Analytical Writing for Science and Technology
Copyright © 1996 by T. M. Georges.

Lesson 14

Step 1 to More Informative Paragraphs -- Orient Your Reader

colorbar

In this and the next three lessons, you'll learn how to assemble sentences into coherent packages called paragraphs. An informative paragraph should tell your readers all they need to know about a single idea, in a logical sequence, without wasting their time with irrelevant detail.

In this Lesson:

Groups of paragraphs make up the sections of your paper, which are its next larger logical units. Most of the principles for writing informative paragraphs apply to whole sections, too, so we won't deal separately with putting sections together. Whatever I say about putting sentences together into paragraphs applies also to putting paragraphs together into sections.


SHOULD RULES DETERMINE PARAGRAPH LENGTH?

The most commonly cited rule about paragraphs is keep them short. One article I read said to make your typewritten paragraphs no longer than your little finger. Rigid rules like that are, of course, substitutes for thinking, and most of them are nonsense.

If your paragraphs seem too long, it's probably because you've wandered from the logical thread you started at its beginning. Check the final sentences and see if they are still directly related to your topic sentence at the beginning of the paragraph. If not, break it up.

If your paragraphs seem too short and choppy, you're probably jumping around between unrelated ideas. Try to combine logically related ideas from different paragraphs into larger units.

Length in itself has nothing to do with informing efficiently. A long paragraph can well be a sound and informative logical unit. Cut off your paragraphs where there is a logical break in your reasoning.

The only good reason I know of to keep your paragraphs short is that long stretches of words present a formidable visual image and make your writing appear hard to read. So, when in doubt, start a new paragraph.

There are hundreds of other rules about how to write informative paragraphs. Most are just too general or complicated to be practically useful. Besides, you aren't likely to remember more than about four.

Here, then, are four useful principles to keep in mind as you assemble a paragraph:

  • Orient your reader to the subject.
  • Tie your ideas together.
  • Take it easy through technically dense passages.
  • Arrange your ideas in a logical sequence.

Now we'll go through these four steps, one-by-one, and find out exactly how to incorporate them into your own writing.


MAKE YOUR READER COMFORTABLE

Everyone needs to take stock of the present situation and to have some idea where they're going before plunging off in a new direction. That's why you need to give your readers signposts that tell them where they are and where you're going to lead them, not just at the beginning of your paper, but frequently along the way.

Have you noticed that, at the end of each lesson in this course, I stop and summarize what we've just covered and tell you what's coming next? This is one kind of orienting signpost to help you keep your perspective as you work through the lessons.

Since paragraphs and sections are the logical modules of your paper, each one should contain some kind of orienting material to keep your readers in touch with the old and familiar, as you lead them into new and unknown territory.

Whenever you introduce a new idea, your readers will appreciate definitions, examples and comparisons with things they already know. They will feel more comfortable with your new information if they have a familiar reference to hang on to. Three ways to do this are with orienting words and phrases, by letting the old amplify the new, and by adding explanatory words and phrases, where necessary.


USE ORIENTING WORDS AND PHRASES

Here are a few orienting words and phrases you can use to introduce familiar concepts and to make your readers comfortable by touching base with things they already know:

  • of course
  • as you know
  • until now
  • obviously
  • normally
  • previously
  • everyone is familiar with
  • remember that

In this exercise, ideas labeled THE OLD and THE NEW are paired together so that THE OLD idea introduces and forms the background for THE NEW idea. Fill in the blanks with the most suitable orienting word or phrase from the list above. Pick the one that best introduces THE NEW idea.

THE OLD: drifting buoys have been used to monitor surface currents in the ocean.

THE NEW: Now, high-frequency radars based on the shore can remotely map currents over large areas.


THE OLD: microcomputers have been getting smaller and lighter.

THE NEW: The latest models are so light you can carry them around like a notebook.


THE OLD: our typewriter cases have been made of cast aluminum.

THE NEW: They are now molded in structural plastic.


THE NEW: This year's widget sales jumped to 86,000.

THE OLD: last year, we sold only 42,000 widgets.

THE OLD: standard periodogram analysis, which gives the frequency components of a time series.

THE NEW: The fast Fourier transform gets the same results with much greater computational efficiency.


THE OLD: computing the payroll for 500 employees would take two days.

THE NEW: The new computer does it all in an hour.


THE NEW: Our new camera automatically determines shutter speed and f-stop for every shot.

THE OLD: you can still set your exposures manually, if you want to.

If you think of words like these while you write, orienting material will naturally come to mind.


LET THE NEW AMPLIFY THE OLD

As you link the old with the new, avoid the traditional chronological approach that lists the old things before the new. Usually, you are interested in the old merely as a contrast with the new. For example:

The new Videx compact video disk player weighs one-third and costs less than half of the 1992 model. Furthermore, it can hold up to six times as much programming and uses tiny 3-inch disks instead of the bulky 12-inch ones.

Isn't this version much more informative than one that would begin by listing the undesirable characteristics of the old machines, then told you what the latest ones are like? How often do you begin your news with a long historical background? Such background information is most useful if it is strategically placed to reinforce and contrast with your message, not as a single lump at the beginning.


ADD EXPLANATORY WORDS AND PHRASES

Often, when you are introducing new ideas, you will have to expand and clarify them with definitions and explanatory material. Generally, the more complex the ideas you have to present, the more explanatory material you will need.

This sentence needs to be broken up with orienting and explanatory phrases:

The EC-153 aircraft will be developed to provide electronic countermeasures (ECM) in tactical theaters for the purpose of defending ground-support aircraft against radar-vectored SAMs.

Depending on what audience is being addressed, the meanings of these terms may not be clear: electronic countermeasures, tactical theaters, ground-support aircraft and SAMs. If not, the passage should be expanded with definitions, like this:

In local military actions called tactical theaters, aircraft that provide reconnaissance for ground troops are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) guided by enemy radars. The EC-153 aircraft will generate jamming signals to confuse enemy radars -- a function known as electronic countermeasures (ECM).

To decide how much explanatory material you need, you have to form a clear picture of your audience and how familiar they are with what you're saying. In general, it's a good idea to put in more explanations than you think you need, because your writing is often read by people outside your expected audience.

For example, the first version of the passage above would probably be OK for military field commanders, but woefully inadequate for a congressional briefing to secure funding for such an aircraft.

Now find a sample of your own writing and underline any technical terms that need to be expanded, explained, or more clearly defined for the particular audience you were writing to. Write down those technical terms and explain and amplify them with a few words that give that audience a clearer picture of what you're talking about. Try using explanatory phrases like in other words, for example, that is, and this means that...:

Here's an exercise to give you practice constructing coherent paragraphs that contain enough orienting material. The list below gives some facts that you want to communicate to your customers about a new computer system. Construct one or more paragraphs incorporating these facts, along with any amplifying material you make up. Make sure you pay attention to all the principles you just read about, namely:

  • Use orienting words and phrases
  • Let the old amplify the new
  • Make full use of explanatory material

Here are the facts:

  • Our new ZXM computer lets you put up to 10 users on your processor.
  • It offers 50% more disk-storage space, with removable backup.
  • You can trade in your ZXQ single-user system for what you paid for it.
  • Secure accounting files are available.
  • New word-processing software allows file-merging.
  • Deliveries will begin in January.

Write your paragraph below:


LESSON SUMMARY AND WHERE WE GO FROM HERE

When you begin writing each paragraph and section, think about your readers' needs for orientation. Tell them how your message is connected with what they already know, using orienting words and phrases, by explaining technical terms, and by using the old to amplify and support the new.

The next lesson gives you some specific ways to tie ideas together so your paragraphs look like logical units.


"If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it." -Abraham Lincoln


-- End of Lesson 14 --

Beginning of Lesson 14 || Contents || Go on to Lesson 15