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I am trying to write a long expository piece and cannot figure out which information should come first. Here are three candidates:

  • A summary/abstract lists the main points, without necessarily explaining what they mean.
    • Pros: gets the main information out rapidly if you already understand context.
    • Cons: Unintelligible if reader doesn't already know background information.
  • Background information explains the key prerequisite terms and facts, which are necessay for understanding a conclusion or summary.
    • Pros: if the reader reads this first, then s/he will definitely be able to understand the summary and conclusions when they arrive.
    • Cons: it will take a long time to read through the background in order to get to the conclusions.
  • Justification states a challenging situation, explains why someone should care about reading the document or looking for a solution.
    • Pros: reader understands why it's worth reading the document, frames subsequent content
    • Cons: makes the reader have to read through the justification (which s/he may already know) in order to get down the solution/conclusions summary.

Which do you think should come first, or in what order? Is there any other information that would be more valuable to introduce the document?

Any thoughts greatly appreciated. Thank you!

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It depends on where the piece will be published and the background of your target audience. Tell us more. –  user1870 Apr 28 '11 at 23:23
    
how and why the project idea was conceived –  user2224 Jun 23 '11 at 16:27

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Your three scenarios were great; apply the same thoughtful analysis to determining the requirements of your audience, then I think you'll answer your own question.

Here are some example audience requirements, illustrated from the reader's point of view:

  • Which of these grant applications should I recommend to the committee for approval?
  • Which of these feature article proposals is likely to entice readers to buy the magazine?
  • If I follow the steps on this help page, will I complete the task successfully, get the boss off my back, and get back to what I'd rather be doing?
  • Is this the right pharmaceutical to prescribe to my patients?

If in doubt, be the proposed audience for your work, see what else is out there, and evaluate how well it meets your needs.

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If it is a lengthy piece, than keep in mind that presenting the structure of the document in some sort of table of contents and then writing sections in such a way that they can be read out of order can minimize your problem.

Otherwise, here are my two cents on writing expository piece:

  • summary has to go at the beginning (if you are going to include it at all; don't reveal too much though),

  • background and justification are both part of introduction (establish the interest and trust),

  • main part is where you present and elaborate your main points (discoveries that you bring to the reader),

  • conclusion recapitulates main points and draws main conclusions

Of course, the nature and intrinsic structure of the content can justify almost any deviation from the proposed frame.

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Thanks for the important insight, I hadn't thought to explicitly consider the audience. Here is my speculation:

  • Business readers (my actual audience in this case) care about justification ("why should I care?") first, then summary ("get to the point!"), then background.
  • Academic readers traditionally put a summary/abstract first, and then background/justification. Usually the justification is that there was a hole or flaw in existing knowledge, so the background is the justification, and vice versa.
  • I can't think of an example off the top of my head that really wants pure background information first, unless it's a sort of combined entertainment-education where the piece is interesting because it's leading the reader down an intellectual journey without revealing the destination ahead of time. Intellectual mysteries/adventures or whatnot.

That's what I've got so far. Thanks for your help!

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A lot of times I've put pure background first in software manuals, as knowing what problem the product's intended to solve, and how it addresses it, can be very useful to some readers. Those readers to whom it's not important know how to get to the next chapter. –  kindall Jun 23 '11 at 17:09

All of the above, and none of the above. You need to capture the reader's attention, summarize why this had to be written, and give them a reason to keep reading.

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