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.

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. Technically, these are issues of style, and as The MIT Guide chapter on revising for organization and style suggest, they are issues to address after you revise for organization but before you edit.