Lecture: Technical Communication Strategies: Ch. 6 & Ch. 7

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from Technical Communication Strategies for Today. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. Just because I don’t address something doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. If you have any questions or need further elaboration on anything about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Ch. 6: Technical Descriptions and Specifications / Ch. 7: Instructions and Documentation

In chapters 6 and 7, Johnson-Sheehan introduces the genres of technical descriptions and documentation, both of which can be divided into sub-genres, some of which share the same name. To make things even more confusing, all forms of technical descriptions and documentation serve the purpose of providing documentation of something. While recognizing that these terms can be fluid, let us take a look at the distinction Johnson-Sheenhan makes between technical description and documentation.

Technical descriptions provide explanations of what objects, places, or processes are. They can include technical descriptions of products, patents (the detailed description of an invention), specifications (a description of the requirements that sets a standard for a product or service), field notes, observations, and technical definitions.

Documentation offers descriptions of how something should be done. Documentation includes instructions, specifications (a detailed and precise description of how something should be assembled or how a process should be completed — again, the goal is to describe the standard), and procedures and protocols.

What Something Is vs. How Something Is Done

Again, the difference between technical descriptions and documentation is that technical descriptions describe what something is and documentation describes how something is done.

Specifications

In both cases, whether it is specification as technical description or specification as documentation, the key feature of specifications is that they exist to describe a standard.

Gantt Charts

What Is a Gantt Chart Infographic
Infographic by Wrike.com

In the Technical Communication Report Project Proposal assignment, I ask you to create a Gantt Chart, which is a commonly used planning tool in the form of a bar chart used to illustrate a project schedule. To learn more about Gantt charts, see the infographic (clicking on it will take you to the larger version on the Wrike.com website) and the descriptions at both Wikipedia and Mindtools.com. You can find many tutorials on how to make a Gantt chart as well as templates for doing so. Smartsheet’s “How to Create a Gantt Chart in Excel” and “Create an Online Gantt Chart in Minutes” are but two examples. There are also a number of downloadable or online Gantt chart creators available.

Lecture: Technical Communication Strategies: Ch. 8

Note: Unless I hear otherwise I will assume you understand the readings from Technical Communication Strategies for Today. Therefore, lectures on readings from the book will tend to be short, focusing on specifics I want to highlight. Just because I don’t address something doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. If you have any questions or need further elaboration on anything about the readings, including material not covered in the lectures, please ask.

Ch. 8: Proposals

Proposals come in many forms for many different purposes, some informal and some quite formal with rigid guidelines. During the course of your career you might find yourself working on a number of different kinds of proposals: a short informal proposal to your immediate colleagues suggesting a plan of action, a conference presentation abstract to present on a theory you’ve developed during your work, a Kickstarter or GoFundMe campaign to launch a product your company has developed, a NSF grant, a business plan you present to a bank in hopes of securing a business loan, a book proposal to send to a publisher, a quick elevator pitch you’ve practiced for just the right moment when you have the attention of an investor. Regardless of whether the proposal is informal or formal, and whether it’s submitted in response to a request for proposals or is unsolicited, all proposals have the following characteristics: They are sales and planning documents, they are acts of persuasion, and they function as projections that define the scope and scale of a commitment to do some kind of work.

Proposals as Sales and Planning Documents

As Johnson-Sheenan explains in Technical Communication Strategies for Today, all proposals tend to have a set of basic features, which roughly correspond to the following purposes:

  • Introduction
  • Description of the current situation, which identifies a problem,
  • Description of the Project Plan, which explains what work will be done to solve the problem and may include such information as the time frame, location where the work will be done, and materials and equipment to be used,
  • Review the qualifications, which will identify the people who will work on the problem and argue for their qualifications,
  • Discussion of the costs and benefits, and the
  • Budget, which estimates the cost necessary to do the work.

In doing each of these things, a proposal makes a sales pitch that you should be given something (funding, a contract, permission to start, etc.) and presents a basic plan as to what you will do should that something be given.

Proposals as Persuasion

As proposals are sales pitches and planning documents, the goal of a proposal is to persuade the proposal reviewer(s) that there is a problem to be addressed, that you are qualified to address that problem, and that you have a plan to see the problem addressed.

Proposals as Projections

Because a proposal is a planning document that explains how you will go about to solve the problem needing to be addressed, the equipment and materials needed to address that problem, a time frame in which the work will be done, and the costs involved, a proposal defines a set of commitments you are promising to undertake. In order to make an effective — persuasive — argument, you need to present your plan in as much detail as you can so that proposal reviewers can evaluate your proposal’s feasibility, often in comparison with other competing proposals. And if they accept your proposal, they will expect, within reason, for you to adhere to the conditions which you promised.

Planning and Writing Proposals

Some key issues in planning and writing proposals include:

  • thinking in terms of both how long it will take to write the proposal and how long it will take to do the work promised in the proposal
  • understanding the criteria by which the proposal will be evaluated
  • learning how the review process for the proposal works
  • making sure that you have the appropriate permissions to make the proposal
  • understanding the request for proposals if there is one to ensure that you are addressing their needs and requirements
  • using the requirements as an outline and a compliance matrix
  • developing a work plan and schedule to produce the proposal, leaving enough time for revision
  • preparing a style and format guide should one be needed

Proposal Contents

While proposals typically have the basic features listed above, the contents of each proposal will vary depending upon the context. Solicited proposals often include a description of what your proposal should include, and when they do always follow their guidelines. The easiest way to get your proposal rejects, no matter how good it is, is to ignore the requirements listed in a request for proposals.

Johnson-Sheenan’s list of basic features on page 200 gives us a rough guide of what to expect in a proposal.

Compliance Matrix Example
Example of a basic compliance matrix. Figure 11.4 in The MIT Guide to Science and Engineering Communication, 2nd ed.

Front Matter: The front matter may include a letter or memo of transmittal, a cover page, a summary, a table of contents, a list of figures and tables, and a compliance matrix (similar to a table of contents but based upon the requirements listed in the request for proposals). The inclusion or exclusion of each of these items will depend upon your specific requirements, however you should consider a letter or memo of transmittal to be necessary, even if it’s just an email informing the recipient that you are submitting your proposal titled “My Really Cool Proposal” in response to their call for proposals.

Body of the Proposal: The current situation, project plan, qualifications, costs and benefits, and budget make up the body of your proposal and, again, what you include or exclude will depend upon your particular needs. Some proposal genres divide these elements into up to three different formal sections: a technical section, a management section, and a budget section.

The technical section includes such information the problem you wish to address, your objectives, and statement of the work you will undertake, including your methodology, and the expected results.

The management section includes such information as who will do the work and their qualifications, and where and when the work will be done, possibly including detailed task breakdowns and schedules, often described both through narrative and with a Gantt chart.

The budget section will provide a detailed breakdown of the money needed for the project with explanations of how and why that money will be spent.

Back Matter: The back matter may include a list of references to scholarship and other documents used to inform your proposal and supporting materials such as curriculum vitae and resumes of principle investigators and project leaders, letters of reference, lists of relevant previous contracts and/or publications, etc.

Lecture: Solving Problems in TC, Ch. 14

“What Do Technical Communicators Need to Know about Genre?”

In ch. 14 of Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Brent Henze examines the function of genres within technical communication and how we can use our knowledge of genre (as a concept) to design documents for users’ needs, to understand how to modify a specific genre such as a progress report or bad news letter in order to achieve specific ends, or to teach ourselves how to undertake new writing tasks.

As both Bazerman and Henze explain, genres represent an established set of textual practices and conventions to be used for specific contexts by members of discourse communities (or activity systems to use Bazerman’s term). These established practices and conventions not only help define and limit the scope of choices available to us as technical communicators, they define and frame the expectations of our audience, and help them both interpret our document but how to use it. For example, as an established genre, a project feasibility report has well-defined sections (see Technical Communication Strategies for Today, Figure 10.6 for an example).  The CEO and board of directors of a company may may simply want to know whether a project should be green-lighted or not, and therefore may do nothing more than read the abstract/executive summary and maybe skim the recommendations section. On the other hand, learning that the report recommends against the project, the potential project manager who really wants to see the project go forward may want to jump straight to the research plan in order to see if they can find fault with the study itself and, therefore, maybe revive the project. Familiar with the genre of the feasibility report, both the CEO and the potential project manager know how to use a feasibility report even before they get their hands on any specific report.

Principles of Genre Theory

Henze organizes his literature review around eight principles of modern genre theory:

  • Social action: the idea that genres emerge out of the needs of a group to perform and document certain tasks (339-340).
  • Typification: a “sociocognitive process” in which groups categorize similar situations into a type or kind. (341-342).
  • Choice: as an established set of textual practices and conventions, genres set limits on the rhetorical choices one has when work in a particular task (342-343).
  • Change: while genres represent established textual practices and conventions, they are not fixed in stone.  Because they come into existence to meet the needs of a group to perform certain tasks, when the needs of the group or the group itself changes, the established practices and conventions of a genre may need to change in order to continue to meet the needs of that group (343-345).
  • Competence: effective use of a genre requires establishing competence in that genre. As a social act with an activity system (again, to use Bazerman’s term), one’s ability to preform that act within a given social context depends upon one’s competence (345-346).
  • Correlation of genres: as a social act, the use of a genre exists within a larger framework of interactions, and the use of one genre often calls forth or invokes the use of another genre. A call for proposals, for instance, invokes the submission of proposals, which will in turn result in acceptance and rejection letters (346-347).
  • Genre systems: emerging out of the idea of correlation of genres, the principle of genre systems understands that genres can be clustered into systems or ecologies in which correlated genres circulate and interact (347-348).
  • Flexibility and originality: the understanding the genres circulate and interact in an ecology combined with the understanding that genres limit the rhetorical choices available to us while at the same time being flexible leads to this last principle that sophisticated writers can meet the needs of complex or novel rhetorical situations through the use of “strategic blending of typified and innovated textual elements” (Wendy Sharer, qtd. in Henze) (349-350).

Drawing from these eight principles Henze offers four heuristics for understanding and using genres.

Lecture: Solving Problems in TC, Ch. 10

“How Can Technical Communicators Plan for Users?”

In chapter 10 of Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Antonio Ceraso introduces the concept of and provides strategies for how we might plan for users, both in the traditional sense of project management and audience analysis, but also through the process of user participation in the design and documentation process, what Ceraso calls responsiveness. Responsiveness, he notes, is usually achieved through the use of usability and beta testing and/or through collecting user data and feedback.

While the traditional forms of planning (project management and audience analysis) are no less important to the success as technical communicator, I want to stress this idea of responsiveness, of the need to involve users in the design and documentation process. The first thing to note here is the use of the word user rather than reader. The use of user here reflects not just the fact that your role as a technical communicator you might be involved in helping design website or software interfaces or developing a set of procedures, but that as a technical communicator much of what you produce is intended to be used by someone. While it’s unlikely that you’ll ever need to engage in beta testing of a memo written to update your supervisor on the status of your project, your supervisor isn’t reading your memo for information as one of your teachers might read one of your essays; instead, your supervisor is reading your memo to determine what courses of action your supervisor needs to take. Fortunately, as well-established genres, the progress report as memo has been through rigorous usability testing long ago (see both Bazerman’s “Knowing Where You Are” and Brent Henze’s “What Do Technical Communicators Need to Know about Genre?“).

The last issue I’d like to stress from this reading is the idea that while we often think of planning as something we do at the start of a project, Ceraso demonstrates that planning for users is most successful when it is approached as an active, ongoing process throughout the lifecycle of a project, including even after it has been released and put into use, and both of Ceraso’s heuristics, both the one for planning for audiences (Table 10.1) and the one for planning for responsiveness (Table 10.2), reflect this fact.

Lecture: Solving Problems in TC: Ch. 3

[Note: This was supposed to publish during Week 3 on Feb. 1.]

“How Can Technical Communicators Fit into Contemporary Organizations?”

In ch. 3 of Solving Problems in Technical Communication, Jim Henry offers us a look at the role technical communicators can play in the workplace through the lens of analyzing and understanding an organization’s workplace culture, ostensibly to find one’s place within that culture in order to achieve “equilibrium” (93). 1) Henry’s use of equilibrium here, as you might recall, comes from the evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest, coined by Herbert Spencer, which doesn’t mean “the strongest,” but “being most nearly in equilibrium” with one’s environment. While the focus of the chapter is on how you, as a technical communicator, can find your place within an organization, the techniques Henry discusses in this chapter can just as readily be used to study and analyze a workplace for other purposes including a communications audit, which may be done internally or by an outside consultant.

In the literature review (pp. 77-80), Harvey offers a definition of organizational culture and offers three methods for studying it.

Organizational Culture

While, as Henry notes, there is enough debate over how to define culture that there’s at least one book that examines the competing definitions, he does give us a working definition in this chapter, which he draws from Edgar Schein’s article “Organizational Culture” to offer us one definition of culture: “Culture can now be defined as (a) a pattern of basic assumptions, (b) invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, (c) as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, (d) that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore (e) is to be taught to new members as the (f) correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems” (111, qtd. in Henry 78). As Henry notes, the goal of fitting in is to be socialized into the (dynamic) culture of an organization (77), to position oneself within equilibrium with the organizational environment.

Methodologies for Analyzing Workplace Culture

After defining organizational culture, Henry discusses the two major methodologies for studying workplace culture: ethnography and autoethnography. As practices, both ethnography and autoethnography emerged out of the fieldwork practices of anthropologists and folklorists. (Auto)ethnography, he explains, involves participant observation, interviews, artifact analysis, all governed by a set of ethical practices (79). The major difference between ethnography and autoethnograpy, is the role of the researcher and the culture being analyzed.

In ethnography, the researcher is an outsider looking in, although the process of conducting ethnography often requires researchers to immerse themselves within the culture. Anthropologists, for instance, might live and participate as fully as possible in the day-to-day living of the culture they are studying. Autoethnography, on the other hand, seeks to make use the practice of ethnography by someone already within the culture in question. Both come with their own challenges in how one positions oneself in terms of one’s subjectivity — that is, how one seeks to be aware of and compensate for one’s inherent subjective biases rooted in such factors as “gender, age, ethnicity, and many other influences” (79). Both practices rely heavily upon taking good fieldnotes, and Harvey gives us an example of some fieldnotes and how to format them (both handwritten and later typed up) created during the chapter’s case study in Figure 3.1 (76), Figure 3.3 (84), and Figure 3.4 (90).

In terms of seeing how you might fit in within an organization, if you’re new to that organization you would be practicing ethnography — you may now belong to that organization but you’ve not yet be socialized to its culture. On the other hand, someone who has been with an organization for some time would need to practice autoethnography.

Putting It into Practice

Having offered a definition of culture and described the standard methodologies for analyzing a culture, Henry offers a five-part heuristic for analyzing how you, as a technical communicator, can find your equilibrium within an organization. At the heart of this heuristic is participant observation that involves and is further informed by taking field notes, interviews, collecting and analyzing artifacts, and writing (80-88). Henry stresses that this is an iterative process, with each element not only building upon each other but informing each other bidirectionally (see Figure 3.2). While you may use writing to help you understand and analyze throughout any part of the process, Henry notes that the end of a study of this sort generally ends with a written product, which can be as formal as a report given to your supervisor or the organization’s CEO, or as informal asa collection of organized notes in which you’ve traced out your place as a technical writer within the organization’s culture.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Henry’s use of equilibrium here, as you might recall, comes from the evolutionary concept of survival of the fittest, coined by Herbert Spencer, which doesn’t mean “the strongest,” but “being most nearly in equilibrium” with one’s environment.

Lecture: Bazerman’s “Knowing Where You Are”

In “Knowing Where You Are: Genre,” chapter 2 of A Rhetoric of Literate Action: Literate Action Volume 1, Charles Bazerman argues that genres emerge out an established set of practices and conventions that develop over time in response to situations and sets of activities. Or, to put it more precisely, genres “embody understandings of situations, relationships, stances, moods, strategies, appropriate resources, goals and many other elements that define the activity and shape means of accomplishment” (24). Understanding the situationality and activity from which a genre emerges is important for at least two reasons, both of which help us to make sense of a piece of writing:

  1. As Bazerman notes at the start of the chapter, unlike face-to-face dialogue, writing can circulate through time and across space. That is, writing can come to us not out of context but without anyone to whom we might ask to explain the context we need to make sense of the writing (21-23).
  2. Genres provide a frame for us to understand the situationality and activity system addressed by or in need of addressing as we read and write texts (32-34). These frames help us interpret moves made in a piece of writing and help us understand the kinds of moves we need to make in a piece of writing. As Bazerman explains, because genres come with established forms and conventions that emerged out of specific purposes addressing specific situations, if we understand the genre in which we need to write then we already have a strong sense of what our writing needs to do and how it needs to do it (24).

Activity Systems

One of the most important concepts in this chapter is the idea that written texts exist within activity systems. As Bazerman explains, an activity systems “are historically emerged networks of people and artifacts (such as buildings, machines, and products as well as texts and files) that carry out typified kinds of work and other activities over extended periods, and that have developed ways of coordinating the work and attention of participants in ways that become familiar to all participants” (25).

To help explain this idea, Bazerman turns to the example of a classroom. Different kinds of schools and different kinds of subjects and disciplines are going to have different kinds of classrooms in which different kinds of activities take place. The overarching goal of each, presumably, is to enable learning just as the overarching goal of a written text is to communicate, but the conventions, practices, methods, interactions, tools, resources, etc. will differ from classroom to classroom and from genre to genre.

For instance, no one expects musical performance class to meet in a seminar room with the students sitting around a table and discussing ideas, likewise no one would expect an organic chemistry lab to regularly meet on an auditorium stage and work with musical instruments.

Because the purpose of writing is to communicate, texts exist within activity systems, and understanding the activity system in which a text is situated helps us make sense of how to read or write that text (27-29). In broad terms, we might think about different kinds of texts and their activity systems by comparing a National Science Foundation grant proposal, a student lab report, an essay for a philosophy class, a letter to the editor of the school newspaper, and a resume and cover letter used to apply for a job or internship. Each of these kinds of texts are produced for and circulate in very different systems and the work they seek to do and how they go about doing it are quite different.

While the activity systems in which a NSF proposal, a procedures manual, a school essay, etc. are all quite different from each, we can also talk about differences between closely related activity systems and how those differences produce different kinds of texts. For example, let us consider the lab report. As we’ll see later this semester a student lab report and an empirical research paper differ in significant ways. While both are supposed to be a report of an experiment, and while both should address the methodology as well as draw conclusions and offer interpretations, the student’s lab report and the professional researcher’s lab report serve different functions and exist within different activity systems. A student lab report exists within the activity system of school, its circulation is one designed for evaluation within the educational context, and its focus is on providing an account of how the experiment was conducted. A professional researcher’s lab report, on the other hand, exists within the activity system of research, its circulation is one designed for evaluation by peer researchers and to share new discoveries and knowledge, and its focus in not on providing an account of how the experiment was conducted but instead focus on the results of the experiment.

Genres Emerge from Activity Systems

Because activity systems develop their own sets of practices in response to specific situations, within activity systems texts used to communicate in response to specific situations and needs  tend to follow certain practices and conventions that have developed over time, and we call these established practices and conventions genres. (To put this another way, Bazerman notes that genres emerge because “communications tend to flow within activity systems in typical pathways, at typical moments, in typical forms, to enact typical intentions, carrying out familiar acts” (29).) While most of us are used to thinking of genres just as an established set of conventions (“categories of textual forms”), Bazerman argues that they are more than that. They are, he suggests, “simultaneously categories of textual forms, forms of social interaction, and forms of cognitive recognition and shaping of motive and thought” (29).

We can think of genres as forms of social interaction because different genres exist to perform different kinds of work in response to different social situations. For instance, while the purpose of all proposals is to convince someone that there is a problem or need that can be addressed by taking a certain action, an informal proposal shared with the officers of your sorority or fraternity suggesting a way to resolve a conflict exists involves a very different kind of social context and engagement than an NSF grant proposal or a conference presentation proposal. So too a request for money directed toward your parents via a text message and a request for a business loan in the form of a business proposal.

We can think of genres as forms of cognitive recognition because, as noted above, they help us frame our understanding of the purpose and context form which the text emerged or to which we need to write a text. The defined characteristics of genres and the activity systems from which they emerge of help us think about and evaluate what a text does or must do and how well it does it. In short, because genres emerge in response to specific needs within specific contexts, we can use the conventions of a genre can help us understand the rhetorical situation and task before us as we work within that genre as a reader and as a writer.

Lecture: Gopen and Swan’s “The Science of Scientific Writing”

In “The Science of Scientific Writing,” George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan argue that dense, difficult to read prose is far more often a problem of violating reader expectation than it is an issue of long sentences, technical jargon-heavy writing, and complex topics. As this is the case, they discuss reader expectations and offer key principles one can use to revise one’s prose to meet those expectations and, therefore, produce more readable writing. In highlighting these reader-expectation principles, Gopen and Swan examine five common problems within difficult-to-read professional writing:

  • Subject-verb separation problems,
  • Stress position problems,
  • Topic position problems,
  • Logical gap problems, and
  • Action location problems.

Subject-verb Separation Problems

As Gopen and Swan note, readers expect to find the grammatical subject and verb of a sentence in close proximity so that they can put together who or what is acting and being acted upon. In other words, to understand what is going on, readers need to be able to easily identify the actor(s) and the action(s). While there are reasons to include some information between the subject and the verb, you don’t want to over do it.

For instance, in the sentence “The red squirrel, the one we saw running alongside the pond yesterday, climbed into my backpack while I was feeding the ducks,” the distance between “the red squirrel” and “climbed” isn’t problematic because the clause “the one we saw running alongside the pond yesterday” helps define the subject.

On the other hand, in the sentence “Running to and fro, the red squirrel — so cute it was with its bristly tail, pretending to bury nuts here and there as we watched, Sonja says she watched it yesterday —climbed into my backpack,” the interruption between the subject and the verb, while adding a colloquial, conversational style, places unnecessary distance between the subject and the verb, and thereby risks interfering with readers’ ability to easily take in the actor and the action of the sentence.

Stress Position Problems

As Gopen and Swan note, readers tend to place emphasis (importance) on the last bit of information in a sentence or other syntactic unit, which is a moment of syntactic closure they call the stress position; therefore, writers should place the information they want to most emphasize in this stress position. Usually this tends to be new information.

This concept of the stress position holds true not just for the structure of a sentence but for listing as well. For instance, if you are creating a list of three reasons for recommending a course of action, unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise, it’s often best to place your strongest reason last. Consider, for example, Gopen and Swan’s summary of three rhetorical principles regarding the stress position on page 553. They write:

We now have three rhetorical principles based on reader expectations: First, grammatical subjects should be followed as soon as possible by their verbs; second, every unit of discourse, no matter the size, should serve a single purpose; and third, information intended to be emphasized should appear at points of syntactic closure. (553)

In this sentence we see Gopen and Swan enacting their principles. By placing the list of three principles at the end of the sentence, the entire list exists within the stress position of the sentence. While the list is part of the larger sentence, it is itself a syntactic unit, and we find within the stress position of the list the principle of placing information we wish to emphasize within in the stress position.

Also worth noting in this sentence by Gopen and Swan is that the sentence is separated into two units, divided by a colon. As Gopen and Swan explain on pages 552-553, one can create secondary stress positions within a sentence through the use of colons and semi-colons. Just as the list following the colon is a syntactic unit, the section before the colon is also a syntactic unit that stresses the idea that the three rhetorical principles  are “based on reader expectations.” This “based on reader expectations” is the stress position for this syntactic unit and is a secondary stress position for the sentence as a whole.

And if we return to the second half of the sentence, the list following the colon, we can see that although the list as a whole is a syntactic unit, it also consists of three small syntactic units marked by the words first, second, and third, each separated from each other by semi-colons. A closer examination of each of these will show that important information worth emphasizing is located in each of their respective stress positions.

To reiterate here, the sentence from Gopen and Swan above has a primary stress position (the list following the colon) and a secondary stress position (“based on reader expectations,” which comes immediately before the colon). Each of these two halves of the sentence function as their own syntactic units that together make the complete sentence. Furthermore, the primary stress position of the sentence (the list of three principles) itself consists of three additional syntactic units corresponding to each of the three listed items, with the first two ending in secondary stress positions and the final one ending the most emphasized information of the unit.

From a purely narrative description, one might assume that the sentence should be hard to understand, and yet, when we read it, we find that it is easy to follow because it meets our expectations of how we read sentences for meaning.

Topic Position Problems

While readers expect the closing section of a sentence or other syntactic unit — the stress position — to be reserved for information we want to emphasize, readers expect the start of a sentence to orient them to the topic at hand. Typically, we do this by using the start of a sentence — the topic position — to serve as a link to what has already been said and to provide us the context needed for us to move forward. Or, as they put it, “When old information consistently arrives in the topic position, it helps readers to construct the logical flow of the argument: It focuses attention on one particular strand of the discussion, both harkening backward and leaning forward” (554).

If we consider again the example sentence above, we can see the topic position in play:

We now have three rhetorical principles based on reader expectations: First, grammatical subjects should be followed as soon as possible by their verbs; second, every unit of discourse, no matter the size, should serve a single purpose; and third, information intended to be emphasized should appear at points of syntactic closure. (553)

In the syntactic unit before the colon they give us the context for how to read the rest of the sentence: “We now have three rhetorical principles based on reader expectations.” We know that there are three reasons and why they are important. And in each of the three syntactic units of the list, we find cues (“first,” “second,” and “third”) that let us easily identify each of the three rhetorical principles and we learn what each principle governs — grammatical subjects, units of discourse, and information respectively. Again, information that helps us understand the context for the syntactic unit.

 Logical Gap Problems

As we write, we often make the mistake of under explaining the logical connections and relationships between our ideas because we don’t want to come across as talking down to them or over explaining. This can be a problem because our ideas are obvious to us — they are our ideas, and we understand how they relate to one another. Our readers, however, aren’t in our heads and they don’t have access to our thought processes that link these ideas together; therefore, what seems far too obvious to us often isn’t all that obvious to many of our readers.

Action Location Problems

To understand our writing, readers often need to know who or what is doing the acting and who or what is being acted upon in order to understand the context of a sentence. This is because we are almost always involved in a form of storytelling, even when our writing has nothing to do with fiction. When we make an argument, we are in effect telling a story about how something should be, or how we should act or perceive an issue. When we write about how pollen is spread by bees, we are telling a story of pollen. When we write about how the transcription of the 5S RNA genes in egg extract is TFIIIA-dependent, we are telling a story about RS RNA. We we write a recommendation report regarding new methods for the manufacturing of printed circuit boards (PCBs), we are telling a story about how we could be manufacturing PCBs or we are telling a story about why our current method of PCB production is the best method for us. Because we are telling stories, we need to not only create clear actors but clear actions. If readers don’t have a clear idea about the action — about what is happening — they are going to have difficulty in following what they are reading.

For this reason, we need to be able to identify the action, the verb, of a sentence as well as its subject.

Another way of thinking about this is that writing is often more direct and clear when the actors of a sentence are the subject and the actions in a sentence are the verb.

Principles Based upon Reader Expectations

Having identified five common problems that limit readers’ abilities to easily follow and make sense of professional writing, Gopen and Swan identify seven principles to help structure writing to meet readers’ expectations (see p. 558). As they suggest, these are not hard and fast rules that should never be broken or hard and fast rules that will always guarantee clear prose. They are, instead, general principles — good ideas — to keep in mind. Rhetorically effective communication is effective because it is designed to meet the needs of  the circumstances and context at hand (see the lecture on Prelli’s “The Nature of Rhetoric“), and sometimes the most effective way to rhetorically achieve this goal is to violate general principles. But, as the saying goes, you need to know the rules in order to break them.

Consider copying and pasting these principles, printing them, and keeping them on hand as you revise. While you need not keep these principles in mind as you draft — no one cares what your first draft looks like as long as your final draft is polished and effective — they’re good to have at hand as you revise. As you make them a regular concern during your revision process, many of them will eventually, many of them will become second nature, not only during your revision process but even during your drafting process

A Note Regarding Revision

As Gopen and Swan note, as we draft we often place the new important information first because that’s what we want to focus on. While this tendency can cause problems for our readers, it shouldn’t necessarily be regarded as a problem for us at the time of drafting. In fact, if the goal of drafting a text is to get all our ideas down, and if it is easier for us to draft by writing down the important information first, then that is what we should do as we write that draft.

The way we reconcile our needs as writers and with the needs of our audiences as readers is through revision. If while you are drafting you find yourself worrying so much about topic positions and stress positions (and making sure that the subject isn’t too far from the verb, etc.) that these concerns are getting in the way of you getting our ideas out, then don’t worry about those issues during the drafting stage. Draft. Write. Get your ideas down. Once you’ve done that, you can then revise for readers.

An Example of Applying Gopen and Swan’s Reader-expectation Principles

The following example is taken from the two body paragraphs of a class member’s Minor Assignment #3 and used with permission. In this example I want to focus on the first two sentences of each paragraph, which I’ve bolded for emphasis.

There is a very different first impression given by the two websites. [Sentence 1] Firstly, the Super Mario Maker page is explicitly oriented toward advertising, showing off with a huge graphic the appeal of the game while simultaneously providing a conspicuous “Buy It” button at the top of the screen. The page is directed at an audience who does not yet own the game. To contrast this, the Dwarf Fortress website is written in a way that assumes the reader either owns the game already, or that he or she has extensive knowledge of what the game is like. There are few graphics showing off the game’s appeal. In the case of Dwarf Fortress, the site is less of an advertisement and more of an informative resource.

There is, then, a drastic difference between the two sites in terms of graphic usage and overall purpose. [Sentence 2] Beyond this, while Dwarf Fortress’s site has many links leading to related topics such as the features and some screenshots of the game, the Super Mario Maker site seems to consist entirely of those advertising strategies. The Mario website is thus a very minimal one, striving to achieve only the purpose of advertising. Perhaps the only things these two video game websites have in common is the presence of contact information.

While both sentences follow the same “there is” construction, that construction is only problematic for the first of the two sentences. Let’s take a closer look:

Sentence 1

There is a very different first impression given by the two websites.

As the first sentence of the first body paragraph, this first “There is” is introducing us to the topic at hand, and, therefore, both its actors and actions and its topic and stress positions are crucial for reader understanding. The verb or action of this sentence is “given,” and the thing or person doing the action (the subject) is “There is a very different first impression.” While “given” is a good action verb, and it is the action of the sentence, the actors in this sentence are the websites, only the websites aren’t in the subject of the sentence.

When we look further we find that the familiar information (the two websites being considered, which were introduced in the introductory paragraph of the memo) is placed in the stress position of the sentence, and the new information (that the two sites give very different first impressions) is placed in the topic position.

In this way, the “There is” construction of this first sentence violates reader expectations in at least three ways:

  • The actor of the sentence is not the subject
  • The topic position contains new information for which we have no immediate context. The “There” of this sentence refers to something that has not yet been introduced to us.
  • The stress position contains and foregrounds old information but doesn’t tell us anything about that old information.

So, in recognizing these problems, we can easily revise this sentence by placing the actors in the subject position, and placing the old information in the topic position and the new information in the stress position, which gives us this:

The websites give very different first impressions.

Sentence 2

There is, then, a drastic difference between the two sites in terms of graphic usage and overall purpose.

While the “There is” construction of sentence 1 violates reader expectations, the “There is” construction of this second sentence does not. There are a few reasons for this.

First off, the sentence doesn’t contain actors and actions; it is, instead, a sentence about a state of being, with the drastic difference in how the two sites use of graphics and their purpose. Because of this, we don’t have an actor and action problem. The sentence uses “is” as its verb, which is a form of “to be.” And the subject of the sentence is “There,” which refers to the situation identified in the first paragraph (i.e., that the designs of the two websites indicate two different audiences). In effect, this sentence summarizes the previous paragraph by stating “The situation exists because of these two reasons.”

And when we look at the topic and stress positions of this sentence, what we find is old information in the topic position (“There,” which, again, refers to the situation discussed in the previous paragraph), and “in terms of graphic usage and overall purpose” in the stress position, which is the information the sentence wants to stress (i.e., the reasons why the condition of the state of being the sentence describes exists as it does).