making your writing authoritative – a citation revision strategy

Readers expect academic writers to know what they are talking about. We meet that expectation by grounding our writing in good scholarship – and making it sound authoritative.

Authoritative. You can see the words author and authority contained within authoritative – and this is no accident as the threesome have the same origins. An authority is a knowledgeable person or source whose word is trustworthy, reliable, dependable, valid, sound, well-founded. An author is the one who writes confidently about what they know.

You may also see in this family of words the verb to authorise, to recognise expertise in some way. And of course the adjective authoritarian, and this points to the ways in which authors can overstep the mark – they dictate to readers rather than gently lead. I don’t want to digress into wordplay here, but it is helpful to see that an authoritative writer leads and guides the reader. They are also an authority, and they have authority which readers recognise.

One of the most prominent ways that authority is signalled in an academic text is via citation. The ways in which we deal with other people’s words and works demonstrates the degree to which we assert our command of the literatures and show that our reading and interpretations are sound and believable.

There are two dominant ways in which citations appear in academic writing.

  • One way to begin writing a paper is to use a ‘tiny text’ ( Kamler and Thomson 2014) 
  • Kamler and Thomson (2014) advocate the use of a ‘tiny text’ as a way to begin writing a paper. 

The first of these citation approaches – One way to begin writing a paper is to use a ‘tiny text’ (Kamler and Thomson 2014) – is very much managed by the author. The author is telling you what is important about K and T’s work. The author’s interpretation is paramount. In offering their synthesis of their reading of Kamler and Thomson, the author has not only signalled their agreement with K and T, but also incorporated the message into their own line of argument. We might think of this as citation(1)=writer steers.

The second of these citation approaches – Kamler and Thomson (2014) advocate the use of a ‘tiny text’ as a way to begin writing a paper– reports what K and T have said. It is not clear to the reader whether the writer agrees with K and T. The writer is standing back, they are informing but not guiding the reader to think anything in particular about K and T. We might think of this as citation(2)=writer reports.

The first of these citation approaches, steering, communicates an authoritative approach to the literatures. The second reporting does not. The difference is important. When supervisors say in their feedback, “Where are you in the text?” they usually mean that one of the problems you need to address is citation – you need to get more of citation(1)=writer steers.

Here is an example which shows what happens when you shift from citation(2)=writer reports to citation(1)=writer steers.

Example: Citation(2)=writer reports is dominant

While the idea of a public good has its roots in classical philosophy, its definition and operationalisation has largely become the stuff of economics. Neubauer (2008) argues that Smith and Hume are generally signposted as significant figures in the discursive shift from public good to public goods. According to McIntyre, public good was, post Enlightenment, no longer taken by governing bodies as an abstract moral concept but as concrete ‘stuff’ which could be empirically investigated, measured and quantified. Hacking notes that from the 1850s onwards, nation-state governments were increasingly preoccupied with not only determining what public goods should be provided, but also with specialist statistical calculations about ‘the public’ and its economic, physical, social and cultural conditions. 

Example: Citation(1) =writer steers is dominant

While the idea of a public good has its roots in classical philosophy, its definition and operationalisation has largely become the stuff of economics. Smith and Hume are generally signposted as significant figures in the discursive shift from public good to public goods (Neubauer, 2008). Post Enlightenment, public good was no longer taken by governing bodies as an abstract moral concept but as concrete ‘stuff’ which could be empirically investigated, measured and quantified (McIntyre 1984). From the 1850s onwards, nation-state governments were increasingly preoccupied with not only determining what public goods should be provided, but also with specialist statistical calculations about ‘the public’ and its economic, physical, social and cultural conditions (Hacking (1999). 

I hope you can see that the citation(1)=writer steers paragraph reads more easily as the writers of cited works don’t get in the way. It reads more authoritatively than the citation(2)=writer reports. Now multiply that paragraph by a lot, by several pages, and you start to see that a text which is dominated by the subservient citation(2)=writer reports will read less persuasively than a text which has a more balanced citation mix.

Of course I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to use the second style of citation, reporting. It’s A-OK. The trick to citation and authority is all about balance. If an academic text does nothing but reporting, that’s the second approach to citation, you get the laundry list. He said he said she said… The laundry list reader doesn’t know what to make of the serial summaries. However, if there is a balanced approach to citations, then the reader sees that the author is not simply parroting, listing selected summaries. The reader understands where the author is coming from and where they are going.

Typically, in a dedicated literatures chapter which uses the inverted pyramid structure – it starts with a broader examination of themes in the literature and works through to literatures that are most germane to the research being presented – the balance of citation approaches changes. When the writer is writing more generally about the field and major themes, then citation(1)=writer steers dominates. However, when the writer gets to the texts that are most important for their own work that follows, there is a much greater use of citation(2)=writer reports. The authors of the literatures most significant to the author’s own work do get to feature in the text. But even here, where they are named and their work reported, there is still likely to be an overall strong interpretative steer as writers explain what it is about particular scholar and their work that is important to their own endeavours.

One simple revision strategy then is to look at citation approaches and to see how choices between steering and reporting might affect the authority of the writing.

  • What is the ratio of citation (1)=writer steers to citation 2)=writer reports?
  • Is the balance of citation approaches appropriate to the work of the text – is this a more general interpretation or are the citations highly sigificant and specific to the work at hand?
  • Are all of those citation(2)=writer reports necessary?
  • How many of them can be changed to citation (1)=writer steers without losing meaning?
  • Does changing from citation (2)=writer reports to citation (1)=writer steers make the text read more easily (flow) and read authoritatively?

It is also important to check whether there are knock on changes – do you need to add more introductory and concluding sentences to paragraphs? This sometimes happens when you shift citation approaches, and you will see in the example given earlier that the paragraph doesn’t start with a he or she said.

Citations are not all that matters in authoring, but they can make quite a difference to how your reader sees your writing.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in authority in writing, citation, citations, laundry list, revision, revision strategy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to making your writing authoritative – a citation revision strategy

  1. Becky Graham says:

    As ever a timely nugget of usefulness! Your posts are so accessible and non threatening. Its a gift.
    Thanks
    Becky

    Liked by 2 people

  2. MH Thaung says:

    Thank you for giving words to the issue of a manuscript discussion stating baldly “X said this and Y said that and…” for several paragraphs. It leaves me wondering what point the author is trying to make, other than that they read all these papers.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. theresapengelly says:

    There are lots of helpful pointers in this posting which are timely for an article I am writing. Thank you very much.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. anereson says:

    The single most helpful thing I have read about citations and voice. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Stella Duffy says:

    Pat! this is SO good – and extremely timely as I finish the first draft of a new essay. I’ve been trying to understand narrative voice in academic work as compared to literary writing, and this explains such a lot. thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pauline says:

    I have so many problems with this so this guidance is so helpful. I am applying its wisdom directly to a chapter which I am revising now.

    Like

  7. Judy says:

    Thank you for helping me to see the difference and understand why the 2nd approach looks better and how to balance both. Very insightful post. I’ll try to incoporate more of the 2nd approch in my paper.

    Like

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