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TIP 3. Sequence for Understanding: Provide a Context Before Introducing New Ideas

An all-important rule for making writing clear is to provide a context before introducing new ideas. This rule applies at the level of whole documents, sections of documents, paragraphs, and sentences.

In paragraphs, use first and last sentences in a paragraph strategically:

    • First sentence: to link with past information or to introduce a new topic
    • Last sentence: to summarize past paragraph or to prepare the reader for new information to come
    • Build bridges between paragraphs that smooth the transition between old and new topics.

In sentences within paragraphs:

    • Begin with previously introduced information and end with new information
    • Emphasis naturally falls on information at the end of a sentence

Within paragraphs, make a point of linking new ideas to familiar topics. Think of a paragraph as a chain whose links need to be welded together by the author, for the reader to follow the chain. Creating a context before providing new or detailed information helps to weld the chain together.

An Educational Version of Tip 3

"Since technical writing builds on a foundation of what the reader already knows, his comprehension and retention of new facts depends in great measure on how closely he associates and integrates them with his prior knowledge. A major function of organization in scientific exposition is to identify and reinforce such associations, reminding the reader of what he already knows and illustrating the bearing of that knowledge on what he is about to learn."

John H. Dirckx. Dx + Rx, A Physician's Guide to Medical Writing, p. 119. G.K. Hall and Co., Boston, 1977



Our revision of the rickettsial encephalitis paragraph offers a good illustration of Paragraph Tip 3. The original version, repeated below, was a dramatic example of NOT sequencing for understanding. No context was created before masses of details were delivered.

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Comment:

In the revision (above), note several applications of Tip 3:

  • The topic is announced in sentence 1 to create a context for the whole paragraph
  • Each of the two long lists is introduced with a clear descriptor (highlighted)
  • For the second list, the descriptor clearly distinguishes it from the first list
  • The last sentence is explicitly linked to the two preceding sentences (thereby using them for context), and also will create a context for the following paragraph (when completed).

Our revision of Paragraph Example 2 (Urea, see Tip 2) also shows the value of sequencing for understanding at the paragraph level. By starting all sentences that contain comparative data with an identifier of the tissue studied, each set of data can be understood in the context of the comparison that is the central topic of the paragraph.

Our revision of Paragraph Example 3 (Preterm delivery, see Tip 2) demonstrates sequencing for understanding at the sentence level. Note in the paragraph below how each sentence begins with familiar information (marked in bold) that identifies the context, and ends with new information to be placed in that context. Numerical data is consistently put at the end of the sentence, because numbers are easier to grasp when first placed in a verbal context.

The following paragraph illustrates Tip 3 in another way. Here each sentence provides a context for the sentence that follows: the first sentence makes a general statement, which prepares for the second sentence's illustration of this concept in more specific and complex terms. This illustration in turn prepares for the third sentence, which cites the actual data from the literature.