Let’s Link Up – Part 1

Compare the following two sample texts*. Which paragraph do you think reads more clearly? Why do you think this is so?

VERSION A

This case is not so much a contest between the United States Department of Justice and two defendant companies as a skirmish in a broader battle over the direction American economic life will take in the coming years. The concept of the conglomerate corporation – not a particularly new idea, but one which lately has gained great momentum – is at the centre of this struggle. The attempt of companies to expand through acquisition of other firms, while avoiding the antitrust problems of vertical or horizontal mergers, is one reason for the recent popularity of this concept. The resulting corporations have none of the earmarks of the traditional trust situation, but they have presented new problems of their own.

VERSION B

This case is not so much a contest between the United States Department of Justice and two defendant companies as a skirmish in a broader battle over the direction American economic life will take in the coming years. At the centre of this struggle is the concept of the conglomerate corporation – not a particularly new idea, but one which lately has gained great momentum. One reason for its recent popularity is the attempt of companies to expand through acquisition of other firms, while avoiding the antitrust problems of vertical or horizontal mergers. The resulting corporations have none of the earmarks of the traditional trust situation, but they have presented new problems of their own.

In my past training sessions, virtually everyone agreed that Version B reads better. But I’ve only had a single trainee who put his finger on the “why”. The simple answer is that the themes in Version B – battle over the American economy, conglomerate corporations, acquisition of other corporations – link well from sentence to sentence while in Version A they are all over the place. Creating strong links is one of the best ways to make your writing more coherent and comprehensible.

In a seminar I’d use slides to show you this linkage, but here I must repeat each paragraph. There are three principal themes, which I’ll designate with underlined italics, bold type and small capitals.

VERSION A

This case is not so much a contest between the United States Department of Justice and two defendant companies as a skirmish in a broader battle over the direction American economic life will take in the coming years. The concept of the conglomerate corporation – not a particularly new idea, but one which lately has gained great momentum – is at the centre of this struggle. The attempt of companies to expand through acquisition of other firms, while avoiding the antitrust problems of vertical or horizontal mergers, is one reason for the recent popularity of this concept. The resulting corporations have none of the earmarks of the traditional trust situation, but they have presented new problems of their own.

VERSION B

This case is not so much a contest between the United States Department of Justice and two defendant companies as a skirmish in a broader battle over the direction American economic life will take in the coming years. At the centre of this struggle is the concept of the conglomerate corporation – not a particularly new idea, but one which lately has gained great momentum. One reason for its recent popularity is the attempt of companies to expand through acquisition of other firms, while avoiding the antitrust problems of vertical or horizontal mergers. The resulting corporations have none of the earmarks of the traditional trust situation, but they have presented new problems of their own.

The linking in Version B illustrates an underlying principle of good writing: start with the familiar and then move to the new. In other words, once you’ve introduced a theme, continue with any elaboration before you move on to the next theme. Moving from familiar to new is not only a matter of common sense, but many studies of effective writing have demonstrated that this approach improves comprehension.

In Version B the writers created the links using similar nouns twice and a pronoun once. Can you think of any other ways to link a theme in one sentence to the same theme in the next? There are several, and we’ll examine them in a future edition of The Wednesday Writer.

In the meantime, happy linking and see you next time!

* This extraordinary example comes from Stephen V. Armstrong and Timothy P. Terrell, Thinking Like a Writer : A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing, 2nd Ed.2003 Practising Law Institute

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