Well-structured sentences: A technique for self-revision

Revising your own writing is, according to scholar George Gopen, one of the greatest intellectual challenges there is. This week I attended Gopen's workshop at Duke University, "Writing from the Reader's Perspective," which was, in Gopen's words, "about ensuring that you are communicating with clarity, coherence, and accuracy to achieve the results you desire." (For a full account of Gopen's methods, check out his book The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader's Perspective or his article "The Science of Scientific Writing.") In this post, I'll briefly describe Gopen's five-step process for self-revision. Try this technique on a draft that you're happy with in terms of content and overall structure, but that you still need to improve in terms of sentence structure, clarity, and cohesion.

Gopen suggests that, when trying this technique for the first time, we work with three meaty paragraphs selected from the middle of a manuscript, rather than attacking an entire manuscript at the outset. Once we've selected our three paragraphs, we settle in for an intensive reading session. We comb through each of the three paragraphs five times; with each pass, we focus on a different element of our writing.

1. Verbs. Ask of each sentence, "Is the main action of the sentence expressed in the main verb?"

2. Subjects and verbs. Ask of each subject-verb pair, "Is each subject located as close as possible to its verb?"

3. Subject. Ask of each sentence, "Who or what is the agent in this sentence? Is the subject of the main clause, in fact, the agent in the sentence?"

4. Backward links. Ask, "Does the beginning of each sentence (except the first sentence) somehow connect logically to the previous sentence?"

5. Stress Positions. The concept of the "Stress Position" is the crux of Gopen's theory as to what makes sentences strong and clear. According to Gopen, the "unit of meaning" at the end of each sentence is perceived by the reader as the most important idea in the sentence. However subconsciously, the reader looks to the end of the sentence for closure. Thus, Gopen suggests that, when we self-revise, we pay careful attention to the end of each sentence. Look at each sentence in your writing sample, and ask yourself, "Is the key idea--the new information that I'm introducing in this sentence--placed in the stress position at the end of the sentence?"

The method described here is deceptive in its simplicity. Gopen's steps are straightforward enough to understand, and yet the actual practice of them is time-consuming, mind-bending, brain-fatiguing work. Still, as a writing consultant who finds the principle of sentence structures to be one of the most difficult concepts to help clients grasp, I'm excited to have found this method to practice. If you try it yourself, please let me know how it worked for you! As for me, I'm off to scour my own writing for weak Stress Positions.

Posted on May 9, 2014 .