A common frustration you might encounter in revising your work is that certain paragraphs seem to go in circles, or extend for a page and a half without doing much to advance the Argument. To make matters worse, each sentence may be grammatically sound and even pleasant to read, and so it’s not entirely clear what’s gone wrong or where to begin cutting and rewriting. In this situation, what might be happening is that some sentences are redundant—i.e., too few sentences are introducing anything new to the reader. One way to tell if this is the problem is by conducting a “stress position” check in order to improve the Clarity, Grammar, and Usage of your text.
As we discuss in the “Does My Writing Flow?” entry, many sentences in academic writing are effectively broken into halves. The first half, which George Gopen and Judith Swan term the “topic position,” tells the reader what the function of the sentence is and how it relates to previous sentences. The second half, or “stress position,” receives emphasis by default, because the reader will be prompted to pause there by punctuation. Because of this, the stress position can be a better place to introduce something new to the reader. Information there will automatically receive more focus from the reader, simply by virtue of its position in the sentence. New information in the “topic position” might be jarring, or simply get glossed over. Conversely, familiar information in the “stress position” might be repetitive and indicate that a sentence is either redundant or in need of revision.
With this in mind, try the following stress position check:
Step 1: Identify a passage that feels meandering, excessively long, or unfocused.
Step 2: Highlight the stress position (final clause) of each sentence.
Step 3: Read through and identify which sentences introduce new information in the stress position and which do not. New information doesn’t have to be a new fact. It can be any new framing, a new step in your analysis, or a gesture in a new direction that might be unfamiliar to the reader.
Step 4: For each sentence that does not introduce new information in the stress position, determine whether there is new information in the topic position. If so, inverting the order of the sentence may help with clarity. If not, the sentence may not actually be necessary, or the sentence may require a rewrite to truly add what it’s intended to.