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Microwriting: small choices with large implications

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2006. Microwriting: small choices with large implications. Intercom July/August 2006:51–52.

There's an awful lot going on beneath the surface of a paragraph that you never imagined—mostly because by the time you've escaped high school, you've already internalized much of this information without ever having been formally taught to recognize it. In this article, I'll talk about some of the things that go on "under the hood". Just like the unseen engine in your car, these things add power to your writing and help the reader get somewhere in a hurry. Without them, your car may only coast downhill under its own weight rather than reaching the hilltops that provide great views of the surrounding country. This topic has many names; I've chosen microwriting because I'm going to put paragraphs under the microscope to examine some things the naked eye might not spot without a bit of help.

Small dots of ink

The smallest dots on the page, and the ones that editors obsess over, are the punctuation. Far too much has been written about punctuation for me to spend much time on this topic, but because all good writers have largely mastered punctuation, I'll use the example of punctuation to illustrate how microwriting works.

Consider, as our starting point, the humble period—the ending point of many a sentence. Even the youngest and most naïve writer understands that this tiny symbol means "congratulations, you've reached the end of the sentence". But the symbol has more interesting implications than that bland, relentlessly practical description suggests: it tells the reader that because they've reached the end of a sentence, it's time to pause and decide what that sentence means. The period thus becomes a subconscious cue that triggers a series of powerful cognitive events: the reader's brain begins to assemble the various chunks of meaning encountered during the sentence so as to create an overall meaning, attempts to relate that meaning back to the growing body of understanding created by all the previous sentences in that manuscript, and begins preparing itself to accept whatever destination the next sentence will reveal.

If the preceding sentence has no clear connection with the current sentence, we encounter a non sequitur—the Latin term for something that literally "does not follow" from what came before. If the current sentence does not provide any clues about where the reader will go next, that's also a problem. Continuing my car metaphor, both problems are like encountering a sharp turn in the road with no prior warning. Part of an editor's job is to smooth the road to understanding by detecting these unexpected changes of direction and resolving them, perhaps using some of the techniques I'll discuss in the next section to prepare the reader for what to expect. Editors and good writers both help smooth the passage into the next sentence: we design each sentence, consciously or subconsciously, so that its connections with what came before are clear and so that we prepare readers for what is coming.

Similarly, the equally humble comma—nothing more than a period with a tail—serves many important communication purposes that many writers have forgotten. The serial comma, for instance, is a comma inserted before the and within a list such as "A, B, and C". The classic illustration of a problem created by the absence of this comma is the following apocryphal book dedication: "I thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God". In English, the absent serial comma can easily make the phrase seem to suggest that the author is claiming both Ayn Rand and God as parents. Granted, it's not a likely misunderstanding, but adding a comma before the and sends a clear message to the reader: "break the list into three benefactors, not two".

Just as periods mark the end of sentences, commas can also mark the ends of sentence components, such as clauses. (If the clause is parenthetical, then using parentheses—brackets—accomplishes exactly the same purpose, but more obtrusively. Did you notice, here in these parentheses, how that works?) Although many clauses are sufficiently obvious they don't require such cues, adding the cues reduces the effort required to identify the clause. And just as periods tell the reader to begin analyzing the meaning of a complete sentence, commas tell the reader that a clause has ended, and cue the reader's brain to establish meaning from that clause and hold that chunk of meaning in short-term memory until the remaining clauses have been understood. Then, at the period or other terminal punctuation, the reader knows to assemble the sentence's component chunks to create a larger meaning.

These examples illustrate a larger point: that we often learn the superficial aspects of a technique such as punctuation without understanding its deeper and arguably more important implications. Understanding those implications and writing to support them is one thing that makes writing shine.

Slightly larger inkblots

The larger inkblots that make up paragraphs are, of course, words. In any language, the order and relationships among words are governed by grammar. One cool thing about grammar, even if you learned to fear the subject in school, is how it reflects the cognitive processes we use to disassemble sentences. Once again, considerable cognitive processing occurs when we pick apart the words in a sentence to figure out their meaning, and much of this processing is subconscious. For example, long before we take our first formal grammar lessons, we've learned to recognize that in English, adjectives generally come before the noun (formal grammar, not grammar formal)—just as in French, they more commonly trail the noun.

But there are deeper depths to plumb, for words may serve important roles beyond the roles defined by grammar alone. Many words serve as the equivalent of road signs on a highway, where they guide readers through abrupt changes in direction in much the same way that highway signs warn of sharp turns that require reduced speed or warn you that your exit is fast approaching. In writing, these words function as advance organizers because they help readers organize their thoughts before (in advance of) receiving new information.

Like punctuation, advance organizers also cue certain cognitive processes. For example, by starting this sentence with the words for example, I've warned you that you should absorb what came before this sentence as an overall context or description of how things work, and that the present sentence will illustrate a general principle by providing a specific example. Similarly, by starting this sentence with the word similarly, I'm telling you that this sentence will introduce something similar to what I discussed in the previous sentence. Here, that something is another example of a word that begins a sentence (in this case, a sentence adverb) and also prepares the reader to receive a specific type of information.

Words such as however and sequence markers such as first provide different cues. However tells us to expect an exception, or that the following words will place limits upon the scope of the previous words; in contrast, first tells us that we're about to encounter a list of items that follow a logical (numerical) sequence. And did you notice that in the final clause of the previous sentence, I used in contrast to warn you that I was going to present something different from (that contrasts with) the first part of the sentence? There are dozens of words and phrases you can use to prepare the reader's mind to receive specific types of information. Doing so makes the writing clearer and more effective because it takes advantage of the reader's subconscious skills at establishing meaning from sequences of words.

Putting it all together

The best writers internalize these and other tricks and techniques simply by paying attention to how other good writers write. If you're looking for a way to reinvigorate your own writing, thinking about the microwriting and advance organizers I've presented here can reveal ways to take advantage of these principles. Not all options will be appropriate in every situation, and trying to apply them all simultaneously is like installing all the customizations available at the auto parts store in your car: you end up with a vehicle so cluttered with customizations that it's scarcely drivable.

Instead, I encourage you to pick one technique that seems most relevant to the kind of work you do, and practice using it judiciously, with conscious attention to what you're doing and whether you should be doing it in each case. Once you've internalized the use of a particularly relevant form of microwriting, you've mastered it and can move on to try another one. Learning to pay attention to the microscopic details can clearly have large rewards.

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