Joseph Williams explains why sentences should start with the “old” and end with the “new”

Joseph Williams on starting sentences with known information and ending with new:

Put at the beginning of a sentence those ideas that you have already mentioned, referred to, or implied, or concepts that you can reasonably assume your reader is already familiar with, and will readily recognize.

Put at the end of your sentence the newest, the most surprising, the most significant information: information that you want to stress–perhaps the information that you will expand on in your next sentence.

All of us recognize this principle when a good teacher tries to teach us something new. That teacher will always try to connect something we already know to whatever new we are trying to learn. Sentences work in the same way. Each sentence should teach your reader something new. To lead your reader to whatever will seem new to that reader, you have to begin that sentence with something that you can reasonably assume that reader already knows. How you begin sentences, then, is crucial to how easily your readers will understand them, not individually, but as they constitute a whole passage. But in designing sentences in this way, you must have some sense of what your reader already knows about your subject.

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Willliams with two chapters coauthored by Gregory G. Colomb. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Boiled down

Start your sentences with:

  • Content you have already mentioned (especially content you’ve mentioned in the preceding sentence), or
  • Content you haven’t already mentioned but are sure you reader already knows.

End your sentences with:

  • The most important content in that sentence.

Good sentences work the same way good teaching works: a good teacher tries to connect new content to something students already know and understand.

Finally, starting with known information and moving to new information is especially important across whole paragraphs and papers. A reader can deal with one or two sentences that begin with new information, but an entire paragraph of sentences that begin with new information becomes extremely difficult to read.

Start your sentences with known information.

End with new information.

C.M. brings up an important issue

In class on Friday, we used the the known-new contract (which I’ve been calling old-to-new) to revise a two-sentence passage:

Psychologists believe that color conveys emotional messages. Advertisers routinely manipulate consumers using color psychology.
– Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar

People wrote some terrific versions of Kolln’s sentences, but before I post them, I want to mention an observation C.M. made.

C.M. was having trouble revising the sentences, he said, because they made sense as they were. Since he didn’t see a problem, he didn’t see a solution.

Good point!

If a passage makes sense, does it need revising?

For me, the answer is usually ‘yes,’ but C.M. has raised an important issue. 

Even if you believe that any sentence can be improved, it’s harder to improve a good sentence than a bad one.

And, by the same token, it can be harder to improve a sentence that already makes sense than one that doesn’t.

This brings me to the reason it’s so difficult for novice *writers to revise their own prose.  Novice writers have trouble seeing (or hearing) what needs to be revised because they know what they were trying to say. Their writing makes sense—to them. 

Our readers don’t have this advantage. They don’t know what was inside our minds as we wrote, so they have to go by our printed words alone. As a direct result, it’s often easier for them to see problems in our writing than it is for us. 

C.M. has brought up the writer’s dilemma. 

If we can’t see the problem, we can’t see the solution, either.

* “Novice” means “beginner.”