Have you ever had a high-tech remote control that has multiple features but you only use the off and on button? Or a computer application like Excel (guilty) that can perform many functions and you only use it for addition? Using words and sentences can be akin to using that complicated remote. You can either scratch the surface, or you can take advantage of all the tools language has to offer. Wait a minute, you say, I already had high school/college English and I’m not going back. I get it, and if you were an English major you can skip this post. However, for the rest, take a deep breath and read on. Like me, you may have forgotten some of the basics that can make a big difference when explaining complicated ideas in limited space to those unfamiliar with your work.

Think of your writing as forging a path for your intrepid but weary reader/reviewer. If words are cobblestones, then sentences are the way the stones are put together so that one can walk through the forest without getting lost. Ok, maybe not the best analogy because I’ve never seen cobblestones in a forest. Anyway, you get the point. Connecting the next sentence to the prior one creates a sense of flow which makes your work easier to read. This sense of flow is particularly important, and perhaps the most difficult, in the first paragraph of your Specific Aims page, where you are taking the reader from a big picture problem down to your smaller, more focused problem in the matter of a few sentences.

How do we create a sense of connection? We create connection by reaching back and “grabbing” a word or concept in the prior sentence. What we grab and where we grab it from depends on what you want to emphasize in the sentence, which brings us to the idea of topic and stress. Every sentence has a topic and a stress. The topic is at the beginning of the sentence and represents the “old” information that the reader knows about. The stress is at the end, which is the new information or what is emphasized in that sentence. What happens in the middle of the sentence? Unlike an Oreo cookie, the middle gets the least emphasis. Roy Peter Clark, in his book Writing Tools, calls this the 2-3-1 rule. The stress position gets the most emphasis, topic second, and middle the least. This concept is what makes the path and helps you know what to grab. Let’s look at this with a couple sentences.

Emily was browsing in a bookstore having a sale.

Emily was checking out a sale in a bookstore.

When you read these two sentences, where is the emphasis? In the first sentence, you focus on the sale. It’s nice that Emily is in a bookstore, but everyone loves a bargain, right? The wording suggests she is only in the bookstore because of the sale. In the second sentence, the emphasis is on the store. The store gains importance here, and in this case you get the impression that Emily likes books, and that the sale was encouragement to go into a store that she already shops in. The store is more important than the sale. Now that I’ve got you on the edge of your seats, wondering what happens next, let’s take Emily’s venture a little further.

Emily was browsing in a bookstore having a huge sale. Even though the store was crowded, she managed to find a great book on armadillos.

Emily was browsing in a bookstore having a huge sale. She found a great book on armadillos, even though the store was crowded.

In the first example, the topic of the “crowded store” reaches back and grabs the stress idea “sale”. When you grab the idea from the prior sentence, the words don’t have to be identical. I modified “sale” with the adjective “huge” to help connect the topic of the crowded store to the stress element “sale” in the prior sentence. Let’s look at the stress idea. Here’s a shocker – Emily is an armadillo fan. Who knew?

In the second example, the topic “she” in the second sentence grabs the topic “Emily” from the first sentence. The armadillos, I’m sad to say, get buried in the crowded store. Besides changing the emphasis, the second two sentences read a little choppier than the first. This is how you create (or disrupt) flow.

You don’t always have to reach back and grab the stress concept, and there will be times when you don’t want to do this. For example, let’s say you’re comparing two different cookies.

Chocolate chip cookies are crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. They are made using chocolate chips, nuts, and flour. Peanut butter cookies are crispy on the outside but crumbly on the inside. They are made using peanut butter and flour.

When comparing two items, parallel sentence structure can come in handy. It can be easier to read because the parallel sentences predict where you are putting the comparisons.  In the case of parallel sentences, the second sentence reaches back and grabs the topic from the first one.

Here’s an example of the same information, but without parallel sentence structure.

Chocolate chip cookies are crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. Chocolate chips, nuts, and flour go into making them. Peanut butter cookies are made using peanut butter and flour. They are crispy on the outside and crumbly on the inside.

In this case the comparisons are harder to sort out. It may seem boring to read essentially the same sentence twice, but it depends on your intent. If you are comparing two fairly complicated ideas, parallel structure will ensure the comparisons come across clearly even though the sentences are repetitive.

Notice that in both examples the topic “peanut butter cookies” doesn’t go back and grab a concept from the prior sentence. That’s ok as long as both sentences relate to the topic of your paragraph. A big part of creating a path for the reviewer is making sure that the sentences in your paragraph relate back to the topic in the first sentence. When you need to change topics, make a new paragraph. To maintain flow, the topic sentence of your next paragraph should reach back and grab an idea from the last sentence of the prior paragraph. One way to check your flow is to skim through the beginning of each sentence and see if the ideas go together. To check your paragraphs, read the first and last sentence and make sure you’re still talking about the same thing. If your first sentence is about how to clip dog nails and the last sentence is about orchids, you might have a problem.

Tools to create emphasis and flow can, of course, be applied to any type of writing. For example, I recently applied the 2-3-1 concept  when helping my son write an email to a graduate school regarding some application materials. This school is his first choice, and I thought he could mention this in a subtle way. How? You guessed it, we put that idea in the middle of a sentence. The jury is still out on his acceptance, but I think it conveyed the idea without being over the top.

I realize that this is English 101, but in the hustle and bustle of problematic experiments, annual protocol renewals, teaching, clinical obligations, committee meetings, etc. the basics we learned in high school sometimes go out the window when rushing to meet a grant deadline. Taking the time to use the tools of language and write with intention will serve both you and your reader well. And now, time to find my remote control…

Further Reading

Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Peter Clark – great for writing advice in small doses, one tip at a time

Writing Science: How to Write Papers that Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded, by Joshua Schimel – simply the best on this subject

The Write Rules
Three (Grant) Peeves in a Pod: Write Better

Want to live on the Edge?


Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Saving subscription status...


You May Also Like