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TIP 2: Select a Principle of Order and Make It Evident to Your Reader

Select a principle of order and make it evident to your reader. To save time and enhance clarity, make a brief outline of your main topics before you write.

  • List points to be covered
  • Sequence the points
  • Choose a principle of order to convey the organization clearly

As you shape the paragraph, keep this principle of order in mind and find ways to clarify and reinforce it for the reader. The table below presents some commonly used principles of order for paragraphs and paragraph sequences.

Commonly Used
Ordering Principles
Examples and
Comments
Chronological or spatial order In methods sections in articles and grants, descriptions of a process or procedure are usually chronological; descriptions of organized objects such as a machine or an organ system are typically spatial.
Logical order A paragraph that is building an argument, e.g., analyzing evidence and drawing a conclusion, uses a logical principle of order.
Progression from general to specific, or from more important to less important These principles of order are multi-purpose. Typically a reader prefers to gets oriented with the big picture, before being exposed to details.
Progression from familiar to novel, from simple to complex, or from known to unknown These principles are based how the human mind processes information. Most readers need to learn things that are simpler or more familiar before being introduced to things that are more complex or unfamiliar.
Comparison and contrast Paragraphs that compare two study groups, or two experimental conditions, or two or more studies, are tightly controlled to sort out with clarity the contrasting elements.
Psychological order (emphasis falls on beginning and end) In persuasive writing, such as the discussion section of article or the significance section of grant, one often begins and ends with the strongest points, and puts the less important or weaker points in the middle, where they have less impact. (This method is most often used for sequences of paragraphs.)
Conventions of the writing form Journal articles and grant proposals are organized as much by convention as by common sense. When writing for reviewers, adherence to convention may dictate how ideas are sequenced.


Let's return to the paragraph on rickettsial encephalitis, and try to reorganize it so it declares its topic earlier in the paragraph. As you study the original, note that it begins with the least important information, and ends with the most important. Moving from the most to the least important is would be far more effective here and in most contexts.

Here and in most paragraphs, it is best to begin with the most important information, to capture the reader's interest.

A simple technique for reorganizing a paragraph is to write a word or two in the margin for the topic of each sentence, and then plan a new ordering of the topics around this quick outline, as shown below.

para exa1.JPG

Using this outline, we get the following reordered paragraph, which has also been revised to improve clarity and cohesion.

Comment:

The revised paragraph announces the topic in the first sentence. A concluding sentence is added to create a transition to the next paragraph. I moved the last sentence into first position, to establish what a clinician most needs to know about these diseases: i.e. how common they are. The rest of the paragraph is reorganized so that ideas progress from the more important (mortality) to the less important (sequelae, first in CNS, then outside CNS). We now have a paragraph that not only announces its topic in the first sentence, but makes it clear why the topic matters. (We will discuss the other revisions later.)

Application of TIP 2 to another paragraph: Here is paragraph that uses an appropriate principle of order, but it is not clearly articulated for the reader.

Comment:

This paragraph is organized around a comparison between amphibian and mammalian epithelial cells. However, the comparison is set up poorly at the start, because the first sentence suggestions that epithelial and non-epithelial cells will be compared. Moreover, markers of the comparisons are buried within sentences instead of being signalled clearly at the beginning of sentences, where they would be more useful in guiding the reader.

Comment:

The revision first creates introductory and concluding sentences to clarify the paragraph's topic and principle of order. Although the order of ideas is unchanged in the revision, phrases that identify the tissue being discussed have been moved to the beginning of sentences so it is easier to track the comparisons. This example shows how one can greatly improve the intelligibility of a paragraph by making the topic and principle of order clear to the reader.

Application of Tips 1 & 2 to another example

The paragraph below needs to be subdivided into subparagraphs, so that each one has its own topic. A marginal outline of topics will again help us to decide how to revise this example. Before you look at the annotated version, read it, identify the main topics, decide where you would divide into subparagraphs, and consider what sentences might be reordered.

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Comment:

This paragraph does not require a lot of reorganization. Moving the incidence data to the first paragraph helps to establish importance at the start, but the rest reads quite well with the intervention of dividing into subparagraphs, as shown in the revision below.

Note how the simple addition of paragraph breaks adds dramatically to the clarity and readability of this passage. Each break tells the reader to take a breath and prepare for a new topic to be introduced.