Thursday, September 20, 2012

Purposefully structured chapters, paragraphs, and sentences

With my dissertation proposal approaching, I've found myself writing quite a bit lately. One skill that I've happened to discover during this time that has greatly improved my writing is to insist that every structure within the document has an explicit purpose.

I envision the document as a hierarchy of structural units that contain information. At each level of the hierarchy, one message should be espoused. For example, each chapter is assigned one particular idea that I want the reader to know. The ideas communicated by chapters are usually very general. Moving down the hierarchy are sections, paragraphs, and sentences. With each level, the complexity of the ideas often increases, but each unit at a particular level still contains only one message. Each message must also contribute in some way to the units sitting above it in the hierarchy.

This approach has two benefits. The first is that it makes my writing more concise by lessening unwanted redundancy. I have no doubt that redundancy can be an effective way to communicate a message, but sometimes writing the same thing at too many locations within the document makes it difficult to extract the new content from the already established ideas. Instead, I use summary paragraphs and examples to better establish ideas.

The second benefit of enforcing a purpose to every unit in the hierarchy is the large-scale structure it lends to the document. This structure makes it easier to revise and establishes a good flow for the reader. While writing, I usually add a comment at the start of every paragraph that states what the reader should know after reading that paragraph. If I find that I start writing sentences that do not support this message, I delete these sentences or move them to a new paragraph.

I think that this approach is necessary for a document as long as a dissertation. Some structure must absolutely be imposed. Otherwise, I think that it would be impossible to make the entire thing effective at communicating its message.