Tag Archives: Reader awareness

The Evolution of Signposting

When teaching graduate students about metadiscourse, I often hear the same thing: “My supervisor doesn’t like metadiscourse.” If we think of metadiscourse in its more technical sense—as the various devices that help a writer structure a text to facilitate the reception of that text—it makes little sense to be against it. That would be like being against effective writing. But what this objection generally seems to mean is that the supervisor just doesn’t like it when too many of the seams are showing. Rather than being against metadiscourse in the broad sense, it’s possible that some supervisors are simply against signposting. Or at least against overly explicit signposting. Even if this explanation is correct, I still find this mistrust of signposting hard to understand: I think signposting offers a great deal of benefit to both the writer and the reader.

First, the writer. In my view, producing explicit signposting is unambiguously valuable for the writer. The act of describing—as bluntly as you wish—the order of what is going to happen in your writing is so useful. If you push yourself to write a road map for your text, you will gain insight into what you did (or didn’t do). Maybe you meant to do something and then didn’t end up doing it. Or maybe you did something and need to explain why. Of course there are limits. I certainly hit mine when the introduction to a standard IMRD paper ends with this sort of passage: “The next section will present the method. The results section will discuss the results. Then the discussion section will discuss those results. Finally the article will conclude with a conclusion.” This (real) example is obviously an outlier, but it may help to explain why some are so suspicious of the practice. What the suspicion overlooks, however, is how much we can learn, as writers, from the task of trying to articulate where we’ve been or where we are going in a text. When the signposting feels circular, as in that last example, it probably isn’t necessary. But much of the time, the structure isn’t that transparent and articulating it will be instructive for you as a writer. But will it be good for the reader?

Often the answer to that question, in my mind, is also yes. As readers, we appreciate being told what’s up. Academic writing is full of thickets; having access to the writer’s explanation of the structure can ease our way through. However, to return to our starting point, just because signposting is potentially helpful doesn’t mean that some readers won’t find it irredeemably artless. Given its utility, there must be a way to avoid throwing the baby out with bathwater. Can we find a way to let useful-to-write signposting evolve into instructive-to-read signposting?

Here’s a place to start:

In this chapter, I will begin by discussing the background to my topic. With that background in place, I will turn to an evaluation of the relevant literature on this topic. The next step will be a re-interpretation of my problem in light of this literature. I will conclude by considering the implication of my topic for the broader field.

This is the sort of passage that gives metadiscourse a bad name. Obviously, it’s weak because it lacks all specificity; if other writers could easily lift your signposting and drop it into their writing (with little-to-no alteration necessary), it’s not doing much for you. Here’s what happens when we make this passage a little less generic:

In this chapter, I will begin by discussing the background to [my topic]. With that background in place, I will turn to an evaluation of the relevant literature on [my topic]. The next step will be a re-interpretation of [my topic] in light of this literature. I will conclude by considering the implications of [my topic] for [my field].

A little better, right? It still feels way too much like an academic Mad Lib, but it would definitely be more informative than the first passage. The next step is to take this passage and transform it into one that reflects the demands of the project rather than just detailing the parts of the text.

The first step in discussing [something] must be a consideration of [some sort of background issue]. To get a better feel for [this issue], we will need to look at [a particular aspect of the literature]. The dynamic that we see between [these two strains of thought we’ve identified in the literature] will provide a new way to understand the [current topic]. It is only when we see [this topic] in this new way that we can grasp its implications for the broader project of understanding [some issue facing the field as a whole].

This third passage is potentially better because it tries to indicate the way that the topic needs to be discussed. By describing what is to come as inherently necessary for this topic rather than as just a series of textual steps, we can arm the reader with useful fore-knowledge without relying on road-map boilerplate. This approach to signposting stands the best chance of informing the reader without deadening the writing. However, this more sophisticated signposting won’t appear in our writing out of thin air. Most writers need to learn to describe their texts in this way; crafting more explicit bits of signposting can be an essential first step along that road. Most of us will be able to produce subtle and instructive signposting only once we grasp the internal structure of our text. Drafting a provisional signposting passage can be an invaluable way of gaining that initial understanding and thus enabling us to craft a more evolved explanation of our own texts. If we give writers the idea that signposting is inherently clunky and part of a broader problem of academic writing, we may lead them to miss out on its beneficial effects on their own thinking and writing.

While it isn’t directly relevant to our discussion here, I can’t resist ending with one of my favourite examples of understated signposting. At very end of the introduction to Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams tells us what is to come (emphasis mine):

“No one can teach clear writing by rule or principle, simple or not, to those who have nothing to say and no reason to say it, to those who cannot think or feel or see. But I also know that many who see well and think carefully and feel deeply still cannot write clearly. I also know that learning to write clearly can help us think and feel and see, and that in fact there are a few straightforward principles—not rules—that help. Here they are” (p. 14).

The Craft of Revision

All academic writers have some sort of revision process, but that process is often either insufficient (just nibbling around the edges) or scattershot (catching some things but missing others). To improve our revision practices, we generally have to both deepen them and make them more systematic.

My starting point here is the near impossibility of crafting reader-ready first drafts. If the material is conceptually complex, if you are still struggling to understand the implications of what you’ve learned, if the internal connections aren’t yet apparent to you, then the first draft is going to be clumsy. At that stage, the text will be something that you are still learning from rather than something that others can learn from. For most of us, making the transition from a text that helps you to a text that helps the reader takes multiple iterations. When I talk about needing to make a commitment to extensive revision, that choice of words might make it sound as if the main issue is one of will power. The truth is that developing good revision practices takes more than just commitment because revision itself is very challenging. Even with the best of intentions, we still run into problems:

I always run out of time.

In other words, “I’m not actually getting a first draft done early enough to make revision a rational part of my writing process; at the last minute, I’m trying to make it better, but I don’t actually have the time or space to tackle the hard stuff.”

I try to edit, but then I get distracted by content.

In other words, “Even if I have the time and space for editing, I quickly shift my focus away from the writing to issues of content.”

I see some problems but not others.

In other words, “Even with the best of intention, with sufficient time, with sufficient attention to matters of expression (rather than content), I still can’t see all the problems in my own text.”

As these comments demonstrate, the ability to revise our own writing doesn’t generally come naturally. In fact, the challenges of assessing our own writing are such that revision must be thought of as a craft that will need to be consciously cultivated. If we think of writing as an art, it makes sense to think of revision as a craft. No matter how you came to pull the first draft together, there are some recognized ways to get it into a more manageable form.

The first thing to say about the craft of revision is that it is different than proofreading. It’s crucial that we distinguish the process of revision from the final process of making sure there are no errors. Lumping proofreading in with revision may result from the fact that we often use the term ‘editing’ to refer to anything we might do to a draft. But separating revision and proofreading means that we are able to distinguish two activities that are inherently quite different: revision is the active reading and rearranging of our text and proofreading is the process of making corrections and checking for consistency (while not making the sort of revisions that so easily introduce new errors).

Even once we exclude proofreading activities, revision isn’t one monolithic thing; there are a broad range of activities that can be called revision.

  • Word choice: Have you used apt vocabulary?
  • Sentence structure: Are your sentences easy for the reader to follow?
  • Flow between sentences, paragraphs, sections: Have you found the optimal order and then signalled that order to your reader?
  • Tone: Have you engaged your reader while still conforming to academic writing conventions?
  • Economy: Have you avoided distracting digressions or general wordiness?
  • Overall coherence: Is there a clear and discernible argument or structure to your writing?

With all these potential questions, it is unsurprising that we often feel jumbled and ineffectual while trying to revise our own prose. One way to tackle these feelings is by creating an effective sequence for our revision process. Here is one such possibility, drawn from the always-helpful work of Joseph Williams.

Broad structural issues: The first thing to tackle are the big issues. This advice may sound obvious, but many writers do begin with the small stuff. The best way that I know to undertake a structural edit is to do a reverse outline. It is practical to do this sort of revision first, before we end up too attached to everything we’ve written and thus unwilling to make deep cuts. This stage should be somewhat ruthless, and ruthlessness comes easier early in the process. During this stage, we should also be on the lookout for those things that may have needed to be written but not necessarily read. Since writing so often functions as a way of clarifying thought, we need to be alert to the possibility that we’ve said more than is ultimately necessary for the reader.

Clarity: Revising for clarity means looking for extra words and for undue complexity. In our quest for clearer sentences, it can helpful to remember how consistently we are tempted to distance ourselves from our ideas with awkward expressions, weak verbs, and unclear subjects. More generally, we are often flummoxed by the conventions of academic writing, which at least appear to require a degree of complexity that works against clarity. There is always room for clarity, but these issues of tone can still give a lot of grief to novice academic writers who are grappling with complex topics while navigating the demands of a new discourse community.

Sentence-level errors: In this round of revision, we will be looking for errors that may not have been caught while we were thinking about clarity. We will ideally be guided here by an understanding of our own particular writing patterns as well as by an understanding of common issues such as subject-verb agreement, ambiguous reference, or punctuation.

Cohesion problems: By this point, we’ve made a lot of changes, so we have to make sure it all coheres. With all this revision, it’s inevitable that new inconsistencies and infelicities will have been introduced. A final round of revision is often required to make sure our newly arranged and polished text flows naturally.

These four stages reflect the revision order that I prefer, but the process could easily be altered to reflect your own preferences. The crucial notion is that revision should be sequenced—to allow different issues to come to the fore in turn—and that the sequence should run from broad to fine.

In conclusion, I want to stress the way that revision benefits both the writing itself and the writing process: as better revisers, we are better writers. Good revisers are better writers because they have the confidence to know that they can fix the problems that are inevitably created during the composition process. Since writing is usually accompanied by some discomfort about the manifest flaws of our first draft, it is so helpful to develop faith that we will be able to fix problems later. There are many valid approaches to academic writing, but they all must end with a solid approach to the craft of revision.

This post is adapted from a presentation on the ‘art of revising’ for a virtual boot camp run by the Text and Academic Authors Association. The presentation is available as a podcast on the TAA site.

Subjects (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about the importance of using the characters in your sentences as clear subjects.

SUBJECTS

Our topic this week is the importance of using clear subjects to express the characters in our sentences. ‘Characters’ is Williams’s useful term for the people/places/things/ideas that are doing something in our sentences. Since this discussion of subjects is closely connected to last week’s discussion of verbs, we can now take another look at the same sentences  (one taken from Williams and one adapted from student writing):

1. Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action effectiveness in fund allocation to those areas in greatest need of assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

Last week, we discussed the possibility that our dislike of this sentence stems from its use of nouns to express actions. Williams suggests that our dislike may also stem from a lack of clarity about who is doing those actions. So, who is doing something in this sentence? We did not know something and thus could not determine something else; the committee allocated something; areas needed something. However, in the original sentence, those characters were not acting as grammatical subjects. Here is Williams’s rewrite (emphasis added):

2. Because we knew nothing about local conditions, we could not determine how effectively the committee had allocated funds to areas that most needed assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

Here is the second example:

1. Although there has long been contestation as to the meaning of literacy, there is some agreement among scholars that this new definition is complementary rather than contradictory to the essence of the term.

Again, we look for characters and ask whether those characters are the grammatical subjects of the sentence. If we find no such overlap between characters and subjects, we can rewrite with characters in the role of subjects. The easiest way to start this process is by asking who or what the sentence is about; in this case, the opening clause is about the meaning of literacy and the main clause is about what scholars think about that definition. When we rewrite the sentence, we can make those terms into subjects:

2. Although the meaning of literacy has long been contested, scholars largely agree that this new definition complements rather than contradicts the essence of the term.

Choosing clear subjects can sometimes be more involved than choosing strong verbs. It is, however, so valuable to ask ourselves—especially in the context of paragraph development—who (or what) is doing something in our sentences. The benefit of thinking about sentences as having characters is that it can reframe writing, even academic writing, as story telling. This reframing is important because someone who is telling a story must be aware of their audience, must be aware of what that audience expects a particular passage to be about. Pushing yourself to define your characters and then to use them as the subjects of strong verbs will allow you to write sentences that are clear and that are much more likely to fit cohesively into a broader piece of writing.

Originally published March 9, 2011

Verbs (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about the importance of expressing the action in your sentences with strong verbs

VERBS

One of the challenges of writing this blog is going to be the somewhat arbitrary division of topics. My hope is that this initial weakness will ultimately become a strength. At this point, the blog consists of a collection of distinct topics, an arrangement that does not reflect the way writing topics interconnect. But in the long run, I hope that the non-linear form of the blog will actually offer something valuable. By establishing multiple links between posts, I hope to create a cohesive whole, one that allows readers to combine related topics according to their own needs. Stay tuned to see if that actually happens! For now, I am going to try to talk about verbs without stealing any thunder from next week’s discussion of subjects.

Joseph Williams suggests that we are troubled by writing in which the action is not expressed by verbs. I am going to explore this idea using two examples, one taken from Williams and one adapted from student writing:

1. Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action effectiveness in fund allocation to those areas in greatest need of assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

 According to Williams, most of us will dislike this sentence. While it is a hard sentence to like, Williams’s point is that this adverse reaction alone is not a particularly helpful editorial judgment. We need to know what it is about this sentence that does not work. His answer is that the action in the sentence is not expressed through strong verbs. What is the action in this sentence? Someone did not know something; something did not get determined; someone allocated something; some place needed something. In each case, however, those actions were expressed through nouns: knowledgedeterminationallocationneed. Here is Williams’s rewrite (emphasis added):

2. Because we knew nothing about local conditions, we could not determine how effectively the committee had allocated funds to areas that most needed assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

Here is the second example:

1. Although there has long been contestation as to the meaning of literacy, there is some agreement among scholars that this new definition is complementary rather than contradictory to the essence of the term.

Again, we look for the action in the sentence to see whether that action is being expressed through verbs. When we find nouns instead, we can try changing them to verbs: contestation becomes has been contested and agreement becomes agree.

2. Although the meaning of literacy has long been contested, scholars largely agree that this new definition complements rather than contradicts the essence of the term.

 (Note that I have also changed is complementary and is contradictory to complements and contradicts. This is a related topic that we will look at in a future post.)

We will return to these sentences next week when we discuss the need for clear subjects.

Originally published March 2, 2011

Transitions (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about making effective transitions. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Semicolons; Colons; Lists; Signposting and Metadiscourse; and Full Stop.

TRANSITIONS

This week’s topic is another key strategy: making effective transitions. A lack of comfort with making transitions is one of the causes of the short paragraphs I mentioned last week; when we do not know how to make smooth transitions, we are more likely to add in unnecessary paragraph breaks, imagining that starting a new paragraph will solve the problem. But creating short, choppy paragraphs only exacerbates the problem. Instead, we must focus on creating effective transitions between sentences, which we generally do in one of two ways: we use transition words or we use textual linkages. Both strategies have a role to play, but novice writers, unfortunately, often see transition words as their only way of moving from sentence to sentence. This over-reliance on transition words  is actually detrimental to our writing and blinds us to the possibility of using textual linkages to create more meaningful connections between sentences. Transition words are easy and thus allow us to avoid the hard work of grasping the actual connections in our texts. Indeed, texts full of transition words may actually feel choppy because unnecessary transition words can obscure the true nature of the relationship among sentences.

I promise to return to this rich topic in detail in future posts, but for now I will just give a few key principles:

1. Avoid unclear reference. The single most important way of linking your sentences is through clear reference. Contrast these two simple examples:

‘A is connected to B. This is …’

‘A is connected to B. This connection is …’.

Without the summary word (‘connection’), we cannot tell whether the ‘this’ in the first example refers to A, to B, or to the connection between them. We call the pattern shown in the second example ‘this + summary word’. There will be times, of course, when the reference is obvious, but generally the reader needs to have reference made explicit. So a simple principle: never leave a ‘this’ orphaned and alone.

2. Avoid unnecessary transition words. The transition words most likely to fall into this category are the additive ones: ‘in addition’, ‘also’, ‘moreover’, ‘furthermore’. (Both ‘moreover’ and ‘furthermore’ can be correctly used as intensifiers–where one sentence deepens the claim of the previous one–but they are so often used to indicate simple addition that I am including them here.) My first approach to a word like ‘also’ is to remove it; if you are using it to say ‘here comes another related point’, it is probably unnecessary. If you are instead trying to make a more complicated connection, removing ‘also’ and adding a more substantive indication of that link will be far more helpful to the reader.

3. Avoid the mere appearance of causality. When we overuse causal words, we often undermine the actual connection we could be making. When we say ‘A exists. Therefore, I am going to study A.’, we are missing a chance to give an actual rationale for our research. Look closely at your use of causal words (‘therefore’, ‘thus’, ‘hence’) and make sure that they accurately reflect the relationship you are trying to convey.

4. Use transition words to indicate a change of direction in your text. Whenever we are disagreeing with ourselves, it is essential that we indicate this to the reader. Consider these simple examples:

‘There is plentiful evidence for A. I think not-A.’

‘There is plentiful evidence for A. However, I think not-A.’

The first example sounds like you might be unintentionally contradicting yourself; emphasizing your intentions with a ‘but’ or ‘however’ lets the reader know what you are up to.

I will also make two quick points about other types of transitions.

Paragraph transitions generally need to be more robust than those between sentences. This can mean that ‘this + summary word’ becomes  ‘this + summary phrase’, where the phrase is a fuller indication of what was discussed in the previous paragraph. It also means that transition words are often out of place in paragraph transitions precisely because they create such a tight relationship. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but as a general rule words or phrases like ‘however’, ‘in other words’, or ‘furthermore’ may puzzle the reader when they appear at the start of the paragraph; at the very least, they may send the reader back to the previous paragraph and that is not the direction in which you want to be pointing your reader.

Transitions between sections are a different issue again. Transitions between sections can be made in several ways: at the end of one section, at the beginning of another, or at an earlier point at which an overall structure is created. (For instance, in a literature review, a writer may say that she is going to consider the literature on a certain topic from three different perspectives. The reader will then be fine with three independent sections without any explicit transitions between them.) One simple piece of advice for section transitions: do not rely on the section headings to accomplish the transition for you. As a rule of thumb, I suggest reading through section (and sub-section) headings as though they were not there. Not that they should actually be removed, but rather that the author should make sure that transitions are accomplished in the text, not through headings.

Originally published February 23, 2011

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about understanding the needs of your reader. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Scaffolding Phrases; Problem Sentences; Audience and Anxiety; and One-Way Trip.

Understanding the Needs of Your Reader

The third principle that informs my approach to academic writing is understanding the needs of your reader. This principle relies on the simple but surprisingly elusive idea that the reader’s needs are different from our own. What we need to say—especially as we struggle with the early stages of writing—and what our readers will need to hear can be strikingly different. Extensive revision is the solution for this dilemma, but, as we discussed last week, early drafts often confound us. Revisiting those texts with the needs of the reader in mind can be extremely helpful. The reader always has expectations, some that are conscious and others that are unconscious. Conscious expectations come from genre or disciplinary conventions (these are the expectations readers have before they ever read your text) and also from promises made by the writer (these are expectation readers have after reading the early passages of your text). Unconscious expectations are more complex and involve anticipation about the placement of information, particularly within paragraphs and sentences. Strategies for meeting these expectations will be a large part of our focus in this blog.

These three principles will act as the grounding for the more practical discussions of writing that are still to come in this blog. For now I would like to comment briefly on the source that knits these three ideas together: Joseph Williams. Nobody, in my view, has done more to explain the normative dimensions of sound writing or to advance a practical approach to improving our own writing than Joseph Williams. His ideas will be present throughout this blog. So I will conclude with a quote from Williams that expresses all three principles as one idea: “We write the first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader” (Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, p. x). In other words, we must write to figure out what we think; we must commit to writing a succession of drafts; and we must alter those drafts according to the anticipated demands of the reader.

Originally published January 26, 2011

 

Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking (from the archives)

Over the summer, I’m drawing from the early months of this blog and reposting the key principles and strategies. These foundational posts ground much of what was to follow; revisiting them will give new readers insight into the basic orientation of the blog and will give regular readers a reminder of where we started. In this post, I talk about using writing to clarify your own thinking. This topic gets further elaborated in these later posts: Letting GoThe Discomforts of UncertaintyIs It All Writing?; and Writing as Thinking.

Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking

Over the next three weeks, I am going to discuss the three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. Today’s post will stress the connection between writing and thinking. Next week, we will discuss the essentially iterative nature of academic writing. And, in the following week, we will consider the role that audience awareness plays in the choices we make in our academic writing.

The first principle is using writing to clarify your own thinking. This principle holds that it is often difficult to establish what we think before we have put it down in words. In many cases, we simply do not know what we want to say until we have tried to say it. But if we cannot decide what we want to say without writing and if we cannot write without a solid idea about what we want to say, we are in an obvious bind. For most of us, the best way out of this dilemma is to write. To take a generic example, we may have spent a good deal of time thinking about two connected issues without ever having specified the exact nature of their relationship. When we write about this relationship, however, the demands of syntax will naturally encourage us to characterize the relationship more precisely. The text we create may be provisional, but it will still help to refine our thinking. Even if we are puzzled or surprised or disappointed by what we have written, we are still ahead of where we were before writing.

As a practical matter, this principle translates into a simple call to write more. Rather than postponing writing until you know what you want to say, use writing to figure out what you want to say. While this is generally sound advice, this call for more exploratory writing must come with a warning. Writing more freely means that we will need strategies for working with those provisional texts we create. Writing earlier and in a more exploratory mode often leaves us with texts that are less coherent than we might like. More freedom in the writing process demands more responsiveness in the revision process; the importance of committing to extensive revision will be our next topic.

Originally published January 12, 2011