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Paragraph doesn't read well?

To find out whether every sentence in a paragraph is contributing to the purpose the writer had in mind, take the key ideas from each sentence and arrange them in a tree diagram. Start with the key words of the topic sentence (usually the first sentence). Each branch of the tree follows an idea until it can go no further.

Flower 1993:153-170, 284-9

Read the paragraph below. Are there any sentences in this paragraph that do not contribute to the main idea?

[1] Linguists and educationalists have for many years had conflicting views about the value of correcting linguistic errors in the speech and writing of second language learners. [2] In second language teaching/learning, the purpose in providing feedback such as 'correction', i.e., 'corrective feedback' (Schachter 1991:89), is to supply learners with 'negative evidence' which attempts to draw their attention to the linguistic errors made (Ellis 1994:584), or to 'what is ungrammatical in their sentences' (p. 434). [3] With regard to the practice of correcting written errors, one extreme view is that corrections do not have a significant effect on student errors and teachers should, therefore, adopt less time-consuming efforts to direct students' attention to surface error (Robb, Ross and Shortreed 1986:91). [4] The more moderate view does not dismiss the value of correction as a useful teaching technique, but rather, it emphasises the importance of consistency and systematicity if the positive effects of correction are to be realised (Cohen and Robbins 1976:60; Rivers 1981:306; Lalande 1982:140).

Which sentence is the topic sentence of this paragraph?
Tree diagram1

Look at the tree diagram above. Can you match it to the text? Would you say all four sentences address the same topic?

Do all four sentences address the same topic?
Are you sure? Try again!!
Tree diagram2

Broadly speaking all 4 sentences are on the topic of "error correction", but only two sentences actually develop the point made in the topic sentence.

Which two sentences develop the point made in the topic sentence?
Are you sure? Try again!!
Tree diagram3
Further comments

Sentence 2 explains the purpose of error correction - an idea which could best be developed in an earlier paragraph.

Sentences 3 and 4 develop the notion of 'conflicting views' that is signalled in the first sentence. You can see how these sentences, in contrast to Sentence 2, take up the terms in the topic sentence.

Are you sure? Try again!!

Sentence doesn't read well?

Is the problem that it doesn't link well to the surrounding sentences? Check sentence linking by reading out loud. If your sentences sound like a set of unrelated statements, check whether you have arranged old and new information in the best way.

Sounds too abstract?

See if you are overusing abstract nouns and underusing their verbal equivalents (e.g. growth / grow, production / produce, identification / identify); this can have the effect of removing the dynamism from your text:

"Temperatures showed an increase during the day." compared to:
"Temperatures increased during the day."

"Weights of the specimens were taken." compared to:
"The specimens were weighed."

Verbs like "be", "do", "get", "give", "have" and "go" have such a wide variety of meanings that they do not communicate a strong message. Try to choose the most appropriate and precise verbs:

"The results we got were surprising." compared to:
"The results we obtained were surprising."

"In the late 1990s the company had many difficulties." compared to:
"In the late 1990s the company encountered many difficulties."

'Filler' verbs may not be needed at all:

"we studied" is better than "we conducted a study"

"pressure improved" is better than "an improvement in pressure occurred".

Stop and ask yourself "What do I really want to say?"

Chapters / sections too long?

Check your paragraphs. Your reader should be able to glance at the first sentence of each paragraph in a section or chapter and this should constitute the framework of your logical argument. Have you elaborated these points more than is necessary?

Remove unnecessary words, clauses or sentences. Check if you are including more examples or quotations than are necessary to make your point. Replace lengthy descriptions with tables or figures.

Chapters / sections too short?

Say to yourself, "The point I want to get across here is..."; then, "The specifics of this point are..."'. At this point, you can try asking who, what, when, where, why and how: you are guaranteed to come up with more useful things to say. (This can also help with writer's block).

Check that you have introduced and concluded each chapter sufficiently. Make sure you have explained your methodology adequately. See if there are more references to include. Have you got any material in an Appendix that should go in a chapter?

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