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Give Readers a Break – Part II

Thursday, January 31, 2013

In the previous blog entry, I talked about breaking up long sections of text, to make them friendlier for online readers. Someone suggested explaining how to choose where to break. Here are a couple of suggestions, demonstrated for your own adaptation.

As our example text, let’s use the first paragraph from a 1919 version of Steam, Its Generation and Use, by Babcock & Wilcox Company.

While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level. He clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere. The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere. Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

The Casual Approach

Often you can just “feel” your way through a text, breaking where it seems natural. Keys to watch for in the text are the introduction of subtopics or specific examples. Supporting details can sometimes serve as break points, but only if they are followed by a sentence or two of explanation. Avoid starting a paragraph break with a pronoun. (Unless you’re given authority to change the pronoun to the noun it represents.)

Here’s the example text again, numbered, with my breaking thoughts following.

(1) While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. (2) In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level. (3) He clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere. (4) The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. (5) Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere. (6) Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. (7) By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

It’s surprising to realize that selection has only seven sentences! Let’s consider them as break points.

  1. States the overall theme. Online such a sentence can often stand on its own.
  2. Closely related to the first point; should probably stay with it.
  3. A specific subtopic and a good candidate for a break. Unfortunately, it starts with a pronoun.
  4. An even more specific subtopic and good candidate for a break.
  5. A supporting point without further details; best not broken.
  6. A supporting point without further details; best not broken.
  7. A supporting point without further details; best not broken.

All things considered, here’s how I would break the paragraph for online use:

While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level.

[Hero] clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere.

The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere. Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

You’ll note I replaced “He” with “Hero” in the second paragraph, for a clearer read. Square brackets are an accepted way to signal that sort of change or insertion.

The Outline Approach

A more formal way to decide how to break a paragraph is to actually outline its ideas. Here’s an outline for our original sample paragraph.  

I. While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C.

A. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level.

B. He clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere.

C. The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron.

1. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere.

2. Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes.

3. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.

I’ve chosen to make the topic sentence and its first supporting point an opening paragraph. The second supporting point introduces a sufficiently new idea to be a paragraph of its own. The third supporting point and its three details are clustered into a third paragraph.

As I consider that outline, it occurs to me that point "C" and its subpoint "1" could stand as a paragraph describing the physical construction, while subpoints "2" and "3" could serve as a separate paragraph about the device's action. Let's look at the text one more time, with that change. 

While the time of man's first knowledge and use of the expansive force of the vapor of water is unknown, records show that such knowledge existed earlier than 150 B. C. In a treatise of about that time entitled "Pneumatica," Hero, of Alexander, described not only existing devices of his predecessors and contemporaries but also an invention of his own which utilized the expansive force of steam for raising water above its natural level.

[Hero] clearly describes three methods in which steam might be used directly as a motive of power; raising water by its elasticity, elevating a weight by its expansive power and producing a rotary motion by its reaction on the atmosphere.

The third method, which is known as "Hero's engine," is described as a hollow sphere supported over a caldron or boiler by two trunnions, one of which was hollow, and connected the interior of the sphere with the steam space of the caldron. Two pipes, open at the ends and bent at right angles, were inserted at opposite poles of the sphere, forming a connection between the caldron and the atmosphere.

Heat being applied to the caldron, the steam generated passed through the hollow trunnion to the sphere and thence into the atmosphere through the two pipes. By the reaction incidental to its escape through these pipes, the sphere was caused to rotate and here is the primitive steam reaction turbine.  

I hope this discussion is of some help to you as you do a final edit before posting text online. Your readers will certainly appreciate your added efforts.

—Lester Smith

Photo by Les Chatfield

Online Writers, Give Readers a Break

Friday, January 18, 2013

I’ve been professionally publishing for nearly three decades now. (Where has the time gone?) And over those years, I’ve written texts from just a few paragraphs long to about 400 pages. Once I even edited a manuscript just shy of a million words. (Oh, right. That’s where the time went.)

More recently, of course, much of my writing has been online. And I’m noticing how essential short paragraphs are in this venue. In a print document, six or seven sentences may make a good paragraph. But online the maximum seems to be no more than three to five.

To prove the point, let’s consider a bit of Americana, the first paragraph of Mark Twain’s nonfiction account of Life on the Mississippi.

THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

That works fine in print, but not so well online, where the reader drowns in a field of gray. Let’s try the same text with a few well-placed breaks.

THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable.

Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames.

No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude.

The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

Don’t you find that easier to read? The difference is just three paragraph breaks. Nothing else is changed.

Now maybe you don’t maintain a blog. But you probably have a Facebook page or a LinkedIn account. And you certainly send emails. All of those can benefit from a few well-placed paragraph breaks.

And if you ever have reason to post a block of information from a printed company document online, consider the lesson of Mark Twain’s paragraph. Adding a few paragraph breaks may actually enhance the flow of information. What’s best for print isn’t always best for etexts, and vice versa. 

—Lester Smith

Photo by USACEpublicaffairs

Three Steps to Stress-Free Public Speaking

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Some people actually love to speak in public. They welcome “stage fright” as just an adrenaline rush, and being on stage as simply a chance to help others. For them, public speaking isn’t really about being the center of attention, but rather the sharing of information.

Of course, other people with just as much to share hate to be on stage. While it’s an exaggeration that most people fear public speaking more than death (see “Joyful Public Speaking”), anxiety in front of an audience is certainly real. Fortunately, there are three good tactics for minimizing your fear while maximizing your communication: (1) Prepare, (2) Rehearse, and (3) Focus.

1. Prepare

Pythagorus said, “The beginning is half the whole”; nowadays we say “Well begun is half done.” In either case, the point is that preparing your message ahead of time helps take the focus off yourself and onto the information. That shift alone is a great stress reducer.

Depending upon your personality and the speaking situation, you may decide to prepare a full speech, an outline with topic sentences, or just a list of points to cover.

  • A full speech is best for formal occasions, when every word of every sentence is important.
  • A topic-sentence outline is good for semiformal occasions, when you want to make several specific points but can extemporize from there. (PowerPoint presentations often follow this sort of format.)
  • A list of points is best for an informal occasion, when you will be speaking casually but need to make sure you don’t forget any details.

2. Rehearse

Rehearsal and stage fright have an inverse relationship. The more you practice, the less nervous you’ll be just before your presentation. To get the most from your rehearsal, employ the following.

  • Use a voice recorder to capture your rehearsal. Listen to the recording and note any points that would benefit from more emphasis, as well as places where you may stumble. If necessary, change your presentation to improve the former and avoid the latter.
  • Practice at least a couple of times before a mirror. This will help you to perfect physical gestures and gain confidence.

3. Focus

Once you’re on stage, don’t rush right into your presentation. Take a moment to get ready.  

  • Focus on your breathing. A few calming breaths will help you start right and keep a reasonable pace.
  • Focus on friendly faces. While breathing, glance over the crowd (if you can see them; if not, imagine friends sitting out there) and smile. This will help to put your audience at ease as well as yourself.
  • Focus on your details. Remember, the point is to share information. The more you can focus on that message, the less self-conscious you will feel about speaking.

Conclusion

Preparing, rehearsing, and focusing are pretty much guaranteed to reduce your stress and make your public speaking shine. For practice, consider joining your local Toastmasters club. Membership is even a résumé enhancer.

—Lester Smith

Photo by Evil Erin

Parallel Writing for Clarity

Monday, October 15, 2012

Unparallel construction uses words, phrases, and sometimes clauses that are inconsistent in form. This inconsistency can result in jarring, confusing, choppy writing. Here are some examples and corrections of unparallel writing.

  • Verb forms. The verb forms in a series should be consistent.

Unparallel: We emailed, faxed, and had texted our customers to alert them of the change.
(Verb forms shift from past to past-perfect tense.)

Parallel: We emailed, faxed, and texted our customers to alert them of the change.
(All verbs are past tense.)

Famous example: “I came; I saw; I conquered.” —Julius Caesar

  • Phrases. The types of phrases used in a series ought to be consistent.

Unparallel: After networking all day, talking to many customers, and then to seal several big deals, the team was tired.
(Verbals shift from gerunds to an infinitive.)

Parallel: After networking all day, talking to many customers, and then sealing several big deals, the team was tired.
(All verbal phrases use gerunds.)

Famous example: “[G]overnment of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” —Abraham Lincoln

  • Clauses. When two or more clauses are used to make an overall point, parallel construction can add emphasis and clarity to the message.

Unparallel: The board met every day for two weeks, they would pore over the financial reports, and the members had to make some hard decisions.
(The clauses use different subjects and verb forms.)

Parallel: The board met every day for two weeks, they pored over the financial reports, and they made some hard decisions.
(Using parallel subjects and verb forms unifies the three clauses into a strong point.)

Famous example: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” —Benjamin Franklin

Keeping elements parallel gives them equal weight, creating balance and rhythm in your writing, which sends a clear message to your reader.

—Joyce Lee

Photo by far closer

Big Trouble in Little Commas

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Consider the little things that often cause trouble—the speck in your eye, the pebble in your shoe, the drip in your sink, and so on. In writing, one such trouble is the omission or misplacement of commas. Here are quick reminders of three places commas should be used.

  • Following introductory clauses and phrases: Commas are needed to set these off from the rest of a sentence.

    Example introductory clause: Although we had gone over the company’s requirements, the advertising campaign fell woefully short of our needs.

    Example introductory Phrase: By my reckoning, we needed to obtain at least three more sales to finish the year in the black.
  • Between independent clauses: A comma is needed to separate two or more complete thoughts in one sentence. Place the comma before the coordinating conjunction.

    Example 1: Madeleine spoke about making the office more environmentally friendly, and then she introduced our new energy plan.

    Example 2: You can elect to go with the company insurance plan, or you can select the HMA option.
  • Around nonrestrictive modifiers: Use commas to separate modifying phrases that aren’t critical to understanding the sentence.

    Example 1: Chris introduced the new hire, a recent college graduate, to the rest of the team.

    Example 2: The contract, which had been extensively revised, was finally signed.

Want more? Check out page 258 of Write for Business for more information on using commas to set off different elements in sentences.

—Joyce Lee

Image by Brett Jordan