Old Wine in New Bottles  — or — How to Write Effective Paragraphs

A document may be correct in every respect and perfectly formatted yet still be utterly incomprehensible to its readers. How is this possible? It comes down to the writing. If ideas don’t flow naturally from one to another, readers become confused and quickly bored. Sometimes the problem can’t be found within the sentences themselves, but on a bigger scale. Consider the following paragraph.

“The northern United States and Canada are places where herons live and breed. Spending the winter here has its advantages. Great Blue Herons live and breed in most of the northern United States. It’s an advantage for herons to avoid the dangers of migration. Herons head south when the cold weather arrives. The earliest herons to arrive on the breeding ground have an advantage. The Winters are relatively mild in Cape Cod.”

There’s basically nothing wrong with each individual sentence. Each is clear and concise, yet taken together they add up to very little. They fail to take into account how we put information together. We associate like with like; we make connections. If there are no connections, we either become bored or as often happens, we draw the wrong connection. Consider this old advertisement.

“We do not tear your clothing with machinery. We do it carefully by hand”

While the first sentence is clear. Even with the negation, there’s the strong verb “tear” promising what the seller doesn’t do. The second sentence is more ambiguous — it forces us to fill in the blanks (sometime causing hilarity). Exactly what is it that the advertiser promises to do carefully?

This is how our minds are wired. Whenever one sentence comes after another, readers need to see connection. The need is so great that if the connection is absent or unclear, the reader infers a connection where none was intended (as in the above example).

Sentences are joined by common ideas. If a reader is going to associate one idea with the next is succession, well then let’s give that reader the precise idea needed to draw the right conclusion.

A great way to do that is to structure your sentences so that each sentence progressively adds a new idea, which then becomes the topic of the next sentence. The technique is called old-new chaining. Start a sentence with a known concept. Then within the same sentence, introduce a new concept the reader doesn’t know, but which the reader is naturally going to make an association to the known concept. Once that connection is accomplished, the reader’s understanding is expanded and the unknown becomes the new known. Start the following sentence with that new known and use that new known to introduce another unknown concept. Continue until the topic is explained, thus ending the paragraph.

Here’s an example written with seeming effortlessness by a participant in a technical writing course I taught at BC Institute of Technology:

“This document provides a step-by-step guide for the novice wine-tasting party organizer. Most novice organizers are members of wine-tasting clubs. These clubs are usually formed by people who have been drinking wine together socially for some time. Club members have developed basic wine preferences—they know what they like, but not why. They want to acquire a descriptive wine vocabulary so that they can compare and discuss the attributes of different wines. They would also like to be able to recognize wines by taste. The purpose of the club is to provide a friendly, non-threatening setting where members can learn more about wine. With this in mind, club members take turns organizing wine-tasting parties.