The Science of Good Writing: The Structure of Reader Expectations

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing. You can read the first two posts here and here if you’d like, but you can also just dive right in!

As I discussed in my last post, one key to good writing is to meet reader expectations. If you don’t meet reader expectations, it can pull the reader out of the text, like plucking a long strand of hair out of your spaghetti bolognese. Yuck.

So how do you meet reader expectations?

It can be really hard, and I mean, really hard to know exactly what your readers will expect. Luckily, though, Gopen and Swan give us a few suggestions based primarily on the structure of our prose.

What do I mean by structure? Really, what they’re talking about is sequential order. In fiction, we talk about stories having a beginning, middle, and end. Often–but not always–things happen in chronological order. The beginning of the story tells what happened first; the middle describes what happened next, and in the end, we find out what happened last.

But we can talk about sequential order of nonfiction prose, too, and on an even smaller scale than beginning, middle, and end. We can talk about the order of sections, the order of paragraphs, or even the order of sentences.

These are all very important. But we can also talk about the order of the information and words in our sentences. And that’s where Gopen and Swan focus several pieces of their advice. They essentially have three things to say about sequential ordering within sentences:

  • The first part of the sentence is called the topic position. This is where you put the topic of the sentence, which is usually old information.
  • The second part of the sentence is called the stress position. This is where you put information that you want to stress, or emphasize. Often, this is new information.
  • You should put the sentence’s subject as close to its verb as you can.

I’ll use the bullet points above as examples. I’ll italicize the topic position and bold the stress position.

The first part of the sentence is called the topic position.

In this sentence, “The first part of the sentence” is old information. You know that I’m about to talk about sentence ordering, so the phrase “The first part” is expected information. However, “topic position” was new information at that point, and I wanted to emphasize that piece of jargon. So, I put it in the stress position.

In addition to using the topic position and the stress position in ways that readers expect, you want to keep subjects and verbs as close together as you can, as often as you can. Unfortunately, this does mean you need to be able to identify subjects and verbs. I don’t have a blog post on this topic just yet, but you can check out this quick refresher from grammarbook.com if you’d like.

So let’s use the last bullet point above as an example. I’ll italicize the subject and bold the verb.

You should put the sentence’s subject as close to its verb as you can.

In this case, the subject is right next to the verb. That makes it easier on the reader than, say, this sentence:

The subject of the sentence you, the esteemed author, are carefully writing, with all its great importance to the comprehensibility of the sentence of which it is a constituent, needs to be as close to the verb as humanly possible.

I’m not going to lie. That sentence was as fun to write as it was confusing to read. There are a whole twenty-six words and four commas in between the subject and the verb! Yeesh!

In theory, those rules are pretty easy to follow. But they can be difficult to put into practice. Why? Because they require you to take a step back from your writing and think about the structure of each sentence, which takes time. But if you do take that time, you can make your writing that much better.

Stay tuned for more writing tips from Gopen and Swan! Next up: figuring out what’s missing in a piece of writing. And here’s a preview of past and coming attractions, otherwise known as the other posts in this series:

Happy reading!

The “Science” of Science Writing: Reader Expectations

This post is part of a series on the “science” of good writing. You can read the first post here if you’d like, but you can also just dive right in!

How do you determine if writing is good?

Depending on who you ask, the answer will be more or less nuanced–good writing is clear and concise; good writing is engaging or persuasive. Some would argue that writing can’t be good unless its content is based on sound ethical principals. Others might say that any writing is good as long as it gets its message across.

George Gopen and Judith Swan, in their piece The Science of Scientific Writing, foreground the audience as a determining factor in what makes a piece of writing good. This isn’t necessarily a new idea; audience-centered communication has been taught at least as far back as Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

But Gopen and Swan specifically talk about centering audience expectations. When an audience reads a sentence or a paragraph, what do they expect?

Gif of a short clip from the Monty Python sketch, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition." Three red-robed gentlemen burst into a modern-day living room, and a caption appears, saying "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
False! No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Turns out, readers general expectations are pretty easy to predict. And understanding and meet those expectations are core components of Gopen and Swan’s idea of good writing.

Purple giraffes fly over the moon.

See what I mean? You’re probably thinking, “Wait, what about purple giraffes?” I threw completely new information–a new topic, even–at you completely out of the blue. I didn’t even lead into it with the question, “What happens when you don’t meet audience expectations” because I wanted the sentence to feel as out of place as possible.

It pulls you out of the text and might have made the paragraph after it a bit more difficult to read, even though the sentence “Purple giraffes fly over the moon” clocks in at about a fourth-grade reading level.

So what are audience expectations? And how do I meet them to help make my writing better?

We’ll get into that next time. And speaking of next time, here’s a list of all the posts in this series. As each piece comes out, I’ll edit in the links here, so bookmark this page or follow the blog if you want to stay up to date!

  • November 8: The “Science” of Good Writing
  • November 15: This post!
  • November 22: The Structure of Reader Expectations
  • November 29: What’s the Missing Piece?
  • December 6: Taking Action

Thanks for reading–see you next time!

Book Review: How to Start a Revolution by Lauren Duca

[Full disclosure: I received a free electronic galley of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.]

Like many after the 2016 US presidential election, I became more politically active than I had been prior to the election. I protested, I joined political organizations, I contacted my representatives. I donated to causes that mattered to me.

And then I moved.

Not just to another city, or even another state. My spouse got a job across the Atlantic in the country of Luxembourg, which (sorry, Luxembourg) I’d barely heard of before his job offer.

The move was exciting, but it was also very difficult for several reasons, most of which are not relevant to this post. But one consequence of the overseas move was the waning of my newfound agency amid the ever-turbulent US political landscape.

We’re not in Luxembourg permanently; my spouse’s job is a temporary contract lasting three to five years, so we’ll be back in the states sometime after 2021. I’m hoping the state of American politics will look a bit different once we return. But in the meantime, I have been feeling even more helpless than I did on November 9th, 2016. Since I was no longer living in the States, could I still even use Resistbot to write to my representatives? Who were my representatives now? What could I possibly do about the US mess all the way over here?

Those were my feelings in a nutshell.

And then I read Lauren Duca’s How to Start a Revolution.

An Eerily Familiar Story

The introduction and first chapter of How to Start a Revolution tell the story of Duca’s own political awakening, and it’s a story similar to my own. Her stories of growing up vaguely “Republican” because she knew that’s how her parents voted, of coming into her own political beliefs, of having a “political awakening” that included tense discussions—even fights—with well-meaning family members she loved very much—I knew this song by heart. I could even sing along.

Duca’s descriptions of these familial tensions were, at times, difficult to get through because of these similarities. But that’s also why they are a vital part of her book. In her struggles, I saw my own.

In her triumphs, too, though, I glimpsed myself and my kin. I don’t want to give too much away because I want you to read the book for yourself, but I will say this. Her stories of interactions with family members are based on real life, so they definitely don’t end with everyone skipping down the road together to a Bernie Sanders rally or anything. But they’re not all doom-and-gloom, either. The last family story she tells is less an ending and more a continuing saga, shot through with a bright ray of optimism.

The Kids Really Are All Right

And speaking of optimism, this book is full of it. But don’t mistake this optimism for empty platitudes and wishful thinking. Rather, How to Start a Revolution shares the stories of young people around the US who reached a political breaking point, asked how they could make a difference—and then did it.

I’m an older millennial (b. 1985) who, for the past ten years or so, has worked in higher education. I’ve been both a tutor and a teacher of college writing classes, so for the past decade, it’s been my job to work with young people, mostly other millennials and Gen Z. You could say I know them well.

So, I knew going into this book that the kids were all right. But in reading How to Start a Revolution, I got an even better sense of the many ways that young people are working to change the world—they’re starting nonprofit organizations, campaigning for gun control, and running for office… and winning.

In a nutshell, Duca’s project investigates what she sees as a large-scale political awakening of young people after the 2016 US presidential election. She talks to young people around the country, asking them what kept them out of the political arena before, and why they’re entering it now. She consults foundational texts in political science and theory—and sometimes the authors of those very texts—to try to find a vocabulary for what’s happened, and I think that overall, she succeeds.

Food for Thought

I say “overall” because while I very much enjoyed this book, and I hope it is as inspiring for other people as it has been for me (spoiler alert),  there are a couple of small things that gave me pause that I want to discuss briefly.

Not everyone needed waking up.

While the “political awakening” Duca describes was very familiar to me, some people have been “awake” to the political ills of the US all along. And while Duca does acknowledge this, even explaining the origin of the slang “woke,” I often wished she did more to highlight the work of those who didn’t need any waking up—the folks young and old who campaigned for marriage rights, or the folks behind Black Lives Matter (though she does discuss BLM a bit).

I’m not saying she doesn’t acknowledge these movements, or acknowledge the work of movements long before these, either, because she does. But sometimes the language she uses in describing the “waking up” of young people eclipses those other movements. I think this happens in part because the drama of a political awakening can be quite motivating—I certainly found it so. But for the drama of waking up to be most effective, you have to start off asleep.

What is the job of journalism?

Another thing that gave me pause was Duca’s faith in her own profession. Which, to be fair, I can’t fault her for. I just take a much more cynical view. Duca sees her job, and the job of all journalists, as providing citizens with factual information so that they can form educated beliefs about the world around them. And, again, to be fair, that may be the job of individual journalists.

But the job of a newspaper is often to sell itself, and it always has been. As I tell my students, Donald Trump didn’t invent fake news—William Randolph Hurst and Joseph Pulitzer engaged it in it long before he did, and before them, so did John Adams! I take more of a Chomskian view of the media, which colored my perceptions of Duca’s proclamations about the point of the media.  

Once again, I want to be fair to her here, too. Though it’s not the major project of her book, she devotes a decent amount of real estate to discussions of media literacy. Media literacy is the ability to look at a piece of media and think critically about it—to question what’s being said in light of who’s saying it. Which I think Chomsky would approve of, and so do I.  As a college writing professor, I appreciate her discussions of media literacy so much that I am thinking about using portions of the book in future classes. I haven’t decided one way or the other, but I’m mulling it about in ye olde brainpan.

Who Should Read This Book?

The things that gave me pause, I think, mostly stem from the fact that, in some ways, this book isn’t really for me. Or, rather, I’m not who Duca had in mind when she was writing. Much of what she writes about, I already knew going in—things like the political-industrial complex, or the many ways that complex gatekeeps newcomers (especially young people).

But there’s plenty that I didn’t know, too. The particular stories of inspiring young activists across the US, the actual numbers behind youth engagement in (or alienation from) politics—many of these things were new to me.

What’s more, there’s a big reason that I’d recommend this book to anyone feeling frustrated and hopeless about or alienated from US politics. It’s inspiring meto act.

You I Really Can Make a Difference

As I was reading, I kept becoming so inspired by these young people’s stories that I kept putting the book down and googling new ways I can get involved and make a difference—even from across the pond in Luxembourg. There are two organizations I’m planning to join, one of which I’m planning to apply for a volunteer position.

Even as I sat down to write this review and remembered the feelings of both literal and metaphorical distance I’ve felt from US politics, I had myself a little google, and I figured out both who my congresspeople are—turns out they’re the same as where I was last registered to vote, lol. I also learned there’s a whole organization advocating for US citizens abroad that I didn’t even know about.

So, who should read this book? You, if you’re feeling like you want to make a difference but don’t know how. That’s the title of the book, after all—How to Start a Revolution. Duca ends the book with literally three easy steps for becoming a more engaged citizen, but I’m not going to spoil them here. For those, you’ll have to read her book for yourself.

New Episode of Gig Hunters Out!

Hey, did you know I publish a serial novel weekly on Tapas? Well, I do! And as of yesterday, episode Nine of Gig Hunters is out!

What is Gig Hunters?

Think Supernatural meets True Blood in the gig economy. Freelance monster hunters Chris Carroll and Loyalty Stevens don’t have a ton in common, except a love of used-to-be-mythical creatures and a need to pay the bills.

Check it out today, and let me know what you think in the comments!

The “Science” of Good Writing

I don’t know if you know this, but writing is hard. And writing good–ahem, writing well–is even harder.

Sometimes, though, writers hide behind the complexity of their subject matter to excuse–or even brag about–their bad writing. Writing in certain academic fields, like science or philosophy, has a reputation for being just completely incomprehensible. And some academics are proud of this. They preen about the difficulty of their work and say things like, “It’s not my fault other people can’t understand my brilliance.”

Okay, okay. I’ve never heard an academic say anything quite like that (I don’t think), but the attitude does exist.

But this attitude butts up against the attitudes of other scholars who think that a core part of academia’s mission is service to the public good. And if the public can’t read and engage with your work, then what are you even doing?

Sometimes, from deep within these debates, advice emerges on how to make your writing better–advice like George Gopen and Judith Swan’s The Science of Scientific Writing, originally published in the 1990 November-December issue of American Scientist.

This piece speaks directly to scientists, who are particularly known among academics for their nigh indecipherable prose. It’s not a listicle, but it ultimately breaks down several strategies for improving scientific writing that are actually backed by research from my field–because it’s co-written by someone from that field.

And it’s kind of great, but it’s also kind of long. And the examples are directly lifted from scientific papers that can be difficult get through for field outsiders like me. So I’m going to do a little mini-series of posts breaking down their recommendations one by one into bite-sized pieces that are slightly easier to digest.

Here’s a preview of coming attractions. As each piece comes out, I’ll edit in the links here, so bookmark this page or follow the blog if you want to stay up to date!

  • November 15: Reader Expectations
  • November 22: The Structure of Reader Expectations
  • November 29: What’s the Missing Piece?
  • December 6: Taking Action

Thanks for reading–and stay tuned!

5 Reasons You Should Stop What You’re Doing and Go Read Steel Crow Saga Right Now

I knew I would love Steel Crow Saga by Paul Krueger from the book’s very first scene, not even five minutes into the audiobook. A character is moping because the boy he has a crush on is interested in a girl, and his younger sister brightly reassures him, “But you can like both! I know kids at school who like both!”

But the book’s extremely good LGBT+ representation not the only reason I continued to love this book the more I listened to it. Hell, no. It has amazing CHARACTERS. Strong THEMES. Outstanding WORLDBUILDING.

But that’s not all. It also has FASHION. And FOOD. And WORDS. Lots and lots of good ones.

And, like all good books, it will give you FEELZ. So, so many feelz.

My goal with this review is to convince you to go read it for yourself. Whether you go bug your local librarian for it, support your local bookstore, grab it from a big box store or online retailer, or listen to the audiobook like I did, I don’t care. Go gitchu a copy so we can nerd out about it together.

Oh, and I should mention, this post has no affiliate links, and I did not receive a free advance copy for review. I’m writing this book because I want, no, need, other people to go read it so we can squee about it together.

And because that is my goal, I’m going to try to write a spoiler-free review. Maybe in the future I’ll write a spoiler-filled review so that you can know precisely what made me squee the most.

For now, though, you can read my spoiler-free squees. So, without further ado, here are the TOP 5 THINGS I loved about Steel Crow Saga.

THE PEOPLE

There are four protagonists in Steel Crow Saga: Tala, a soldier with a secret; Jimuro, the crown prince of a recently-crumbled empire; Xiulan, twenty-eighth princess of a neighboring kingdom; and Lee, a thief with pretty much nothing to lose. Tala has been tasked with escorting Prince Jimuro back to his country’s capital safely, while Xiulan recruits Lee into trying to kidnap the prince. She wants to present Jimuro as a gift to her father in order to win his favor and perhaps a future seat on her own throne.

Each of these characters is a fully realized creation, with their own beliefs, goals, interests, and flaws. They have distinct personalities, which are reflected in their mannerisms, their internal conflicts, and even their dialogue. And despite their flaws—or because of them?—I found myself rooting for each and every one of them, even though most of them are literally working against each other throughout most of the book.

What’s more, as I mentioned before, these and other characters in the book represent a wide spectrum of genders and sexualities in a way that felt natural and not at all tokenizing.

THE WORLDBUILDING

Author Paul Krueger has described Steel Crow Saga as Pokémon meets Fullmetal Alechemist. And it is definitely that, but it’s also so much more (with no shade meant to either Pokémon or FMA).

 It’s a fantasy epic in a world very much but also not at all like our own. The book opens almost immediately after the once-again sovereign nations of Sanbu, Shang, and Dahal have joined forces to overthrow the colonialist rule of the Tomodanese Empire. Each of these four nations—as well as the still-subjugated people of Jeongson—have their own distinct cultures, beliefs, customs, languages, and prejudices.

Krueger paints this world—these worlds—with a thousand tiny brush strokes, small details that make for a gorgeous bigger picture, like a Monet or a Van Gogh. Cars don’t work the same way in Tomoda as they do in Shang. Tala, a Sanbuna, repeatedly laments the lack of coffee in Tomoda throughout much of the book; the Tomodanese are tea-drinkers. The cultures blend and clash in other ways, as well—in greeting customs, in fashion, and, perhaps most interestingly, in food. Don’t read this book while hungry.

One of the biggest ways that these cultures differ is their use of magic. The way Krueger describes these magical systems and the ways the magic looks and feels is magical in and of itself.  

The magic of the peoples of Sanbu and Shang is called shade pacting. A shade pact is a magical agreement between a person and an animal wherein each being promises something to the other in return for a piece of their soul. The animal becomes the person’s lifelong companion, living inside them until they are called.

The people of Tomoda find shade pacting to be… problematic, to put it lightly. Their magic is called metal pacting. They are able to manipulate metal in a number of magical ways—like heating it to make it hotter or moving or guiding it through space. The Dahali, meanwhile, manipulate magic more directly, casting hexbolts made of soul energy.

These distinct, unique modes of magic are deeply entwined in their respective cultures and, in universe, have been used in more than one way to colonize and subjugate—but also to revolt and rebel.

Which brings me to my third favorite thing about this book:

THE THEMES

There’s no way around it, Steel Crow Saga is about empire, and the long, slow, painful process of decolonization. And not just at the macro level, though two of the four main characters are royals whose countries have a history of colonization and the other two are members of colonized nations, only one of which has been recently liberated.

Steel Crow Saga is also about unlearning the internalized biases and personal prejudices that are one of the most harmful tools of empire. It’s also about responsibility, both on an institutional and an individual scale. And on a more personal level, it’s about forgiveness.

THE WORDS

I wish I could be more specific in this review about what I mean when I say, “Krueger does words good.” But I listened to the audiobook, and I’m not in the habit of bookmarking audio segments in Audible, though after listening to this book, I wish I were. But Paul Krueger does words so good that I’m planning on getting at least one text version of the book. I’d prefer print, both because the cover art is divine and so that I can shove it into other people’s hands to make them read it. But since the closest all-English bookstore is a half hour away, I may just go ahead and get it on Kindle now and then buy a print version once I visit the States in December.

What I’m saying is, I’d like to be able to share the specific sentences that made me literally pause the audiobook just to whisper, “Damn, that was good,” to myself while my spouse eyed me with raised eyebrows, but I can’t. At least not yet.

THE FEELZ

Whoo, doggy, the feelz. And boy, do I mean all of them. Steel Crow Saga is a roller coaster of emotions from start to finish, in the absolute best way possible. Hope, despair, betrayal, guilt, joy, sorrow, that little hitch in your stomach when you haven’t quite figured out you like someone yet but they do something and it just hits you in that waySteel Crow Saga’s got it all.

Let me put it this way. I am not ashamed to say I cried in public a little bit as I listened to this book, and I’m also not ashamed to say I outright sobbed at the end, awkwardly and silently because my spouse was on a video call with his adviser in the other room and I didn’t want to disrupt them. I couldn’t help the very loud sniffles, though, so maybe I should have just wailed.

And I think that’s all I can give you without being too spoiler-y. I’ve also droned on for almost 1500 words now, so I’ll start to wrap things up. As a bonus, though, I want to give you the sixth thing I really loved about Steel Crow Saga:

THE REFERENCES

Krueger has been open about a few of the book’s references—Pokémon and FMA, obviously—but those aren’t the only two IPs he pays homage to in the book. And each one I encountered was so delightful, I laughed out loud when I heard it. The first time I heard one, I was like, “Wait, did he just—” but by the second one, I knew it was intentional. Maybe there were more, too, that I didn’t catch, which is another reason I’m so eager to give the book a re-read.

All right! What about you? Have you read Steel Crow Saga yet? If not—what are you waiting for? Let me know in the comments!

Also, if you liked this review, and want to read more of my Book Opinions, you can follow me here or on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @claysad.

Revise and Resubmit… Again.

Remember like two weeks ago when I posted about the revising and resubmitting process in the short fiction market? And how I said it was frustrating because I never got any feedback?

Well, now I have to eat my words because I did get some feedback! Mmm, tasty words.

I didn’t get a ton of feedback, but a little bit of feed back is still feedback, so today I worked on applying it to the story.

And you know what?

It’s a better story.

Big shocker, I know.

I didn’t use all of the feedback, for two reasons. One, I wasn’t sure I agreed with part of it. The editor said a part of the story felt a bit rushed, and I rather liked the pacing of that section. Two, expanding that section would have taken up even more space in 2700-word story I am planning to submit to a journal that seeks stories of 3,000 words and under, and I wanted to expend those 300 additional words at the end of the story. The editor said the ending was rushed, and that, I definitely agreed with.

And I like this ending much, much better than my original ending.

So, I’m going to let it rest for a bit and submit it somewhere else soon. We’ll see how it goes. Maybe they’ll say the same thing, that the part I didn’t change was a bit rushed, or just reject it without giving a reason. Then I guess I’ll give that section another look.

We’ll see how it goes.