Saturday, February 26, 2011

Let us parse

Have you ever noticed how your brain reads? I was watching mine as I read the sci-news the other day and I came to some interesting conclusions. Let's use a story on physorg to illustrate the point. Here are three sentences, and I'll comment after each:
"A powerful solar eruption that triggered a huge geomagnetic storm has disturbed radio communications and could disrupt electrical power grids, radio and satellite communication in the next days, NASA said."
As you read that, note how your brain chooses sensible little groups of words to absorb: "powerful solar eruption" is the first; "triggered" is the second; "huge geomagnetic storm" is the next, etc. We see clumps of words that describe concepts, and then we string the concepts together to understand the sentence. Let's take another:
"A strong wave of charged plasma particles emanating from the Jupiter-sized sun spot, the most powerful seen in four years, has already disrupted radio communication in southern China."
Okay, let's look at this sentence in the same manner. It also gives a stream of word pictures, the only difference here being the insertion of the almost parenthetical "the most powerful seen in four years". With one simple interruption, we can still manage to grasp the meaning of the sentence with relative ease. (I would have broken it into two sentences to make it simpler, but that's me.) Now let's look at a final sentence from the same article:
"X-class flares are the most powerful of all solar events that can trigger radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms," disturbing telecommunications and electric grids, NASA said Wednesday."
Okay, now that one was harder to understand. That's because it's somewhat recursive and you have to jump through various perspectives. First, "of all solar events that can trigger radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms" is not simple to track; it's recursive, referring back to "all solar events". And then come two changing perspectives separated by commas. First the result: "disturbing telecommunications and electric grids" and then "NASA said Wednesday." This sentence doesn't help the reader's mind to flow from concept to concept. It's passable but not a winner.

I found it refreshing to observe how my brain reads. It gave me another way to look at my sentences. For the next few days, I'm going to look for these small word groups in my own writing and see if they're strung together in a way that moves the reader through the sentence, easily and simply. It almost sounds too basic to be a useful observation but somehow going through this exercise made me see things a bit differently. I feel like I've understood something new.

Basic and wonkish at the same time, I know. But this is the kind of understanding that can help me as a writer. Sometimes the thing you really need is a way to look at your work with a fresh eye. (Especially after the 10th edit. Oy.)