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Writing Right

Helping and assisting writers

August 08, 2010

Rules for writing - Micro and Macro

Here I will talk about how to arrange the information you put into your paper or other piece of writing. The micro is for the sentence and paragraph level and macro is how to arrange things in a full paper, or longer text.

First remember that there is no "natural" or "order of English" way to order things. Any way you decide to order your stuff is all right, but be careful to explain yourself clearly so your readers will be able to follow you.

there is no "natural" or "order of English" way to order things

There are however conventions for the order of what we write that readers expect you to follow, if you don't do any particular explaining. So, if you follow these conventions you don't have to explain a lot, and conventions are particularly helpful when you are developing your writing skills or trying to coax a reader to read about what you have to say (your research?). Now, first the micro stuff.

Qualifying terms and listing stuff

First there is naming: make sure that everything has a name and that it is clear what it is, if there is any doubt explain some more. Then, one thing should only have one name. If you are writing about "iron" don't switch between metal, iron, steel, and Fe. Think about who will be reading your stuff and then pick one moniker and stick with it. If you are writing for chemists, "Fe" may do, a more general audience would prefer "iron" or "steel," and if it is shiny stuff with red splotches maybe just "metal" in some situations. Each of these terms has its own range of applications, it is you as the writer who selects which term to use. Think hard about which to pick. Ask yourself "Who will be reading this?" "Where will this be published" and questions like that, and then stick with the names/words you pick.

About qualifiers, the words you put before terms to focus and draw attention to what exactly it is you are saying. Do you say a small red expensive purse or one of the other six permutations that are possible with three words to describe an item? Again there are no fixed rules, it is your job to pick the one way of saying something that fits your piece of writing, and to stick with it. Consistency is reassuring to readers. So maybe you arrange your qualifiers by length and it becomes a "red small expensive purse," or by importance "an expensive red small purse" if the price still sticks in your mind, or "small red expensive purse" if the purse just fit your pocket and you like the color. All are fine so long as you had some reason for the arrangement you picked.

One learner grammar I know proposed an OSACOMP order (Opinion, Size, Age, Color, Origin, Material, and Purpose) for qualifiers, and wanted learners to memorize it. Nothing wrong with that order, but you rarely use seven qualifiers in one go, so you would seem better off thinking up your own orders for things. Still, while you are learning, remembering OSACOMP may help you to boost your confidence. For the purse, we would need just the O, the S and the C of OSACOMP to make it an "expensive small red purse."

OSACOMP may help you to boost your confidence

Then there are commas, if you have just three or four qualifiers maybe no commas are necessary but with more you are well advised to add commas, with seven qualifiers make it: "It was a beautiful, little, old, pink, Amazonian, plastic, hair clip," your readers will thank you. Commas in lists are a little different, you are free to make up an order for the list, but you have to put commas, like "air consists of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide." Here the last comma is sort of optional but you are well advised to add it to avoid ambiguities that may slip in.

Order in paragraphs

Next level up after words are paragraphs. Try not to jumble the information in the sentences of one paragraph. Start with what could be a title in the first sentence of a paragraph, then explain this title in an ordered way. Maybe it is steps in a process in the order they should be performed, maybe what happens temporally or in some other obvious order, left to right, clockwise, or counterclockwise. If you feel that the order may not be clear to the reader explain what it is so the reader knows what your idea is, and stick with it throughout the story/paper.

Try not to say "the trip will be till October from March," make time flow to the right, so March to October is preferable. And, generally, don't state reasons or outcomes at the end, put them at the top, that way the reader knows that you are in control. First say what it is about, and then explain how we will get there.

The order of the parts of a paper or report - macro

I am sure you have been told exactly how to order things in a full paper, and been told how to do it in several mutually contradictory ways. Let me give you one more, how about arranging your paper by telling the reader: what the basis for your paper/report/story is, then what you will contribute to push it along, what tools you used, how it all happened/went, then tell about the results, and what it all means in our world.

Read the previous part from the colon one more time please. This way it sounds like a reasonable progression and if we use more abstract terms it becomes something like: Introduction, Purpose of the paper, Methods, Implementation, Results, and Discussion. So really this very fine sounding list is a natural (sort of) progression and you will do well to follow it. When you deviate from this order you can always explain how you are deviating and your readers will not lose you.

Macro order: Introduction, what are the bases, what to do, what tools to use, how it went, the results, what it means globally

I missed something in the previous paragraph, the conclusions. I guess in an ideal world you would leave that to the reader to work out based on the discussion, but you will have insights you yourself learned through your work, and the reader deserves to hear those. Maybe you are dying to tell them too, but that is another matter. The conclusions are really what you learned by doing the work you are writing about and going into some detail about that is useful not only for the reader but also for you too.

A personal note here, often it seems that the Conclusions section of papers in language acquisition research are the least well thought through. This is maybe understandable for a field with many strong egos taking potshots at anything that does not mesh perfectly with what should or could be, still you owe yourself to draw the conclusions that your data and results merit.

You would have other and maybe more ideas about order in writing. I would love to hear about those.

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