In keeping with our composition-related topics this week, we’re going to talk about the known-knew contract. Simply put, this states that you give readers a little bit of what they already know as clarification, reiteration, or summary in order to lead in new material. It’s a way to keep the text cohesive by relating it back to what you’ve already stated. This principle is generally taught in relation to academic writing, but I’ve always thought it applies to every type of text (except poetry).
In its originally intended use, the essay, you’d put this to work by grabbing bits of your introduction statements, or details from previous body paragraphs, to clarify and link the new points you make as you move forward.
Ex. Known-New at paragraph level (bold type = known, underlined = new)
Thesis: Solar panels are the future of energy efficiency.
Paragraph 1—a fact is stated: Solar panels are efficient because they reduce x, y, and z.
Paragraph 3—remind readers of the fact to lead in a new idea: Since solar panels reduce x, y, and z, advocates of green living are pushing for tax incentives for those who purchase panels for their homes.
In business writing, this is especially important. Consider a project proposal or summary with lots of technical jargon. Those documents are meant to make a very specific type of (often persuasive) statement. It’s the known-new contract that helps a writer make sure the reader walks away remembering the most relevant points.
Ex. Known-New at sentence level and paragraph level (bold type = known, underlined = new)
Proposal Topic: New Ad Campaign
Paragraph 1—proposal for ad campaign: We propose a new ad campaign for television. A television campaign will increase our company’s exposure to potential customers by 60%.
Paragraph 2—supporting facts: Increasing our exposure by 60% will cost us $x in resources with a potential $x profit.
In fiction, you must remember your audience. If the story is geared towards younger readers, the action of linking previous plot details to the new ones is more important than stories for older readers. The reading skill of tying events together to get that “Oh, I see what just happened,” moment develops with age. Plainly stated, the little ones need the writer to connect the dots for them more often than teens, and teens more often than adults. Don’t insult your audience’s intelligence by including too many breadcrumbs back to the “known.”
Ex. Known-New at chapter/plot level (bold type = known, underlined = new)
Chapter 4—“Melissa, did I tell you about that guy I met at the mall yesterday?”
Chapter 6—“Chris, the guy from the mall, never called.”
There’s a fine balance to strike in order to make a cohesive story that isn’t redundant or dumbed down. It takes practice. Ask yourself, “If I don’t restate this point in some way, will my audience forget about it/no longer understand the text as a whole/fail to put together a key dramatic moment meant to coalesce in this moment?
Editor, Proofreader, Red Ink Enthusiast