How to write a text

Key message: A non-fiction text needs a clear structure. It must explain in a logical order all  the points that are necessary for the reader to understand the message of the text.

 

What is a text?

There are several text definitions, none is generally accepted.

 

"A text is a communication tool that an author uses to communicates a fact to a reader. The author tries to control the consciousness of the reader by means of linguistic formulations in such a way that the reader understands what the author means." (Schnotz, W.(2006). Textverständnis, in: Rost, D.H. (Hrsg.), Handwörterbuch Pädagogische Psychologie.(3. Aufl.), Weinheim: Psychologie Verlags Union, p. 769-777)

 

A text can inform, explain, prompt, entertain or attempt to manipulate. Common to all texts is that everyone has the goal to communicate at least one statement. Statements always have two sides: content and style. An arbitrary string of letters (e.g. uihagnund) is not text.

 


What is a good text?

A good text is understandable, pleasant, interesting and stimulating.

 

We can "summarize our basic right to understandable, pleasant, interesting reading into three basic requirements ... 1. Writer and speaker: Be brief! ... 2. Grasp the matter - hit the target ... 3. Love your reader as yourself! ... What they [the readers] find pleasant, what inspires them: That counts."

(Schneider, W. (1988). Deutsch für Kenner. Die neue Stilkunde. Hamburg: Gruner + Jahr, p. 40 u. 41)

 

A text is interesting if it offers the reader something new that is important to him. It is pleasant when the reader feels entertained. And it is inspiring when the reader is made to use his imagination.

 

When is a text easy to understand?

"Everywhere there is a lack of the insight that someone always has to plague when a complicated process is to be described in a comprehensible way: the writer or the reader. Writers tend to pass this plague on to the readers ... "

(Schneider, W. (1988). Deutsch für Kenner. Hamburg: Gruner + Jahr, p. 43)

 

Based on their research findings, Hamburg psychologists have found four characteristics that make a text easy to understand:

 

1. Simplicity

 

"Simplicity refers to the choice of words and sentence structure, i.e. to the linguistic formulation: common, descriptive words are combined to short, simple sentences. If difficult words occur (foreign words, technical terms), they are explained."

(Langer, I., Schulz von Thun, F., Tausch, R. (2002). Sich verständlich ausdrücken. München; Basel: Ernst Reinhardt, p. 16)

 

An understandable text is written in correct and stylistically good English. I have to master my language in such a way that I can express myself accurately with simple words and sentences.

 

What is proper English, says the grammar, which is responsible for the formal rules of the English language (the spelling is a branch of grammar). There are countless books and websites about grammar.

 

What is good English, examines the style. Style is the way someone speaks or writes. There are many books on style that explain what style is.

 

2. Structure/Outline

 

A text is understandable if it has a clear structure.

 

"This feature refers to the inner order and the outer structure of a text.
Internal order: ... The information is presented in a meaningful order.
Outer structure: The structure of the text is made visible. Related parts are clearly grouped, e.g. by headlined paragraphs".
(Langer, I., Schulz von Thun, F., Tausch, R. (2002). Sich verständlich ausdrücken. München; Basel: Ernst Reinhardt, p. 18)

 

I can only describe a complicated issue in a way that is easy to understand if I have understood it myself. Understanding something means knowing not only the facts, but also the relationships between the facts. Structure is the way the parts of a whole are arranged and relate to each other. I must have understood the structure of the facts in order to be able to write a well-structured text about them.

 

3. Brevity/Conciseness

 

A good text is not too long and not too short. It is limited to the essentials. If a text is too short, questions remain unanswered. If it is too long, it describes superfluous or too many details.

 

4. Stimulating Additions

 

A scientific text should be factual, but also stimulating. Therefore, it should contain a few stimulating additions. Used sparingly, they increase the clarity of the text and its memory value. An interesting example would be such a stimulating addition.

 

How to create a clear text structure?

A longer text (Latin textum: tissue, assembly) has a hierarchical structure. This results from the need to explain the main message by using partial statements. The partial statements are described by partial texts, which are also called text segments. These represent "essential units of meaning." In them, "sub-themes are developed that contribute to the development of the overall text (and the main theme) ..." (https://web.archive.org/web/20081222153848/http://www-user.uni-bremen.de:80/~schoenke/tlgl/tlgl.html, siehe unter Teiltext, 20.10.10)

 

"For Harweg, texts are formed as 'hierarchically structured entities' (Harweg 1990: 17), 'from top to bottom' with consideration of the text theme, and are also constituted linearly, 'from left to right'."

(https://web.archive.org/web/20081222153848/http://www-user.uni-bremen.de:80/~schoenke/tlgl/tlgl.html siehe unter Textstruktur, 15.11.12)

 

The structure of a text could look like this:

 

How to write a text? The red thread - www.learn-study-work.org

 

Each table of contents shows in principle such a hierarchical text structure. Each text answers a main question whose answer is the main message of the text. Likewise, each chapter and subchapter answers a subquestion whose answer is a partial statement.

 

It would be optimal if an author already has such a text structure in mind when she starts writing. But this is not necessary (see below) and a text does not start with the main message.

 

The red thread shows the linear linking of the subtexts. These must follow one another logically. This means that the reader must first read the subtexts that are necessary for understanding the following subtexts. There must be no omissions or jumps.

 

The red thread is the guiding principle that runs through the text. The above picture makes this clear:

 

Definition: The "red thread" is formed by all subtexts that have a connection to the main message of the text and are in a logical order.

 

In the image above the subchapter 1.3 is superfluous because it has no connection to the main message and therefore does not belong to the red thread of the text. It does not help to clarify the main message and should be left out.

 

What is the main message of a text?

The main message is the most important statement of the text, formulated very briefly, preferably in one sentence. It expresses the essence of a text:

 

"After Uncle Herbert has read the first story in the magazine Stern, he calls for example into the kitchen: 'Helga imagine: If the climate catastrophe continues like this, Wiesbaden will be on the North Sea in 40 years' time!' This ... kitchen call ... is the answer to the question: 'What does the author want to tell us with his text?' " (Reiter, M., Sommer, S. Perfekt schreiben (2009), München, Carl Hanser Verlag, p. 20)

 

The kitchen call is the main message of a text. It is often difficult to formulate such a main message, because it depends on the reader's perspective from which he sees the text (what interests him most in the text). Each reader can determine the main message himself. Sometimes it is easier to determine the main question that the text answers. The main message would then be the answer to this main question (see below).

 

"Text comprehension is a ... goal-oriented process. ... Microstrategies are aimed at understanding the consecutive statements ... Macro strategies, on the other hand, focus on working out the main ideas of a text." (Schnotz, W. (2006). Textverständnis, in Rost, D. H. (Hrsg.), Handwörterbuch Pädagogische Psychologie, Weinheim: Beltz Verlag, p. 774)

 

Why is writing often a problem?

A problem exists when there are obstacles on the way to a goal. Obstacles can also arise when writing a difficult text. That is why it is important to have a writing pan.

 

"A writing plan becomes necessary when the writer is unable to realize his communicative goal directly. The obstacles can be very different; the writer may lack the necessary thematic knowledge, he does not know the addressees and their prior knowledge, he has no ideas for the unfolding of the topic, he lacks suitable formulations and other things."
(Becker-Mrotzek, M. (2007). Planungs- und Überarbeitungskompetenz entwickeln, in: Informationen zur Deutschdidaktik, 31 (2007) 1, p. 25-34)

 

1. Obstacle: The necessary thematic knowledge is missing

 

Anyone who wants or has to write a text usually already has some knowledge about the subject in question. But you must not believe that you can simply write the text down. Only experts who have already written several texts on the subject can do that.

 

"It is a well-known phenomenon to come across unexpected questions that remain unanswered when one tries to present a problem coherently and convincingly, because one then passes less lightly over what seems to be known. ... Problems are often an indicator of one's own incomplete knowledge." (Ascheron, C. (2007). Die Kunst des wissenschaftlichen Präsentierens und Publizierens, München: Elsevier GmbH, p. 179)

 

"Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know." (Zinser, W. (2001). On Writing Well, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 12)

 

If you have "writer's block", the first thing you should do is check whether your thematic knowledge is sufficient. New knowledge always builds on existing knowledge. The same applies to texts. That's why I need other texts as a basis and as models when I want to write a new text.

 

When I combine other texts, my new text is different and hopefully better than the originals. It should express my opinion and my thinking. If the content of my text is not much different from an original, then of course I always have to give the original as source (otherwise it is plagiarism).

 

I may have to find and read many different texts to acquire the necessary thematic knowledge.

 

2. Obstacle: No idea to unfold the topic

 

If you have no idea how to unfold the topic, you don't know how to structure your text. The following describes how to proceed from the general to the particular in order to structure the text. (How to proceed from the particular to the general: see "Text Outline".)

 

The quote above says that writing a difficult text requires a plan. The first step to a plan is to decide what the main message of the text should be. I need to do a literature review to see what others have written on the topic, because my main message must be consistent with the existing literature.

 

If I know the main message of the text I want to write, I can use it as the starting point for my outline. I ask myself, what do I have to tell the reader to understand the main message? By answering this question, I find partial statements. I subdivide this further: What do I have to tell the reader so that he understands the sub statements?

 

So I can continue until I have reached the lowest level of my outline (the lowest level of my chapters). A text should not have more than 3 outline levels so that it does not get confusing. Even at the lowest chapters, I ask myself: what must be written in this subchapter, so that the reader understands the sub statement of this subchapter? I then write the text as an answer to this question. I subdivide it into paragraphs so that it looks good and is easier to read.

 

The following figure describes the procedure for the first two outline levels of a text:

How to design the structure for the reader - www.learn-study-work.org

 

With this approach I have to estimate the level of knowledge of my readers to find the right structure. A text for non-professionals looks very different from a text for professionals.

 

If I don't know the main message of my text at the beginning, I can use the main question as a starting point. So I don't have to wait until I have planned the whole text. I ask myself: Which sub-questions do I have to answer in order to find the answer to the main question?

 

As soon as I have found a subquestion, I can start working on it: I acquire the necessary thematic knowledge and try to write down the answer to the sub-question right away. This first draft doesn't have to be perfect. I have often been annoyed that I didn't write down my thoughts on a question immediately. Later, however, I had to work my way back into the question.

 

When I have written the text for a subquestion, it usually leads to the next subquestion that I have to work on. I often come to the linear (logical) structure of my text all by myself. I only have to check whether I have not forgotten a subquestion. But it also happens that I don't include a edited subquestion in my text at all.

 

A good starting point for finding subquestions is to look at the definitions of the terms that the text will be about. Defining something precisely is not easy and raises many questions.

 

When I finish writing the text, hopefully I will have found the answer to the main question. Now I check the chosen structure. A text must not be a list, where the items follow each other without logical connection. Such a text is boring. A logically structured text is easy to read and gives the reader the opportunity to think along.
 

Nowadays, the advice is often given: "Tell a story!"  A story comes from the description of consecutive events. In a good story, the audience thinks along with the story and asks, "What happens next?" With a text, it should be the same.

 

3. Obstacle: The lack of appropriate formulations

 

In a language there is a word for every thing, for every appearance and for every process. If we relate the words to each other and formulate sentences, we can make statements. A statement is the linguistic representation of a fact. (Seiffert, H. (1975). Introduction to Philosophy of Science 1, Munich: Publisher C. H. Beck, p. 53 and 60)

 

In other words, if we want to say something meaningful, we have to bring the appropriate words into a meaningful relationship. Such a relationship of meaning is called a sentence. (Klein, H. W., Strohmeyer, F. (1967). Französische Sprachlehre, Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, p. 13).

 

In order to be able to formulate understandable sentences about a fact, I must

 

1. ... have understood the fact (see above).

 

2. ... have the appropriate vocabulary.

Which technical terms are used for a particular issue, I see in texts that others have written on this issue.

 

3. ... master the grammar and spelling.


4. ... choose the right style for my statements.

When we do something, it is not only important what we do, but also how we do it. Style is the way how we do something.

 

If I want to remind a friend of a meeting today, I have different ways to formulate it: "Do not forget our meeting today." "Be punctual today!" "Please come on time today!" "If you do not come on time today, you're in trouble." … Which is the most appropriate phrase depends on the specific situation. Everyone knows how embarrassing it is to use the wrong words.

 

"The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter: it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

(Mark Twain, Letter to George Bainton, published in "The Art of Authorship" by George Bainton)

Choose a text type, determine the content and the style - www.learn-study-work.org

If I want to write a text, I first need an idea of what I want to say with the text. Then I consider whether the planned text belongs to a certain type of text. Sometimes I can choose between several possible text types (e.g. between a letter and an email).

 

"If texts have the same characteristics, forms, objectives and are used in similar communicative situations, they can be assigned to specific types of text." (Fischer, C. (2010). Texte, Gattungen, Textsorten und ihre Verwendung in Lesebüchern. Dissertation, Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen, p. 15)

 

Style rules have been defined for each type of text. So if I want to write a text that belongs to a certain type of text (for example, a business letter or a poem), I need to learn about and follow the style rules that apply to that type of text.

 

Since the style rules for the types of text are usually only rough rules, there are still ways to write the text in a personal style. Always strive for a style that makes the text easy for the reader to understand.

 

"The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity." (William Strunk, jr. (1959). "The Elements of Style")

 

If a text is difficult to understand, then the author has not tried hard enough.

 

"Everywhere there is a lack of insight that someone always has to work hard […]: the writer or the reader. Writers tend to shift this plague onto the readers ..." (Wolf Schneider, quoted in www.uni-wh.de/fileadmin/user_upload/00_Startseite/Stil-Leitfaden.pdf, 09.02.22, p. 1)

 

4. Obstacle: Often there is no time for a thorough revision

 

"Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair."

(Zinser, W. (2001). On Writing Well, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 12)

 

It is not difficult to describe a simple fact, such as "We meet today at 5:00 p. m. at the station." However, it is not possible to describe a complex situation in the first attempt. The human brain is unable to consider at once all the factors that are important when writing a difficult text.

 

In a finished text, the reader must recognize a "logical flow" and the style must fit the content (the formulations and the design of the text). Therefore, demanding texts must be revised several times, for which time must be planned.

 

What is the writing plan for a difficult text?

1. I estimate how much time is available for writing the text.

2. I decide which main question the text should answer.

3. I try to imagine what the answer to the main question might be.

To do this, I do a literature search to find other texts that also say something about this main question. Using these texts as a model, I develop an idea for the answer to the main question = for the main message of my text. (Maybe there are other sources I can use as a model, like interviewing someone).

 

4. I think about which subquestions I have to answer so that a reader can understand my main message.

So I determine the structure of my text, that is, I make an outline.

 

5. I also do a literature search for the subquestions, read the appropriate texts and check my outline.

When reading the literature, I always pay attention to the style used by the other texts (technical words, formulations, outline, visualizations). This makes it easier for me to formulate my text later.

 

6. Finally, I estimate whether I can complete the planned text in the time available.
I take into account that I will need additional time to revise the text. I also plan a time reserve for unexpected disruptions. If there is not enough time for the writing plan, I have to change the main question or my outline, or I have to answer the sub-questions shorter.

 

Even if my writing plan is not yet fully developed, I can start writing because I am now sure I will be able to write the text. Further insights will come as I write.

 

Insecurity is often combated by excessive "information gathering ... or by blind (because it is hardly based on information) actionism." (Dörner, D. (2000). Die Logik des Mißlingens, Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, p. 153)

 

With good planning, I have enough time at the end to revise my text. I read it through several times and look for spelling mistakes and bumpy passages. If the text is easy to understand and can be read fluently, it is ready.

 

Writing good and understandable texts is a skill that can only be acquired by practicing.