One of our most effective survival mechanisms as humans is our ability to predict. We’re doing it all the time, making a series of presumptions about what a particular situation is going to be like before we step into it. Sports scientists observing baseball players have noticed that a batter can’t actually see a ball in flight – they predict where to swing based on a series of signals that they pick up from the pitcher. The better they can predict, the better they perform.
It’s not just true for baseball players. The more we can accurately predict about any situation we find ourselves in – be it going to work, participating in a seminar or even watching a movie, the more comfortable we will be and the better we will be able to complete whatever task we are trying to perform.
So how does this relate to writing?
The answer is to put yourself in the shoes of your reader. The more that they can predict about your writing, the more they will understand, process and remember whatever you are writing.
Prediction makes life easier, and the best writers are those that make it easy for the reader to make predictions about what is coming in the text. Notice we haven’t said the best academic writers – this prediction rule is true for almost all writing, from emails and text messages to reports and newspaper articles. (The one exception might be fiction, where much of the art involves leaving the right information out to keep a reader guessing)
So how can you make it easier for your readers to predict what’s coming next?
A few key pointers (for academic writing) would be:
Introductions and Abstracts – make sure these clearly outline your argument and the route you will take to get there. Don’t hold back information for the conclusion – after reading a good introduction your reader should know exactly where you’ll be taking them by the end of the essay.
Paragraph Headers – Also known as topic sentences. The first sentence or two of your paragraph should clearly outline exactly what the reader should expect over the following few sentences. So, for example if I started a paragraph with ‘Swansea is a better place to live than Cardiff for three reasons’ you would be very clear what to expect within the coming paragraph. In fact, it should be possible for a reader to read just the introduction and ‘topic sentences’ of your essay and follow your argument.
Sentence level – The prediction rule works at a sentence level too. Simple linking words such as ‘however’ ‘furthermore’ or ‘therefore’ help your reader to predict the type of information that will come next: is it contrasting with what’s come before or backing it up; is it introducing a new point or confirming one that you’ve already made?
One key thing to note here is that you need to deliver on your promises. If a reader is waiting for those three reasons and you only give them two, it can be as confusing as not being given any direction at all.
Leading the Blind
One analogy we often give for this idea is to imagine you are guiding a blind person through a busy building. You might take them by the hand and offer them constant guidance such as ‘We’re going to take three steps forwards and then stop. I’m going to open the door, we’ll walk through and turn left.’ Learn to think of your reader in the same way. At every step they should be sure where they are going and what they are going to do next.
Away from Academia
As we have already identified, this does not just apply to academic writing, but the majority of writing and communication you have to do. Give your emails clear subject lines that summarise the content and your friends and colleagues will thank you. Start your reports with a concise abstract and your readers will be far more likely to understand the results.
Use this principle in everything you write, and watch how other writers – from newspapers to bloggers to academic journals – do the same.
Looking to improve your Academic Writing? Sign up to our Undergraduate Essay Writing Course here.
Or see PASS for more tips on improving your writing.