"We do not start with the strawberry shortcake
and work our way up to the broccoli."
The Reader Expectation Approach to Writing
Nancy Swisher, 2017
Note: The material below, with some minor modifications, is taken directly from The Science of Scientific Writing
by George Gopen and Judith Swan
In order to understand how best to improve writing, we would do well to understand better how readers go about reading. Such an understanding has recently become available through work done in the fields of rhetoric, linguistics and cognitive psychology. It has helped to produce a methodology based on the concept of reader expectations. Information is interpreted more easily and more uniformly if it is placed where most readers expect to find it. (Scientific writing) could be made significantly more comprehensible by observing the following structural principles:
1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
Look at this sentence:
The smallest of the URF's (URFA6L), a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the NH2-terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene.
Note that the grammatical subject ("the smallest") is separated from its verb ("has been identified") by 23 words, more than half the sentence. Readers expect a grammatical subject to be followed immediately by the verb. Anything of length that intervenes between subject and verb is read as an interruption, and therefore as something of lesser importance.
The relative importance of the intervening material is difficult to evaluate. The material might conceivably be quite significant, in which case the writer should have positioned it to reveal that importance. Here is one way to incorporate it into the sentence structure:
The smallest of the URF's is URFA6L, a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the NH2-terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene; it has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene.
On the other hand, the intervening material might be a mere aside that diverts attention from more important ideas; in that case the writer should have deleted it, allowing the prose to drive more directly toward its significant point:
The smallest of the URF's (URFA6L) has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene.
2. Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize.
Video of Dr. Gopen (25:19 - 30:05) It is a linguistic commonplace that readers naturally emphasize the material that arrives at the end of a sentence. We refer to that location as a "stress position."
The inclination to direct more energy to that which arrives last in a sentence seems to correspond to the way we work at tasks through time. We tend to take something like a "mental breath" as we begin to read each new sentence, thereby summoning the tension with which we pay attention to the unfolding of the syntax. As we recognize that the sentence is drawing toward its conclusion, we begin to exhale that mental breath. The exhalation produces a sense of emphasis. Moreover, we delight in being rewarded at the end of a labor with something that makes the ongoing effort worthwhile. Beginning with the exciting material and ending with a lack of luster often leaves us disappointed and destroys our sense of momentum. We do not start with the strawberry shortcake and work our way up to the broccoli.
This is the way a sentence ends
Not with a whimper but a bang.
Some examples of student writing. Are the sentences structured with the most important information in the stress position?
1. To counter these problems, we propose Calm-down that can deal with them in efficient and effective ways.
2. In this study, in order to develop and verify the failure criteria, a total number of fifty-two different asphalt mixtures were used.
3. Recent years have seen a huge increase in the popularity of educational games and game-based learning all around the world.
4. It is a model capable of aggregating talent, leveraging ingenuity while reducing the costs and time formerly needed to solve problems, which has been proved to be very powerful.
5. Failure of flood defense structures can be catastrophic depending on the intensity of the event and its location, especially the low lying coastal areas, with critical facilities like nuclear power plants.
3. Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.
To summarize the principles connected with the stress position, we have the proverbial wisdom, "Save the best for last." To summarize the principles connected with the other end of the sentence, which we will call the topic position, we have its proverbial contradiction, "First things first."
The information that begins a sentence establishes for the reader a perspective for viewing the sentence as a unit: Readers expect a unit of discourse to be a story about whoever shows up first. "Bees disperse pollen" and "Pollen is dispersed by bees" are two different but equally respectable sentences about the same facts. The first tells us something about bees; the second tells us something about pollen.
4. Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
Readers also expect the material occupying the topic position to provide them with linkage (looking backward) and context (looking forward). The information in the topic position prepares the reader for upcoming material by connecting it backward to the previous discussion. Although linkage and context can derive from several sources, they stem primarily from material that the reader has already encountered within this particular piece of discourse. We refer to this familiar, previously introduced material as "old information." Conversely, material making its first appearance in a discourse is "new information." When new information is important enough to receive emphasis, it functions best in the stress position.
When old information consistently arrives in the topic position, it helps readers to construct the logical flow of the argument: It focuses attention on one particular strand of the discussion, both harkening backward and leaning forward. Remember:
1. The backward-linking old information appears in the topic position.
2. The person, thing or concept whose story it is appears in the topic position.
3. The new, emphasis-worthy information appears in the stress position.
In our experience, the misplacement of old and new information turns out to be the No. 1 problem in American professional writing today.
5. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
6. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.
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. In any recording or articulation, no matter how haphazard or confused, each word resides in one or more distinct structural locations. The resulting structure, even more than the meanings of individual words, significantly influences the reader during the act of interpretation. The question then becomes whether the structure created by the writer (intentionally or not) helps or hinders the reader in the process of interpreting the scientific writing.
In real and important ways, the structure of the prose becomes the structure of the scientific argument. Improving either one will improve the other.