Senior Seminar: Week 8

Writing Workshop 3

Back to the Syllabus

Assigned Reading

Williams, pp. 45–53


Review Williams’s examples 1a and 1b on p. 46. So far we have studied how we can make a turgid prose clearer. (Remember that “turgid” is how the reader feels when she reads certain unclear prose.) Now, some texts are unclear but not turgid. According to Williams, the reader sometimes feels a prose to be disjoined, abrupt, or choppy: the prose lacks cohesion. Compare Williams’s examples 2a and 2b on p. 46.

In Chapter 3, Williams discusses two simple principles that help you revise your prose for greater cohesion or flow:

  1. Put at the beginning of a sentence those ideas that you have already mentioned, referred to, or implied, or concepts that you can reasonably assume your reader is already familiar with, and will readily recognize.
  2. Put at the end of your sentence the newest, the most surprising, the most significant information: information that you want to stress–perhaps the information that you will expand on in your next sentence. (p. 48)

That is, a sentence should begin with an idea that is familiar to the reader at that point, and if we want to talk about a new idea, we should introduce it near the end of a sentence and begin the next sentence with that idea. This principle of course makes sense because we comprehend a series of sentences by building newly presented ideas onto the ideas that we have already grasped.

The two principles above are complementary, and if we begin a sentence well (following the first principle), the rest will usually take care of itself. It is hard to begin a sentence well, because at the beginning, we want to do several, seemingly conflicting things (see Williams’s list on p. 49). But according to Williams, there is one most important thing to do at the beginning of a sentence:

To announce the topic of a sentence–the concept that we intend to say something about. (p. 49)

The topic of a sentence is what the sentence is about: the topic is the psychological subject. In most English sentences, the psychological subject of a sentence is also its grammatical subject. See Williams’s examples on p. 50.

To improve cohesion and hence one aspect of clarity, why is it effective to announce the topic of a sentence at the beginning of a sentence? The answer has to do with how we read and comprehend texts: as we read texts, we organize ideas around topics. So if we are not told at the beginning of a sentence what the sentence is about, we cannot organize its ideas. The sentence will then feel disjoined.

I think that we can appreciate the importance of announcing a topic early by reading the text below. As an experiment, please just read the text without thinking too much about it.

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups depending on their makeup. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo any particular endeavor. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications from doing too many can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. The manipulation of the appropriate mechanisms should be self-explanatory, and we need not dwell on it here. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. (John D. Bransford, and Marcia K. Johnson, “Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Behavior 11 (1972): 717–726. The quoted passage is on p. 722.)

What do you think is the text about? Does the text feel clear to you? (Here we are extending Williams’s discussion a little by talking about a topic of a series of sentences, but this extension is straightforwardly handled by his principles.) We will talk about these questions in class.

Homework for Workshop 4

1. Find a paragraph (or part of a paragraph) containing several sentences. It can come from your old paper or your current writing, such as a paper for another class or annotations you have made for this class. Limit the length of your paragraph to 100–150 words. You will get most out of this exercise if your example is amenable to Williams’s principles. Use the quick method on p. 23 and advice given here to identify candidate sentences. You can also find another quick method on p. 56.

2. Revise your paragraph for greater cohesion by following Williams’s principles and the ideas discussed above and in the reading. As far as possible, try to apply Williams’s principles we have studied in the previous workshops. In fact, you might find it easier if you first revise your paragraph in light of the principles we have discussed before and then try to find ways to apply the new principles you learned above. Since your goal is to practice principled revision, don’t rewrite the sentences completely (see Williams’s footnote on p. 18). In other words, your revised version should retain the meaning of the original as much as possible. Try to produce one or two revised versions of the same original text. For example, different versions might use different strings of characters. Make each version credible: something you would accept as a revision of your original text.

To submit your work, follow Steps 4–6 of the previous homework. Please submit by 1pm of the day of the next workshop so that I’ll have time to look over your revisions beforehand.