Understanding the Needs of Your Reader

This blog is grounded in three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. The first stresses the connection between writing and thinking; the second emphasizes the importance of extensive revision; and the third underscores the value of 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 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.

These three principles lay the groundwork for the more practical discussions of writing offered elsewhere on this blog. Here I would like to comment briefly on the source that knits these three principles 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. 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.

For more on the role of reader in the writing process, you can consult these other posts:

  • In Audience and Anxiety, I acknowledge that while remembering the needs of the audience can help us with revision decisions, the spectre of being read can be a source of anxiety.
  • In Self-Expression or Adherence to Form, I discuss a particular tension for graduate students: how to balance their desire for self-expression through writing with the expectations or predilections of their audience.
  • In Understanding Incoherence, I talk about the legitimate conflict between the messiness of our developing ideas and the needs of the reader.
  • In One-Way Trip, I consider what the reader is entitled to as they make their way through our texts.
  • In Metadiscourse, I provide an overview of different types of metadiscourse. In Signposting and Metadiscourse, I look at what the reader will need in order to follow our writing. In The Evolution of Signposting, I address a common complaint about metadiscourse. And, in You Know It and I Know It, I own up to overusing one of my favourite bits  of metadiscourse.

9 responses to “Understanding the Needs of Your Reader

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