Updated: Aug 26
My parochial school writing education placed an emphasis on understanding grammar at a depth unheard of today. I had to do this thing called diagramming. The mere mention of diagramming might fill some of you with dread and loathing. But not me. I loved diagramming. The longer and more complex the sentence, the better. I loved doing a sentence diagram on the classroom blackboard that covered the whole darn board, top to bottom. Left to right. What bliss. Something like this:
Somewhere along the way, I also became a dandy writer. Not a brilliant writer, mind you, but a solid, competent technician of the process.
Way back, somewhere in my English education, I was taught three simple rules for constructing an essay, report, or any form of nonfiction writing. Three rules so simple and elementary-sounding I should be embarrassed to share them. But I’m not, because I still use these rules today in my own writing and I apply them when I’m editing a piece of nonfiction. These rules (for the organization and presentation of material) will change your life. Are you curious? Get ready. Here they are:
Simple to complex
Known to unknown
General to specific
I bet you’re disappointed, aren’t you? You thought it would be something profound borrowed from the Buddha or Lao Tzu or Ben Franklin or Buddy Holly. No.
UPDATE: Since first writing this in 2019, I have found a funny twist to the above statement. Ben Franklin did, in fact, say something that totally reinforces the point of this article. I read it in a book about writing with clarity but I believe it is from Franklin's autobiography:
If he would inform, he must advance regularly from things know to things unknown, distinctly without confusion, and the lower he begins the better. It is a common fault in writers to allow their readers too much knowledge: They begin with that which should be the middle, and skipping backwards and forwards, ‘tis impossible for any one but he who is perfect in the subject before to understand their work, and such a one has no occasion to read it.
These three rules of composition are so deeply embedded in my brain, I have no memory of when or from whom I learned them. At some point further on in my education, a fourth, more sophisticated rule was added:
4. Concrete to abstract
Well, now here I am in the 21st Century and with the help of the internet, I Googled the first three rules. To my surprise I found them discussed as “maxims of teaching.” Simple to complex and known to unknown are still popular, but general to specific seems to have given way to particular to general, which, frankly, makes no sense to me.
A teacher should always proceed from particular to general statements, I read. General facts, principles and ideas are difficult to understand and hence the teacher should always first present particular things and then lead to general things.
This sounds an awful lot like known to unknown to me. Or maybe my version of the rules is too ingrained for me to be objective. In any event, I was pleasantly surprised to see these rules still in use, regardless of the exact wording.
The purpose of these well-worn rules is to create a piece of writing that builds your material by starting on familiar ground and slowly slipping in new, more complex ideas. The rules, properly applied, will prevent repetition and redundancy, a frequent criticism of a younger generation of writers.
If you structure your writing following the first three rules, you will find it difficult to be repetitive. You must make a point as clearly and concisely as possible and, with that done, move on to the next point or to a higher level of detail. To present material simply, your words and sentences should be as simple as is appropriate to your intended audience. To lay out your points clearly, use short, precise sentences.
The point of anything you write is to communicate. If your writing fails to communicate your desired message or fails to engage your intended audience, you’ve missed the mark. As a career technical writer of computer instruction manuals, the rule of thumb was, better to talk beneath the readers and get the point across than talk over their heads and fail to inform them. In short, better to shoot too low than too high.
Sometimes writers feel a need to show off in their writing. They end up sounding slick and Ivy League-ish. Feel free to do that if you are more interested in pumping up your ego than communicating with your readers. The fact is—and maybe it’s a sad fact—the reading grade level that is considered most desirable for the general public is Grade 8. But you can communicate more than you might think at an eighth-grade level. The reading grade level of this article is 7.7.