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Thoughts on Writing

PUT THE CAUSE BEFORE THE EFFECT


It all started when she hit me back.
— Anonymous five-year-old child


Business writers often obfuscate their ideas unnecessarily by reversing the natural flow of cause and effect. The notion that cause precedes effect is one of the most powerful patterns of our mental conditioning. When presented with a statement that puts the effect before the cause, the reader’s first impulse is to put the information back into cause-effect order.  This requires mental effort, which many readers are unwilling to exert.  Rather than turn your sentence around in their head, they quietly figure, “Why bother?” and proceed without comprehending your sentence.

State the cause of the situation you are describing before you state the effect. Stating causes clearly requires writers to acknowledge their own actions or errors and to place responsibility squarely on others when necessary. Maybe this is why so many people are loath to put causes first.

If you develop the habit of putting effects before causes, you might unwittingly omit the cause when you are in a hurry or are trying to streamline your work. However, your readers need to understand causes, because comprehending the causes of problems helps them find more intelligent solutions. When you remove the cause, you leave your reader with a fact — an effect — without any explanation of what led to that effect. If you want your reports and analyses to be useful to your readers, emphasize causes.

Some sentence constructions lend themselves naturally to burying causes. Try to avoid them.

PROBLEM: Putting the effect before the cause.

SOLUTION: Rework the sentence so that the cause precedes the effect.

B is due to A.

A led to B.

B is caused by A.

A caused B.

B was the result of A.

A caused B, or A led to B.

B can be attributed to A.

A led to B.




Notice that in all of the Solution examples, the cause, A, is the grammatical subject of the sentence and the verb is in the active voice.  Switching to the more powerful active voice is just one positive side-effect of putting causes first.  Put the  origin before its effect and your readers will follow you anywhere.

 

copyright 2010 Elizabeth Danziger All rights reserved.

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    These courses are not taught by a general skills trainer who happens to teach writing. Elizabeth Danziger has been published by major publishing houses such as Random House and Harcourt Brace. Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is an expert writer and editor who brings her knowledge as a resource to participants.
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    With plenty of exercises and opportunities for interaction, the Worktalk trainings move quickly. Subjects that were terrifying in grammar school become fun and interesting in these outstanding programs.
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