When talking with students, I often refer to certain aspects of their writing as U-turn signs: vague pronoun reference; unclear use of ordinals; failure to consistently use core terminology; withholding a verb till the very end of a sentence; listing without alerting the reader that you are doing so; relying heavily on devices such as ‘aforementioned’, ‘former/latter’, or ‘respectively’. All of these practices can send readers backwards, denying them their best chance at a one-way trip through your writing. I have talked about many of these specific issues in the blog, but today I want to talk about this issue more broadly. (If you are looking for concrete advice for creating better flow in your writing, try these posts: Transitions; Subjects and Verbs; Lists (Parts One, Two, and Three); Signposting and Metadiscourse; Best Laid Plans. You could also consult this great post from Carol Saller of the Lingua Franca blog in which she provides a helpful list of the many things we all do to distract our readers.)
Underlying this particular critique of student writing is the assumption that readers are entitled to a one-way trip through a piece of writing. And, honestly, as far as oversimplification go, I’m pretty comfortable with this one. It is generally desirable for writers to take responsibility for the fate of their readers. Most students are happy to leave it at that and to devote their attention to concrete strategies that may help to create a unidirectional flow in their writing. However, there are also some students who are genuinely suspicious of my assumption that the author is responsible for creating this one-way trip. Since our assumptions about academic writing have both disciplinary and cultural roots, I find it useful to spend a bit of time discussing these issues when they arise in the writing classroom.
I usually begin this conversation by emphasizing how some writing habits act as U-turn signs for no possible purpose. A weakly edited document is just a weakly edited document. Unclear pronoun reference is the easiest example; if readers have to back up and figure out what ‘this’ or ‘it’ refers to, you are wasting their time. Students will sometimes respond to my queries about pronoun reference by saying ‘I think it is sufficiently clear what I am referring to and I think my reader will understand’. My response is that we cannot rely on the reader to make those connections; it is our job to make those references explicit.
That sounds simple enough, right? It’s the author’s job to write clearly and coherently. But what then is the reader’s job? We all experience academic reading as challenging, and none of us imagine that the writer ought to have taken all of our burdens away. We usually imagine that the writer could have relieved some of those burdens, but we accept that some of the work lies with us. Given the work that we know is done by readers, it is hard to view writing as simply a solitary act of creating meaning. An academic text is, in at least some sense, co-created.
Novice academic writers need to be alerted to the existence of variable expectations about the responsibility for meaning. For a writer, believing that your job ends in a different place than your readers think it ends leads to a problematic mismatch. Thinking about the difference between an authoritative and collaborative model of meaning can help all of us figure out the appropriate construction of our texts. In particular, thinking about this difference can help new doctoral students to be aware of the disciplinary and cultural contexts in which they write.
Lastly, for a more philosophical take on this issue, I highly recommend an article that James Miller wrote in the now-defunct Lingua Franca magazine (not to be confused with the Lingua Franca blog mentioned above). This article, with the delightful title ‘Is Bad Writing Necessary?’, is one of my favourite bits of writing about academic writing. It was written twelve years ago (making me suddenly feel very old!), but the link has so far proved very durable. In the piece, Miller discusses Orwell, Adorno, and the politics of being clear in our writing in a way that is both lucid and thought-provoking. My own thinking about the responsibility to be clear in academic writing has been deeply influenced by the way Miller frames this debate.