A recent post from the After Deadline blog about the use of ‘of course’ got me thinking. Mostly I started thinking about how much I rely on ‘of course’ and similar expressions such as ‘needless to say’ or ‘obviously’. These expressions are so handy since they allow us to reiterate or reinforce aspects of our text without appearing too obvious or unsophisticated. Here are some examples, found with very little effort from earlier posts:
According to this breakdown, signposting is, of course, a form of metadiscourse. The reason I like to pull signposting out and treat it separately is the tendency of novice academic writers to neglect it. (Signposting and Metadiscourse)
There are, of course, many different strategies for making the initial drafting process more fluid. (The Pace of Academic Writing)
The extent of the context given here will depend on what follows the introduction; if there will be a full lit review or a full context chapter to come, the detail provided here will, of course, be less extensive. If, on the other hand, the next step after the introduction will be a discussion of method, the work of contextualizing will have to be completed in its entirely here. (Structuring a Thesis Introduction)
I recognize, of course, that academic writing is not an engine that will run on love alone. (Writing and Enjoyment)
In all of these cases, you can see that the ‘of course’-statements are pretty obvious; the reader isn’t reliant upon those statements for new information. And if I presented the information as novel—without the metadiscoursal mediation—my readers might become suspicious. How could they trust me if I were to repeat myself or provide self-evident material as though it were new and noteworthy? But using ‘of course’ shows that I’m not trying to tell them something new; instead I’m trying to anticipate objections, add emphasis, acknowledge divergence, manage parallel structure, etc. Looked at that way, you can see that these statements may be obvious in and of themselves, but they still have a role to play in the broader argument.
As helpful as these statements may be, we still need to be sure we’re not overdoing it. Are you sure you can’t do without? When you are presenting your own observations as obvious—needless to say!—you need to be confident that you’re not wasting your reader’s time. During editing, all these statements ought to be looked at closely. Another consideration: might you sound condescending? Using ‘of course’ is only effective if your reader is familiar with your claim. Or at the very least doesn’t care about not being familiar. If the ‘of course’ sounds like an implicit judgement, you could alienate your reader:
Her early work is, of course, much stronger than her later work.
If your reader didn’t know that there was an early or late period, let alone that one was better, this statement might fail. To avoid inadvertently excluding our reader, we may wish to adopt a more neutral tone:
As many scholars have argued, her early work is much stronger than her later work.
Or, if you want to let your reader in on even more of the story:
As many scholars have argued, her early work—with its explicitly autobiographical tone—is much stronger than the more experimental work that she produced later in her career.
As with any bit of metadiscourse, we need to ask whether we are creating the optimal relationship between reader, text, and writer. Allowing that something is obvious can be extremely helpful, as long as doing so supports the overall dynamic that we are striving to create.
Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter
From @evalantsoght, ideas about how to generate conference presentations from research that’s not yet complete.
From Crooked Timber, a fascinating post about employing a former student to critique current teaching practices.
From the New York Times, Christy Wampole on the value of the essay form: “an imaginative rehearsal of what isn’t but could be”.
Are you a part-time graduate student or researcher? If so, this Twitter Chat on academic writing for part-time people may be of interest.
From Inside Higher Ed, an attempt to define the academic job market as something other than a lottery or a meritocracy.
From @fishhookopeneye, interesting reflections on negotiating conflicting graduate student identities.
Great advice at any stage of your academic career: Make a date with your academic writing.
From Crooked Timber, an unusually generous approach to questions of potential plagiarism.
From Inside Higher Ed, more on the Richwine dissertation. Fascinating story for anyone interested in the role of supervisors.
From The Singular Scientist, why imagining your audience naked is a terrible idea.