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!

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