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

Lesson 9

Write to Analyze, Not to Catalog

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This lesson will prepare you for the next twelve lessons, which make up the largest part (Part III) of this course. They show you how to construct coherent sentences, paragraphs and sections -- in other words, the nuts and bolts of actually doing your writing. Lesson 10 shows you how to select the simplest word that will do the job and how to weed out gobbledygook. Lessons 11 through 13 show you how to use three powerful tools for constructing analytical sentences. Lessons 14 through 17 give you four ways to put together coherent paragraphs and sections. Lesson 18 makes a case for being personal in your writing.


THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF ANALYTICAL WRITING

So far, you've practiced some tools that help you select and analyze your audience, organize your thoughts, and decide WHAT TO SAY. Now, you'll learn and practice using some of the most powerful, yet easy-to-use tools for putting together coherent sentences, paragraphs and whole papers. These specific tools will help you make the second major decision you have to make about your writing: HOW TO SAY IT. You'll find that the way you put your words together to form these fundamental building blocks makes the difference between writing that informs and writing that merely catalogs.

In Lesson 7, you practiced selecting the details that are the most appropriate for your particular audience, throwing out the ones that audience doesn't care about, and arranging them in the most logical order. But informative writing goes farther than merely selecting and sorting details. There's a big difference between simply listing or cataloging details and analyzing and interpreting them for your reader.

I talk to many writers who feel that if someone doesn't understand their writing, "That's his problem. The information is there, if he will just read it." They fail to recognize that a technically correct and precisely written paper can at the same time be incomprehensible to everyone but an expert in the field. They also fail to realize that the only test of a document's success is whether the desired audience will actually read and understand it and take appropriate action.

The Analytical Writer acknowledges his responsibility to his readers. Instead of throwing them some undigested data and saying, "Here are my results...you figure them out," save your readers the work by analyzing and interpreting those results for them.

To appreciate this point more fully, place yourself for a moment in the role of a busy scientist as he browses through some journals and technical reports that have shown up in his morning mail:

All of the material that has reached your desk is of broad interest to anyone in your field, or it wouldn't have reached your desk in the first place. What now determines which articles and reports you will read and how carefully, and what impact each one will have on you? You may at first think that it is solely the technical relevance and significance of each article to your own work that determines how much attention you pay to it.

But suppose that you come across an article that direcly relates to your field of interest, but that its author forces you to wade through a long catalog of technical details without defining terms, without telling you which are important and why, or how they relate to what you already know. Suppose the writer hasn't bothered to analyze or interpret any of the information he presents.

You quickly get the impression that you've been presented with a list of facts and told, "Here are the results. You figure out what they mean." You decline to accept the challenge and move on in disgust, or perhaps ask one of your engineers to figure it out because you don't have the time.

To show you that such things actually happen, here is an abstract of a technical report that I actually encountered in my work. An abstract is supposed to tell you enough about a paper's contents to let you decide whether to go on or not. Read this one and see if you can tell what the paper is about:

New and old system designs are distinquished by how well the inerrelations among the variables that are available for observation are exploited. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect new system designs to be closely coupled to improvements in techniques for representing and analyzing these interrelations. The algorithm discussed in this paper is an example of such an improvement. It is designed to extract information about the spatial and/or polarizational characteristics of the fields of emitters in a multiple-emitter environment. Its capability to determine the number of emitters present, the strengths of their fields, and the direction of arrival of their fields is an example of one of its applications. However, many aditional applications suggest themselves.

At this point, you may feel only a vague sense of discomfort and annoyance on reading this. But can you identify specifically why this abstract fails to inform?

This abstract doesn't do its job because it's a list or catalog of indigestible generalities. The difference between cataloging details and analyzing them shows up in this example on all scales -- from the choice of words and sentence structure to the way the paragraph is organized. You can be sure that the paper it refers to is poorly organized as well.


HOW NOT TO WRITE

To better understand what kinds of writing inform most efficiently, it is useful to study writing and speaking that is deliberately designed to avoid informing, and whose main purpose is instead to pacify. This is the craft of politicians, diplomats, many government officials, and some corporate executives.

Here, for example, is a diplomatic communique purporting to summarize a meeting on nuclear arms limitation:

Representatives of the United States and the Soviet Union met in Geneva this week for the third round of negotiations on Strategic Arms Limitation. The meeting was cordial, and discussion was reported to be frank and open, with both sides reiterating their commitments to easing the international tensions produced by the nuclear arms race. The negotiators agreed that the critical issues to be examined are the questions of verifying warhead quotas and arriving at mutually satisfactory methods of on-site inspection Discussions will resume in two months.

What really happened at this meeting? Nothing, of course! The purpose of the communique was to assure the public that the two countries were still speaking to each other, and to report what didn't happen at the meeting (a total breakdown of negotiations).

Look at this President's Message from a mutual fund annual report:

Despite one of the most volatile years in the domestic economy, characterized by swings in business activity and interst rates, your Fund moved forward into the new decade, overcoming several of the challenges with which it was confronted during the past year. I am pleased that the steady progress we have made on your behalf is evidenced by major steps toward strengthening of the Fund portfolio for the ultimate realization of the long-term objective of capital appreciation.....

Everyone knows the name for this kind of writing -- it's simply bullshit.

It's easy to assume that diplomats, politicians and executives talk this way because they don't know what they're talking about. Don't be fooled. Usually, such people have risen to positions of power precisely because they know how to communicate ambiguously, and so that anyone hearing the message will interpret it positively, in terms of his own values. This is known as content-free communication. It is specifically designed to let the receiver supply its substance and meaning.

Such a strategy is perfectly appropriate for anyone who has to keep a large audience happy. Laying all your cards on the table simply doesn't work if you can't afford public criticism and dissent. Television networks and airlines have developed this ability to a fine art.

Notice the properties of these special languages that keep them from informing -- vague, nonspecific nouns, impersonal and passive constructions (to avoid responsibility), and usually a special jargon designed to keep the reader ignorant of the facts.

If your goal is to write to inform, you would do well to notice and avoid all these devices.


YOUR TOOL KIT

Analytical Writing, by contrast, means telling your readers what's important and why -- by differentiating, interpreting, contrasing and specifying.

This means that your words are concrete, specific, objective and unambiguous. In Lesson 10, you will learn that plain, down-to-earth words are more informative than pretentious, impressive ones. Your sentences state relations among ideas, not just disconnected facts.

Your tools for writing more informative sentences will be:

THE DEPENDENT CLAUSE (Lesson 11)
THE ACTIVE VERB (Lesson 12)
THE CONCRETE NOUN (Lesson 13)
A PERSONAL STYLE (Lesson 14)

Your paragraphs tell your readers all they need to know about an idea, in a logical way, without wasting their time with irrelevant details.

Your tools for writing more effective paragraphs will be:

ORIENTING YOUR READER (Lesson 15)
TYING IDEAS TOGETHER (Lesson 16)
CUTTING DOWN TECHNICAL DENSITY (Lesson 17)
ARRANGING IDEAS IN A LOGICAL SEQUENCE (Lesson 18)

And your overall organization is a design for informing quickly and efficiently. We covered that in the last lesson.

In Lesson 19, I'll show you how to make your illustrations inform rather than baffle, and in Lesson 20, I'll give you some hints about the mechanics of getting started on your writing jobs.


-- End of Lesson 9 --

Beginning of Lesson 9 || Contents || Go on to Lesson 10