Joseph Williams explains ‘old-to-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, or
  • Content you haven’t already mentioned but are sure you reader will know.

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.

A terrific 2-sentence pair by S.Y.

In this 2-sentence pair by S.Y., I especially like the very short sentence coming after the longer one:

Firstly, in “Chanticleer and Renard the Fox or The Trickster Tricked,” the conflict is between a wise character, Chanticleer, and a clever character, Renard. In this fable the wise character prevails.

Online anaphora demonstration

From the University of Sydney:

See how words ‘without content’ point or link to content words in other sentences…”

Examples of words without content:

  • this
  • such
  • these

Examples of words with content:

  • cat
  • dog
  • house
  • run
  • sit
  • stay

DIRECTIONS for using the site:

  1. Click on Step 5 
  2. Read the paragraph.
  3. Click START.

Source:
Clearer Writing by the University of Sydney

I think of “words without content”  function words — as words whose meaning you can’t find in the dictionary. The meaning lies in the conversation you are having or the passage you are reading.

Which paragraph is easier to read and why?

One of the paragraphs in this post appears in World History: Patterns of Interaction, Grades 9-12 (Michigan). New York: McDougal Littell, 2008. (Print.) (378.)

PARAGRAPH 1:
German kings after Frederick, including his grandson Frederick II, continued their attempts to revive Charlemagne’s empire and his alliance with the Church. This policy led to wars with Italian cities and to further clashes with the Pope. Conflicts were one reason why the feudal states of Germany did not unify during the Middle Ages. Another reason was that the system of German princes electing the king weakened royal authority. German rulers controlled fewer royal lands to use as a base of power than French and English kings of the same period, who, as you will learn in Chapter 14, were establishing strong central authority.

PARAGRAPH 2
German kings after Frederick, including Frederick’s grandson Frederick II, were no more successful than Frederick had been. Like Frederick, they failed to revive Charlemagne’s empire and his alliance with the Pope. They incited fruitless wars with Italian cities and further clashes with the Pope, and the constant conflict undermined their ability to unify Germany’s feudal states under one king. They were further weakened by Germany’s political system, which allowed German princes to elect the king. Another obstacle: German kings held relatively few royal lands compared to the French and English kings, who controlled large territories. As you will learn in Chapter 14, French and English kings during this period were establishing strong central authority. Meanwhile the German kings succeeded neither in reviving the Empire nor in unifying the country.

PARAGRAPH 3
The German kings after Frederick, including his grandson Frederick II, continued Frederick’s efforts to revive Charlemagne’s empire and his alliance with the Church, but they did not succeed. Like Frederick, they incited fruitless wars with Italian cities and further clashes with the Pope, and the constant conflict undermined their ability to unify Germany’s feudal states under one king. The kings were further weakened by the German political system, which allowed German princes to elect the king, and by their relative lack of royal lands compared to the large territories controlled by French and English kings–who, as you will learn in Chapter 14, were establishing strong central authority in their own countries during this period. Frederick’s successors succeeded neither in reviving the empire nor in unifying their country.

ANSWER