Lesson Seven

Being Emphatic and Coherent

You’re familiar with the term “punch line.” It’s the payoff at the end of a joke. What would happen to the joke if the punch line were to be buried somewhere in the middle? That’s right. The joke would lose its punch.

Unfortunately, the same sort of thing happens all the time in technical/professional writing. The most important ideas get tied up in the middle of sentences and paragraphs; they aren’t allowed that powerful “last word.”

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not suggesting that good professional writing deliberately delays understanding or creates ambiguity or suspense. Those things are anathema to most forms of communication in government, industry, and business. Busy executives and engineers and consumers and government officials and managers want the big picture, or the answer to their questions, ASAP.

Sure, delay and suspense and ambiguity are hallmarks of certain brands of fiction writing. If a novelist tells you up front that the butler did it, that is not usually good story architecture (unless there are other webs of suspense & etc. to be woven around that initial revelation). Good practical writing, by contrast, almost always reveals the big news up front; that’s why we have executive summaries, abstracts, subject lines, descriptive headings, and so on. But at the micro level, every sentence and paragraph you write has a pattern of “suspense” and subsequent emphasis–at the end of the sentence and at the end of the paragraph.

Some writers, rather than using this pattern to advantage, will try to make significant phrases stand out by italicizing or capitalizing or boldfacing them. That can work occasionally, but it’s a stopgap measure. Overuse it, and your readers will quickly tire of it. It’s much more effective to position your most important ideas, the ideas you’re building up to in your sentences and paragraphs, at the end. That’s the power slot.

Take a look at your own prose to see whether you are getting sufficient punch. In general, your pattern from sentence to sentence should present old information first and new information last. As we’ll see shortly, this also allows you to make transitions more easily. But for the moment, let’s consider some individual sentences and see if we can make them more emphatic. 

View Worksheet.