Emphasis by position

In any unit of writing (sentence, paragraph, section, whole piece), different positions have differing degrees of emphasis, or memorability. Readers remember what you put in emphatic positions. We call this scheme “2-no-1” because whatever comes last has most power, whatever comes first has next most power, and anything in the middle has no power by emphasis.


Consider these examples:

“My wife Joan finds me adorable,” Don said.
“My wife Joan,” Don said, “finds me adorable.”

By moving the attribution (“Don said”) from the final (most emphatic) position to the middle (non-emphatic) position, we emphasize the word “adorable.” (Maybe Joan wrote that second sentence and put Don in his place, in the unremembered middle.)

We can also de-emphasize something, even hide it, by burying it in the middle of a paragraph:

The candidate wanted voters to see him as a populist friend of the working man. But he voted 17 times against measures to raise the minimum wage. His stump speech always concluded, “Vote for me, vote for yourself, vote for Joe Sixpack.”

Or we can emphasize his voting record by putting it at the end:

The candidate wanted voters to see him as a populist friend of the working man. His stump speech always concluded: “Vote for me, vote for yourself, vote for Joe Sixpack.” But on measures to raise the minimum wage, 17 times he voted no.

In this second version, we used the emphatic end of the paragraph to highlight the candidate’s actual voting record, and we changed the end of the final sentence to close with “no.” Double emphasis, double hit.

Traditionally journalists put the attribution at the end of the lead, like this: “The Bush administration tried to legitimize torture by defining it out of existence, according to a report released by the Justice Department Thursday.” Newspapers try to sound objective and neutral, and sentences like that help them. The key phrase “legitimize torture” disappears in the middle, and the most emphatic position, the end, contains the least important piece of information, the attribution.

The 2-no-1 template also applies to sections. Readers can remember what a whole section said better if they have a sense of framing: a memorable beginning of the first paragraph, and a memorable ending of the last one. (Yes, there’s a contradiction here.) Like this:

Jacques Pepin’s newest Cooking Techniques video teaches expert knifework and then applies it to prepping vegetables. [Several paragraphs]
Add this video to your collection. Your vegetables will thank you, and you’ll still have all ten fingers.

Stories have a beginning, middle, and end; memorable stories have a strong beginning and a strong ending, often echoing each other. Whatever you lead with, and whatever you end with will stick in the readers’ heads. So you choose what you want them to remember and place it in memorable positions

Suppose you’re writing a piece with lots of people’s opinions in it. You give all of them fair amounts of space, but you’d really like to endorse one of them without saying so. Let that person speak last, and readers will remember most what she said.

Here’s a problem. If you want readers to remember what you end with, you have to write the whole piece so compellingly that they read all the way to the end. I’ll talk about how to achieve that in a later blog, on “gold coins.”

[“Gold coins” sits at the end of a sentence, the end of a paragraph, the end of a section, and the end of this post. How emphatic can you get?]

Published in: on June 16, 2009 at 9:54 am  Comments (16)  
Tags: , , , ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://donfry.wordpress.com/2009/06/16/emphasis-by-position/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

16 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. wow!!! thanx,…I’ve learned a lot!

  2. Thanks for the feedback. This diagram also applies to anything sequential, not just words.

  3. i learned a lot from you hehehhhehehhhee

  4. it so nice and clear huhuuhuhuh

  5. thankx.. this helps.. a lot!

  6. Okay… 🙂

  7. ..nice 🙂 thanks for the big help ..!!

  8. oh well…i was quite learned…

  9. its so nice. it helps me a lot in my project

  10. Thanks, Charlyn. It does explain a lot, doesn’t it? Don

  11. It helped me a lot for my report thanks!

  12. Thanks, Paul. Paying attention to emphasis can remarkably increase clarity. Notice how that sentence uses 2-no-1. Don

  13. thanks:)it helped a lot!

  14. Thanks, Sharrie. See, it worked. You put “thanks” and “a lot” in the emphatic positions. Don

  15. Don, wanted you to know this is advice I’ve never forgotten. Always enjoyed your visits (via Paul Gillin) back in the day. Hope you’re well.

  16. Thanks, Eric.
    I learned more in your outfit than anybody I worked with. Thanks for that. Invite me back sometime.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: