Most readers will find your sentences easier to understand when they begin with old information. But how do you know what information will be old for your readers? You can’t assume that what’s old for you is old for your readers—by the time you begin to write on a topic, most of the information about that topic will be old for you. Here is a quick guide to the three kinds of old information that you can (usually) trust your readers to recognize.
1. Words and Concepts They Have Just Read
The most reliable kind of old information is information readers remember from the rest of your paper. Readers will recognize as old information most of the words they just read and the concepts those words name.
When you use repeated words and concepts keep in mind these two principles:
For an example, click here.
The example below is taken from an article titled “The Suffragist as Playwright in Edwardian England” by Claire Hirshfield. (A suffragist was a person, female or male, who supported giving women the right to vote.)
In the first sentence of her article, Hirshfield introduces several new terms that she will later use as old information. Old information is green, new is red.
Perhaps no single aspect of women's history has received more of the attention of contemporary scholars than the campaign waged by British feminists to secure the franchise in the final years before the outbreak of World War I.
For most of Hirshfield’s readers, “women’s history” will be a familiar concept, but they may not be aware that British feminists waged a campaign to secure the franchise (the right to vote) in the years before World War I. But, now that Hirshfield has established that fact, she can treat it as old information that her readers will recognize. She can also use it to introduce new information.
Perhaps no single aspect of women's history has received more of the attention of contemporary scholars than the campaign waged by British feminists to secure the franchise in the final years before the outbreak of World War I. One vital element of this campaign, however, has been little noted: the involvement of men and women associated with the theater in the great crusade for the vote.1
1Hirshfield, Claire. “The Suffragist as Playwright in Edwardian England.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1987), pp. 1-6.
Click on the words in green to see how readers will treat them as old information they have just read.
By using the new information in the first sentence as old information in the second sentence, Hirschfield is able to give her readers new information about the campaign for the vote: that men and women associated with the theatre were important to the overall effort to enfranchise women in England.
2. Things and Concepts Implied by the Topic of Argument
Depending on how familiar they are with your topic, readers can usually recognize as old information things and concepts that are implied by the topic your argument covers. If one sentence talks about stock market trends, then readers who know about business will not be surprised if the next sentence treats bull market as old information even if that term has not come up in the paper. If your topic is gun control legislation, then readers who pay attention to the news will not be surprised if a group of paragraphs treats the National Rifle Association as old information. The more readers know about your subject, the more implied old information they will recognize, and vice versa. So before you use implied old information, be sure to think carefully about how much you can expect your readers to know.
For an example, click here.
The following paragraph is from the second chapter of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon wrote for an 18th century composed mostly of English people who were sufficiently interested in Roman history to (at least start to) read an eight-volume history of the fall of Rome. Information that is old for most readers is green, new is red.
The only accession which the Roman empire received during the first century of the Christian Era was the province of Britain…After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke. The various tribes of Britons possessed valour without conduct, and the love of freedom without the spirit of union. They took up arms with savage fierceness; they laid them down, or turned them against each other with wild inconstancy; and while they fought singly, they were successively subdued. Neither the fortitude of Caractacus, nor the despair of Boadicea, nor the fanaticism of the Druids, could avert the slavery of their country, or resist the steady progress of the Imperial generals, who maintained the national glory, when the throne was disgraced by the weakest, or the most vicious of mankind. At the very time when Domitian, confined to his palace, felt the terrors which he inspired; his legions, under the commands of the virtuous Agricola, defeated the collected force of the Caledonians at the foot of the Grampian hills; and his fleets, venturing to explore an unknown and dangerous navigation, displayed the Roman arms around every part of the island.1
1 Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Abridged Edition. David Womersley, ed. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2005, pp. 11-12.
Click on the words in green to see how readers will treat them as old information.
For a contemporary reader, there is probably a lot of unfamiliar information being treated as old information here: we are expected to know who the Britons, Caractacus, Boadicea, the Druids, Domitian, Agricola, and the Caledonians are and how they are all related to one another and why some of them were gathering at the Grampian hills. These would have been reasonable expectations for Gibbon’s 18th-century audience, because Gibbon’s readers would have been familiar with most of these names and places, and understood the implied connections between the new and old information. However, most modern readers would need more than a few footnotes to get through this paragraph.
One way to decide whether you are giving a reader too much new information is to do this type of color-coding exercise on your own work: if you have a paragraph, like this one, with much more red that green, you may want to revise the paragraph so that you give your reader the new information more slowly so that they can make sense of how it relates to the old information with less difficulty.
Before you treat a term, a concept, or a person as old information, ask yourself, “would my reader know what that is?” If she wouldn’t, you need to present it as new information in a context your reader will be familiar with. If the answer is “I don’t know,” it’s probably best to ask someone who would know—an instructor, a professional, or anyone who could reasonably be a reader for your argument.
3. Things and Concepts Readers Know and Might Associate with What They Just Read
Readers will usually recognize as old information things or concepts that they associate with what they are reading. This kind of old information is hardest to gauge, since you must know a lot about your readers to know what they might already know and associate with your topic. If a passage discusses traffic patterns in San Francisco, most readers will not be surprised if the term trolleys is used as old information (though those entirely unfamiliar with the city might not treat this as old information). But if a linguist writes about the patterns of choosing subjects in sentences, only readers with a great deal of knowledge about linguistics will recognize the technical term Silverstein hierarchy as old information. When you guess wrong, you will often overestimate what your readers know by using as old information something that you strongly associate with your topic, but that they do not.
For an example, click here.
In this article for Scientific American, David Dobbs uses associated old information in two prominent spots to introduce the idea of mirror neurons. He begins his article by alternating between the first-person I (which all readers would recognize as the writer) and various words for his second child:
Sometime just before my second child was born, I read that if you stuck your tongue out at a newborn, he’d do the same. So in young Nicholas’s first hour, even as my wife was still in the O.R. getting stitched up (40-hour labor, C-section, epic saga), I tried it. Holding the gooing, alert young lad before me in my hands—he was no bigger than a ball of pizza dough—I stuck my tongue out at him. He immediately returned the gesture. I hadn’t slept in 40 hours. I laughed till I cried.1
1David Dobbs, “A Revealing Reflection: Mirror Neurons seem to effect everything from how we learn to speak to how we build culture,” Scientific American (May/June 2006), available from David Dobbs: Writing on science and culture, http://daviddobbs.net.
Finding old information for your first sentence can be a challenge, since you have no other sentences to refer back to as old information. In a scientific article, nothing would lead a reader to expect to hear about the author’s son. However, most readers who know about studies of the brain also know that such studies focus on young children; so, Dobbs reasonably expects his readers not to be surprised or confused to hear a story about his infant son’s ability to imitate—mirror—dad sticking out his tongue.
Toward the end of the article, Dobbs starts a section with a heading and opening sentence that treat something he has not yet mentioned or implied as old information:
When the Mirror Fogs
Faults in a system so central should create profound problems. And indeed it appears that dysfunctions or deficits in mirror-neuron systems may help account for problems ranging from personal coolness to autism.
Before this point, Dobbs has only discussed the capabilities of mirror neurons, so when he uses faults, dysfunctions, and deficits as old information, he relies on his readers to see why these concepts are associated with his topic. He can reasonably count on readers of Scientific American to know that research on the brain’s failures is just as informative as research on its capabilities. Those readers will not be surprised to find faults as the first word in the section because they usually associate the study of brain failures with the study of brain capabilities.