision to improve reader comprehension.  Once you've become proficient at spotting problematic structure in other writings, then you are prepared to tackle your own writing.

Editing your own writing is not as easy as it sounds.  It's easy to become enamored of your own words and sentence structures and are loathe to change them.  I find this infatuation with one's own words quite insidious and difficult to overcome.  Students are particularly prone to this condition.  They think that every sentence is a pearl of wisdom that needs no revision.  So they are quite shocked to get their work returned, and it is covered with "red ink".  Some are so obstinate that they refuse to make the suggested changes (which is why I always keep a copy of my marked-up version to compare with their revision). Such students never improve and continue to have increasingly difficult problems.  Other students learn quickly because they take the time to consider what their mistakes were and why they need revision. 

Even seasoned writers have this problem of falling in love with their writing (maybe even more so than others).  However, that sentence, which you worked so hard to produce and that are now so proud of, may be confusing to the reader.  If it is, it needs to be revised.  You must learn to be ruthless with your own writing.  If you find yourself balking at changing a sentence you know to be flawed, tell yourself that the new sentence will also be your creation and an even better one than the original.  I also agree with the common advice of putting your writing away for awhile to get some distance from it.  By distancing yourself, you not only can take a fresh look at your writing at a later date, but you minimize your feeling of ownership.  With a less possessive attitude, you can more easily rearrange and discard words.

I hope readers have learned something in this series.  I know I have.  It's made me take an even closer look at my writing tendencies and in particular my favorite sentence structures that need improvement.  I still find myself falling back into bad habits on occasion, but now I can more easily spot those indiscretions.  By becoming aware of how poor constructions affect reader comprehension, we can resist and consciously change such habits.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.

This is also the single most important principle for constructing a decent scientific seminar presentation.

Tsu Dho Nimh said...

"provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new"

But provide only enough context to introduce the new stuff. The scenic tour is not needed, just connect the new stuff with the reason the reader is reading your dull and boring paper (or user manual).

FutureNerd said...

A favorite related quote of mine:

"Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

Samuel Johnson as quoted by Boswell