Use parallel structure in lists to increase reading efficiency

Source: sensingarchitecture.com/tag/gestalt-principles/

Source: sensingarchitecture.com/tag/gestalt-principles/

Those offering advice to professionals who write have long suggested that similar ideas should appear in similar (or parallel) form. In fact, the advice appears in one of the earliest business writing textbooks, first published in the U.S. in 1916. But I’m committed to offering you guidance for writing successfully at work based on quality evidence about the effects of writing choices on workplace readers. Not on tradition. Not (only) on my personal experience. Not even on my own pet peeves. I’m a descriptive — not prescriptive — linguist.

That preamble signals that I had to tweak my recommendations for using parallel structure based on some recent research I learned about last fall. Parallel structure definitely appears to make reading more efficient. And, when combined with the use of a stacked list, it also enhances recall of information. But there appear to be limits to its effectiveness: do not use parallelism alone within a paragraph format to improve accurate identification and recall of information.

Parallelism is explained in Chapter 12 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). But the newest research won’t appear there until we publish the next edition. If you’re using that book in a formal setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, all designed to help you recognize and fix parallelism problems in workplace documents. Here are some additional resources:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Provide me with feedback in the comments below if I can provide more helpful resources.

Sample Document

Read this page from the Report on Economic Recovery from Disasters prepared by Entergy, America’s Wetland Foundation, and American’s Energy Coast (entergy.com). and adapted by me for instructional purposes.

  • Writer: Entergy employees with input from individuals at America’s Energy Coast, America’s Wetlands Foundation. and Swiss Re
  • Readers: a diverse group of stakeholders along the energy Gulf Coast in the US
  • Bottom Line Message: quantitative measures of economic risks associated with climate hazards

Here’s a revised version of that document excerpt with parallel structure.

Video Tutorial

The report excerpt is included in this ~11-minute video about parallelism in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are a few posts here at Pros Write that deal with parallelism in workplace documents. My first book used principles from Gestalt psychology like similarity to explain effective document design. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you could start with the following sources.

Amare, N. & Manning, A. (October, 2013). Grammatical and visual parallelism in business communication pedagogy. Association for Business Communication Convention, New Orleans, LA.

Amare, N. & Manning, A. (2013). A Unified Theory of Information Design: Visuals, Text & Ethics. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Campbell, K.S. (1995). Coherence, Continuity & Cohesion: Theoretical Foundations for Document Design. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pickering, M. J., & Ferreira, V. S. (2008). Structural priming: A critical review. Psychological bulletin134(3), pp. 427.

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