It may be logical, but does it make sense?

If you have been reading my blog, you have probably heard just about all you want to hear about logic for a while. But I suffer from the opposite problem – Logic-o-philia (not a real word).

But a comment on a recent article reminded me that I can be completely logical, and still not get my message across, if what I am saying is inconsistent with what people already think.

Akarmin (who left the comment) described the principle of consistency really well so I won’t repeat the description here. But I will provide an analogy and then talk about consistency within a document (as opposed to consistency of the document with the existing views of the audience).

Stories and analogies

When you see a friend from work at a venue that has nothing to do with work, you might not actually recognise them, because you are seeing them out of context. And in the same way when you see a comment in a document that does not match what you expect to see, or what you currently believe, then you will often simply skim the comment and interpret in a way that is consistent with what you already think.

So it is often helpful to provide the reader with a story, an example or a comparison to help them make sense of what you are saying. This helps them anticipated the idea that you are presenting and it also uses the principle of consistency to your advantage but making it appear that what you are saying is consistent with the story they just accepted (does this make it another example of a fallacy?).

Good writers of technical documents will use analogies, stories and so forth really well. Bad writers will use them far to often, or use them to distract from, rather than assist with, the understanding of what is being said.

So if you want to use your own “stories” within a technical document or presentation, you can check the story is useful by being clear on the following:

  • The story;
  • The point of the story (or the moral of the story); and
  • The relevance of the point to the story to the argument or information you are presenting.

Similarly if you are trying to understand someone else’s document, you can also just write next to each “story” (Example, comparison, story, metaphor, etc) what the point of the story is and whether/how it relates to what is being put forward in the document.

Paragraphs, headings and document flow

Documents are easier to read if they unfold in a consistent way. 

A single paragraph should cover only one idea and the first sentence in that paragraph should set the scene for the rest of it. Compare these two paragraphs, for example:

My dog Lassiter is very friendly. He is a Labrador and they are particularly friendly, although dogs are generally friendly. The other day Lassiter …

Dogs are generally friendly, but Labradors are particularly so. Take my dog Lassiter, the other day he …

In the second example, I set the scene in general terms and then provide a specific example. I could have provided a specific observation and then connected it to a more general conclusion just as well, but if I jump around like I did in the first example then it is harder for the reader to follow what is going on. So each paragraph should either begin with a sentence that emphasises it most important point, or provides the context for the rest of the paragraph.

You can further improve the structure of paragraphs if I keep the same point of view and that people don’t provide multiple viewpoints in the one paragraph.

Or, more clearly, you can improve the structure if you maintain a consistent point of view throughout the paragraph (ie don’t hop around between, saying “customers can …”, “you can …” and “It is possible to …”).

Similarly, changing tone, terminology, or fonts within a paragraph can distract the reader from what you are saying.

But what about when you are reviewing a document someone else wrote? One thing you can do is turn each paragraph into a single sentence and see if you can make sense of the document.

Another thing you can do is go through the headings and subheadings in the document without reading the text. These will often provide a high level summary of where the document is going and what overall messages it is designed to convey.

In a good document, all the sub-headings under a heading will relate to both the heading and the other sub-headings.  For example, if the heading is “Cheese” the possible sub-headings might be “History, local varieties, qualities to look for”; or they might be “Edam, Cheddar, Blue”.  But it would be more confusing if the headings were “History, Edam, Other, qualities to look for”.

Predictably, this also means that your own documents will make more sense if you review and align the sub-headings so that they flow well.

So, each paragraph captures one idea and each paragraph within a sub-heading should support or expand on that sub-heading. Then each sub-heading within a section should have the same structure and should support or build on the section heading.  And finally every section should break down, build on or support the overall focussing question of the document.

Thus to make sense of a document, it is useful to not only review the content, but to also review the structure of the document and the purpose of the different sections of the document.

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