Mind the gap!

The answer actually lies between the sentences. Look at the gaps between each sentence carefully. Each sentence exists in splendid isolation from the sentence that precedes or follows it. The first sentence is about teaching, the second, about research and scholarship. And the third is about service. No words act as transitions to guide readers from one sentence to the other. And each sentence fails to provide so much as a suggestion of what links its concepts to the contents of neighboring sentences. In fact, only a college faculty member could probably read this paragraph, pause, and still correctly recall its content because only faculty understand that careers at big universities involve teaching, scholarship, research, and service - at least in theory, on annual reports, and during usually beady tenure and promotion performance reviews. Unfortunately, universities seldom write mission statements for people contemplating careers at a university. Instead, mission statements ostensibly target would-be students. Or, in some cases, the parents who plan on footing the bill for their kid’s tuition and want to know something about the place that threatens to eat their entire retirement savings. As a result, the academics who could understand this paragraph easily are unlikely ever to read it. Ironic, isn’t it?

Look carefully at this paragraph again, a paragraph written by a professional, probably in exchange for a paycheck. Yet this professional writer made the same mistake that virtually all beginning writers make - taking for granted what readers know. You can provide all sorts of background information and fine details for your readers to ensure they aren’t scratching their heads by your second paragraph. But you also have to be constantly vigilant about keeping them on the right track from sentence to sentence. As many of us learned from a hoary definition of sentence, each sentence is a “complete thought.” The problem with churning out a series of complete thoughts is that sentences become little isolated units of meaning. The challenge is that you must make these little islands of thought seem to fit together, ideally, tightly and logically, which is perhaps the single most difficult thing to manage in your writing.

The good news: continuity is far easier to achieve and requires a whole lot less behavior modification than clarity. The bad news: if your sentences don’t fit together tightly, your reader is going to feel your document is badly written or confusing, no matter how many pains you’ve taken over getting the clarity straight.

While continuity contains five different principles that enable you to link your sentences together, you don’t have to use all the principles at the same time. Unlike clarity principles, continuity rests in your using only two or three principles at any time to tie any sentences together. You always have to observe Continuity Principle #1, which appears immediately in the pages that follow. But you can use a mixture of Principles 2-5 to achieve continuity in any paragraph. So you can tether your sentences together by relying on either transitions or sequencing or common grammatical subjects, or even a mixture of these principles, if you feel your sentences are so complex that your readers need extra guidance to get through a particular paragraph.

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