Improving Clarity in Scholarly Writing
The Key Sentence Method
Purpose: To help participants improve their writing by learning to organize each paragraph, section, and paper around a key sentence.
Prework: Select a draft of a scholarly paper with the intent of testing or improving its clarity and coherence.
Suggested Framework: A group of, at least, two individuals will first examine their own papers, identifying key sentences, and then subject their list of key sentences to constructive review by colleagues. (Process described below.)
Suggested Time Frame: The amount of time to effectively complete the process will depend on the number of individuals participating. Typically, two hours are needed to complete steps #1-#3, and one hour for step #4.
- The author identifies the "key sentence" of each paragraph in the paper.
Perception of paragraph's coherence is strongly linked to the reader's ability to select a single sentence that articulates its point. As such, in this step, the author reads each paragraph identifying the sentence that encapsulates what is to be the major claim, observation, proposition, idea, request, warning, direction or command. The "key" sentence is that which could be "sent to the reader if you only had a post card to write it on" (Williams et al., 1990, p. 108).
If the author cannot find the key sentence, the reader will not be able to find it either and may judge the paragraph as unclear or poorly organized. If the author finds two different key sentences, two paragraphs are probably in order.
- The author identifies a "key sentence" for each section of the paper, and for the paper as a whole.
Each section of a paper should have a short segment that introduces it, and depending on the length (more than a couple of pages), a paragraph that summarizes it. Typically, the key sentence of each section should be the last sentence of the brief introduction to the section. If the key sentence is at the end of the section, there needs to be good reason for this decision as readers not discerning the point early in a section have greater difficulty assembling the writer's argument (Booth et al., 1995, p. 205).
- The author makes a list of all "key sentences."
The list should include the key sentence for the paper, the key sentence for each section of the paper, and a key sentence for each paragraph. Taken collectively, it might look something like a point-based (rather than topic-based) outline.
- Authors and colleagues review the list of "key sentences."
The list of key sentences doesn't have to sound elegant because it was not written to be read this way. However, the list should be logical and coherent if the paper is well-organized. The author and colleagues review the list of key sentences with an eye towards assessing the following sorts of issues:
- Does the key sentence identified in the introduction have central thematic concepts that track through key sentences throughout the paper?
- Can the reader identify key sections in the paper by looking at the key sentences, without section subheadings?
- Does a skimming of the key sentences provide a general outline of the argument? If not, where do the problems surface? At the outset? In the sections?
- Do the key sentences throughout the paper contribute to the key sentence in the conclusion?
- When comparing the key sentences in the introduction and the conclusion, do they complement and support each other?
*Tips: Revisions might be made to individual sentences and/or the order of key sentences. Important conceptual terms should go towards the end of each key sentence (Williams et al., 1990, p. 108).
Booth, W.C., Colomb, G.G., & Williams, J.M. (1995). The craft of research. Chicago,
IL: University of Chicago Press.
Gray, T. and Birch, J. (2001). Publish, don't perish: A program to help scholars flourish.
In To Improve the Academy (Eds. D. Lieberman & C. Wehlburg). Boston, MA: Anker Publishing.
Williams, J. & Colomb, G. (1990). Style: Toward clarity and grace. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press