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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