The Basic Principle

In a Nutshell<

Readers have trouble processing sentences that present only new information. Similarly, readers have trouble processing sentences that begin with too much new information. The most readable sentences start with old information before presenting new information.

  • The reader’s expertise (not the writer’s) determines whether information should be considered old (familiar) or new.
  • Old information presented early in the sentence provides readers with a context for understanding a limited amount of new information later in the sentence.

The Principle<

The challenge of much academic, professional, and journalistic writing is to clearly communicate complex information to the reader. However, readers struggle when sentences present lots of new information all at once, especially when the readers can’t see how that new information relates to what they already know.

You can make your sentences more readable by controlling the flow of old and new information. If you consistently begin your sentences with familiar information, you’ll help readers understand your new ideas, data, or arguments in the context of already familiar characters and ideas. In other words, the most readable sentences move from old information to new information. (Learn more about different types of old information<.)