Practical tools for improving text flow: focus on information ordering

‘Flow’ is a feature readers name as a hallmark of good writing. However, we are often unable to quite pin down what it is that causes the opposite: poor flow. Good flow reflects the fact that a text is cohesive, and cohesion relies on devices such as punctuation (the subject of a separate workshop), mechanical markers of discourse like "nonetheless" and grammatical referents like "these" — and perhaps most importantly in English flow depends on the choice of what information comes first in a new sentence.

This is the focus of theme–rheme analysis. Simply put, theme refers to what starts a sentence (or what it is about) and rheme refers to what is said about the theme.

In their native languages, good writers handle theme–rheme flow fairly naturally. But translated texts often have source-language information ordering in sentences that are otherwise impeccably translated, entirely correct and even beautifully written on their own; nevertheless, they sometimes make reading difficult because the flow across the boundary from one sentence to another is unexpected. Texts written by non-native speakers of English — and sent to us for “correction” — often also suffer from unexpected information ordering. Thus, an awareness of theme–rheme flow can provide us with a lens for analyzing why reading is difficult and how information can be reordered to improve cohesion.

We will apply this concept to real-life editing, translation and revision problems.

Developer: Mary Ellen Kerans,

Facilitator: Mary Ellen Kerans

Purpose: To learn about a new tool for analyzing and improving cohesion in complex texts. To try out and discuss this approach to editing our own drafts of translations and or the problematic prose of writers who lack English proficiency.

1) We’ll first contrast examples of smoothly flowing prose with examples of choppy prose, and identify problems of theme and rheme confusion.

2) In a series of short editing tasks, participants will learn to recognize patterns and see how reordering information often improves flow.

3) We’ll apply theme–rheme analysis to more holistic editing of texts with mixed problems of confused flow, surface errors and content inconsistencies—the kind of textual problems that arise in the prose of inexpert nonnative English speakers or in translation drafts whose theme-rheme patterns have been distorted.

Structure: As described above.

Who should attend?: Translators, translation revisers, authors’ editors, publishers’ editors, and teachers of writing can benefit from the exchange of knowledge on confusing versus clearly flowing writing.

Outcome skills: Participants will take the gut feeling that a text ‘reads badly’ a step further by applying a tool for analyzing and solving problems of difficult-to-follow writing.

Pre-meeting information:
Reflect on the importance and scope of language editing in the electronic age.

Can language doctors be dispensed with? Russ Sprague, author of the “Proofreading” chapter in the AMWA’s second volume of Essays for Biomedical Communicators* says, “It depends on the tolerance level ... for embarrassing, misleading, confusing, and indecipherable written language.” Sprague is talking about editors as well as proofreaders and he makes a strong case for taking care to publish more readable prose.

Click the link to read the start of Sprague’s plea for companies and institutions to use professionals:

Want to learn more about systemic-functional grammar?

Developed by M.A.K. Halliday and based on work by J.R. Firth and the Prague School, systemic-functional grammar is a bridge between syntactic analysis as we learned it in school—through which we examined word functions and rule-governed structures—and the communicative function of texts.

Googling will find as much information as you can take in, but to save time, try starting with this link from the University of Oslo. There are definitions, famous names, and quotations:

Want to come knowing a bit about theme–rheme in particular?

Again, the University of Oslo is a great source of information. Below are links to two brief sets of lecture notes from a course by Hilde Hasselgård and Stig Johansson. The examples are easy to assimilate and succinct. The first set is on theme: And in the next set you’ll see why theme isn’t simply the subject of a clause: While reading about theme, you’ll grasp what rheme is from the examples.

About the facilitator: Mary Ellen Kerans, a biomedical translator and author’s editor, received her MA in TESOL from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her background includes specific-purposes English and writing instruction as well as educational materials writing. She is presently MET’s council chair. e-mail: