Location, location, location: writing structure
Updated: Jul 13, 2020
Flipping through the Airbnb listings, you fall in love with the view from that sweet little cottage with the white shutters. Miles of oceanscape, gothic cliffs, windswept beaches. Yeah, you can imagine having your breakfast on that porch for a week. There’s a reason the prices go up for an unobstructed view.
And so it is with writing. As you are crafting your sentences, paragraphs, even the text as a whole, you have to pay attention to the prime “real estate” of your writing--those places where there’s a bit of a vista. Just like you wouldn’t waste a good view on a garage, don’t give away your best real estate to lackluster language. What good is finding just the right word if no one notices it?
Generally, the most valuable real estate sits at the beginning or the end of a phrase, sentence, paragraph, or text. You probably had teachers who told you to make sure to “hook” your audience in the introduction. Makes sense, right? It’s the first thing your reader sees, so it sets the tone for the whole rest of the piece. Well, the same goes for how you structure your sentence. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
If we can resurrect our training program, it might help.
Resurrecting our training program might help.
It seems a pity to bury a strong word like “resurrect” in the middle of your sentence. Here at the beginning of the sentence, it gets the full brunt of your audience’s attention. Keep in mind, also, that when you are speaking aloud, you will naturally give the opening work more emphasis.
Similarly, a speaker tends to pause at the end of a phrase, sentence, or paragraph, thus giving space to the final words. Whatever word you end on is left ringing in the silence, whether that’s literal or figurative. You may have seen that internet meme about how you can sitll raed mispsleld wdros as lnog as the fisrt and lsat lrettes aern’t mveod. That’s because our brains are “chunking” when they read (especially as we become more skilled at it), looking for recognizable patterns rather than sounding out each letter, reading word-by-word, and parsing syntax. We’re looking for the “chunk,” not the individual elements within it. Thus, the words that open and close the linguistic unit get a little bit elevated. Consider the difference between these two sentences:
This course will cover issues of economic, social, and environmental justice over a span of eight weeks.
Over a span of eight weeks, this course will cover issues of economic, social, and environmental justice.
Landing on a word like “justice” instead of “weeks” adds weight to your writing. By restructuring the sentence to give prime real estate to your prime ideas, you are delivering your message to your reader more clearly and efficiently.
Remember, of course, that this isn’t just about sentences--they’re just easy to demonstrate in a short space. The rule applies to every textual unit: The first and final sentences of your paragraph. The first and final paragraphs of your chapter. The first and final chapters of your book. And this isn’t to say that there can’t be powerful, well-chosen language embedded in a sentence, paragraph, etc. There are plenty of cute little cottages getting rented out a few streets back from the beachfront. But since you own some prime real estate, be sure you aren’t wasting it.