MET workshop

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. Manuscript editors and translators – we who work with others’ ideas – have practical and ethical constraints on what we can add or remove, however. Our main revision tools for improving clarity and readability through better flow are word choice and information ordering.

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 draft translations. Two features of English – parallel structure (within sentences and across boundaries) and theme–rheme progression (across sentence boundaries) – are particularly useful for sorting out what’s wrong with prose that may be grammatically correct but is 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 parallel items in a list. The second, theme–rheme progression, is perhaps less familiar. It can be thought of as a product of ties 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 about 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 analyze the structural features that contribute to fluent reading.
2) Through short editing tasks, we will discuss patterns we see, potential ties between information units, and how reordering information can improve flow, especially in translated texts.
3) We will discuss a more realistic editing task or two, in which there will be a mix of problems that include confusing information ordering, surface errors and content inconsistencies. The text will have some of the problems we often see in manuscripts drafted by inexpert writers of English or translations that may be accurate but were not revised for flow.

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

Outcome skills: Participants will have a way to analyze 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 would be fine) and brought to the workshop.
Learn more about systemic-functional linguistics and grammar (which uses the theme–rheme concept) if you wish:
Browse the Internet, but no special depth of knowledge is needed. Briefly, 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. 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 or texts in history and occasionally does classroom teaching. She received her MA in TESOL from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her background in education includes writing instruction and materials development, especially in English for specific purposes (health sciences). Until recently, she served on MET’s Council.