MET workshops

Two aspects of information ordering that affect flow within sentences and beyond

Readers often mention “flow” when they describe good writing. Skilled authors create flow gradually in successive drafts, freely moving, removing and adding text as they arrange their thoughts and generate new ideas, through a process that interweaves writing and revising. Some translators also work that way, revising several or many successive drafts. However, manuscript editors and translators – we who work with others’ ideas – have practical and ethical constraints on what we can add, remove or rearrange. Our main revision tools for improving clarity and readability through better flow are word choice and information ordering within sentences. This workshop focuses on the latter.

Insight into how cohesion works in English can help us think through alternative sentence structures efficiently before acting on an author’s manuscript or editing our own drafted translations. Two features of English cohesion – parallel structure and theme–rheme progression – address information ordering and form simultaneously. They are particularly useful for sorting out what’s wrong with prose that may be grammatically correct and accurate but still hard to follow.

The first concept, parallelism, is known to all who are familiar with style guides, but it has applications beyond the usual examples of items in a list. It can be applied to tables, article subtitles, and the starting phrases in a series of sentences or paragraphs, for example. The second, theme–rheme progression, is perhaps less familiar. It works across sentence boundaries and can be thought of as a product of ties (conceptual and lexical) between information at the start of a sentence (theme) and the information that completed the previous one (that sentence’s rheme)
Developer and facilitator: Mary Ellen Kerans

Purposes: To learn or reflect on how parallelism works beyond the level of sentence parts or lists; to learn about or review the relevance of theme–rheme progression across sentence boundaries; to apply our analysis of these concepts to editing decisions.

1) We will first look at smoothly flowing prose and discuss the structural features that contribute to fluent reading.
2) Through short editing tasks, we will talk about patterns we see, potential ties between information units, and how reordering information can improve flow, especially in translated texts.
3) We will collaborate on two editing tasks. One will have a mix of problems (confusing information ordering, surface errors and content inconsistencies) such as we often see in manuscripts drafted by inexpert writers of English. One will be a translation that is accurate but not revised for flow.

Who should attend? Translators, translation revisers, authors’ editors, other types of manuscript editors, and teachers of writing can benefit from and contribute to a discussion of these concepts.

Outcome skills: Participants will have a way to identify and explain possible reasons why a text might still sound dense or confusing even after surface errors have been corrected. Recognition of reasons for poor flow should make editing decisions easier to make.

Pre-meeting information:
Workshop pretask:
There will be a short text to edit before the workshop. It will be sent about a week before the session so that it can be edited (on paper is best) and brought to the workshop.

Like to learn more about systemic-functional linguistics and grammar (which uses the theme–rheme concept)?
Browse the Internet, but no special depth of knowledge is needed for this workshop. Briefly, systemic-functional grammar is a bridge between syntactic analysis as we learned it in school – through which we examined word functions (“parts of speech”) and rule-governed structures – and the communicative function of texts. Names to look for are M.A.K. Halliday, R. Hasan and, more recently, J. Martin.  
About the facilitator: Mary Ellen Kerans works freelance mainly as a biomedical translator and authors’ editor in Barcelona. She also works with historical texts and, lately, fiction. She received her MA in TESOL from Teachers College, Columbia University and still occasionally does classroom teaching. Her background in education includes writing instruction and materials development, especially in English for specific purposes (health sciences).