Academic writing is generally intended to be persuasive. The writer – let’s say that’s us – wants to put a proposition to the reader, and convince them that what we have presented is credible. Our writing is worth taking seriously because it has something serious, or interesting, or important to say.
Most academic writers don’t want to humour the reader, or to act as a minor distraction in a busy day. We aren’t writing to entertain – we want readers to entertain our ideas and our argument. If there’s a bit of humour, a memorable phrase, a noteworthy term that’s only because these complement the point we want the reader to remember.
So, as one of the very many strategies for revision that you might choose, here are some reader-ish questions you can ask of your text. Put yourself in the reader’s position and see if you can get a grip on how they might respond to your writing. Imagine yourself as your target reader. Now think about how they are going to react when reading your text.
It’s helpful to have a few pre-prepared strategic questions at hand to help get you in the right readerly frame of mind. Here’s a few to start you off:
Definitions – do you provide enough explanation and justification for the key terms that you are using?
Assumptions – do you spell out the things you have taken from others in order to build your own case? Will the reader take your word for something you have assumed as a “fact”? Are any of your assumptions things that you might need to explain or argue, that is, why this version of x and not y? Are there any unsubstantiated assertions that need some qualification?
Presumptions – check your citations – what/whose literatures and scholarship have you chosen to foreground as the place for your contribution? What presumptions underpin these choices?
Credibility – have you explained how you arrived at the “stuff” (aka data) you are working with? Are the steps in your argument (moves proceeding one after another through a linear text) reasonable/logical, given the genre of writing you are working in? Will the reader recognise what you’ve written as a well-grounded and clearly presented argument?
Interpretations – does the reader have enough to go on to understand the way you have interpreted your “stuff”? Are there any big leaps of logic – say from detailed description to a big idea – where you might need to put in a few more steps along the way? Will your interpretation hold up to the sceptical reader – have you anticipated their objections and dealt with them? Does the reader need more help to figure out what your version of events might mean, help them to understand how things connect with one another, see what they all add up to?
Significance – will the reader understand why they should take on board what you are saying? Have you told them explicitly why your point is important, is it connected to what they are already likely to know and understand?
Quality – how well can the reader engage with your text? Have you structured the writing so that the reader can follow? Is the text written in a style that they are likely to find acceptable? A text can be challenging, but not so much that the reader gives up – are there any points where the writing is very complex or dense and might need to be allowed to breathe a little more? ( e.g. check for sentence length and variation, number of complex terms in one sentence, “clever” terms that are clear to you that may not be to a reader.) Be self-critical and evaluative – do you think this text is actually well -written – if only maybe, how could it be improved?
Implications – have you provided some clues about what happens now that the reader knows your point? How might the reader use what you have written? Have you provided a steer towards potential changes in, for instance, practice, policy, teaching, research, thinking, field practice? And in light of your answer, do you need to suggest anything that the reader themselves might do?
You will undoubtedly want to add to this list. If you are working with loads of numbers for example, then you will need to pursue further questions around assumptions, accuracy of workings and/or interpretations. You might have to provide access to a data set, which raises its own set of questions. If you’re producing a comic then the questions about definitions and assumptions are important and sometimes tricky, as they go to the balance of image and words. And so on.
Are you happy to give this strategy a try? If so, take these questions as a selection of places to begin the process of reading like your reader. Then adapt them for your own purposes and writings.
Photo by JAIME CUADRA on Unsplash
Really useful as always Pat and just what I needed to refocus!
Enormously helpful. Thank you.
another excellent and timely post–I’m going to share this with the doctoral students in my course on writing a literature review as they prepare to submit their final papers this week!