Category Archives: Audience

Posts that discuss the importance of audience awareness

Metadiscourse

The longer that I teach academic writing to graduate students, the more time I find myself spending on metadiscourse. Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that metadiscourse has a bad name—in the sense of a dubious reputation—and an actual bad name. The dubious reputation is presumably connected to both a general suspicion of academic writing and the many instances of laboured prose we have encountered in our careers as academic readers. I’m sure this suspicion is only exacerbated by the fact that the term metadiscourse is a bit of a mouthful. However, this scepticism is deeply unfortunate since thinking about metadiscourse is a natural way to think about our responsibilities as a writer. And, needless to say, thinking more about our writerly responsibilities is crucial for most novice academic writers, making metadiscourse an indispensable topic.

So what is metadiscourse? Simply put, metadiscourse refers to those places in which a writer explicitly acknowledges that they are constructing a text. More specifically, metadiscourse can be defined as “the range of devices writers use to explicitly organize their texts, engage readers, and signal their attitudes to both their material and their audience” (Hyland and Tse, 2004). When we use metadiscourse, we are structuring a three-way relationship between the text, the reader, and the writer. Given our general anxiety about constructing a text that will satisfy the reader, we often neglect our responsibility to be present as the writer of the text. One of my most frequent comments on graduate student writing goes something like this: ‘You are telling me a great deal about your topic but not enough about the text that you are constructing’. This imbalance matters because, as a reader, I need guidance on how to read the text in order to engage fully with the topic.

In my experience, defining metadiscourse is necessary but far from sufficient. That is, a definition of metadiscourse—regardless of whether it is simple or more technical—does little to move graduate students past the sense that metadiscourse is a foreign or artificial textual intervention. To move past this discomfort, I find it helpful to provide a breakdown of different types of metadiscourse and then give examples of each. (For a more detailed version of this breakdown, see Ken Hyland and Polly Tse. “Metadiscourse in Academic Writing: A Reappraisal.” Applied Linguistics 25, no. 2 (June 1, 2004): 156–77.)

In general, we use metadiscourse to signal the following things to our readers:

How our text is organized:

I will start by presenting some of the literature that assesses governmental responses to AIDS in Uganda, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.

Because they share many key concepts, these approaches to the experience of tuberculosis will be organized thematically.

How our ideas relate to one another:

To conclude, the historiography of consumer demand in the eighteenth century has undergone many changes since the inception of consumer studies.

The promotional materials produced by a university often promise that administrators will provide resources to assist students with the transition to university life; as a result, many students arrive on campus with the expectation of support.

How we are using evidence to support what we are saying:

Yet, as the American historian John L. Brook has demonstrated, Habermas’s account of the public sphere seems unable to reconcile the complexities of power.

Swain posits that language learning may occur though the production of language, either spoken or written.

How we are further explaining an idea:

Global norms are norms that are accepted worldwide; for example, it is currently a global norm that all students progress through the degree granting process by completing a series of homework assignments, exams, and research papers.

An assertion of ‘personhood’ expressed as a relation to property is crucial in every self-styled extension of the Enlightenment project. That is, when we equate personhood with property ownership, we implicitly accept a liberal notion of identity.

How much strength we attribute to a particular claim:

Hypothesized reductions in co-rumination during PMT/CBT may also be due, in part, to improvements in the mother’s depressed status.

To my knowledge, this problematic has never been critically examined.

How we feel about a particular aspect of our text: 

This remarkable achievement shows that policy goals are achieved more readily when those policy goals are clearly established.

Understanding the nature of the developments leading up to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt is particularly problematic because of the lack of literacy in that time period.

How we want readers to orient themselves to a particular aspect of our text:

It is widely recognized that natural resources come to count as such through specific decisions, institutional practices, and socio-political processes.

This claim raises an obvious question about the clinical similarity of patients with aggressive dementia and patients with general stress disorders.

How the text reflects our authorial role:

My use of the term ‘revival’ here stems from an understanding of cultural revitalization as a flexible and organic process, wherein members of a community fuse individual innovation and musical sensibilities with contemporary interpretations of older cultural practices.

Thus, I will try to link insights from theoretical understandings of science and technology studies with resources geography, which may potentially advance both these literatures.

Examples are taken from student writing and used with permission.

What we see in these examples is how naturally most of them read. Rather than seeming stilted or artificial, these sentences appear to be doing important work. In fact, if we were to return to the broader passages from which I extracted these sentences, we could see that those passages work better with these sentences than they would without them.

The reason that I think it is helpful to consider this breakdown is that a typology allows us to see that we may have very different patterns of use for different types of metadiscourse. To deepen our ability to use metadiscourse well, it is essential to understand these patterns. One of the biggest obstacles to using metadiscourse effectively is a tendency to see it as synonymous with signposting and to imagine that all signposting has to be clunky and awkward. To help students see how they might be able to use metadiscourse better, I like to divide usage patterns into four basic types:

  1. We may use some kinds of metadiscourse pretty routinely; for example, most academic writers use evidence frequently, if not always effectively.
  2. We may avoid some kinds of metadiscourse instinctively because we believe that they may violate the norms of academic writing; for example, some academic writers avoid the first person or affective language that could signal their attitudes or how they wish readers to see the text.
  3. We may use some kinds of metadiscourse hesitantly or inexpertly due to inexperience with academic writing; for example, some academic writers may struggle to provide clear transitions or explanations and may have difficulty identifying the appropriate strength for their claims.
  4. Finally, we may under-use some kinds of metadiscourse because they require an understanding of our own texts that we lack; for example, many academic writers fail to explain the structure of their own text adequately because they don’t yet understand its internal dynamics properly.

These different orientations show us the fundamental inaccuracy of any attempt to see metadiscourse as good or bad. As writers, we can use these four categories to develop questions that will challenge our own writing practice:

  • If we are using some sorts of metadiscourse routinely, are we doing it well?
  • If we are avoiding some sorts of metadiscourse, can we deepen our understanding of the norms of academic writing to be sure this judgement is based on a sound understanding of disciplinary practice?
  • If we are using some sorts of metadiscourse hesitantly or inexpertly, could we improve our understanding of the value of such devices for the reader and thus overcome our reservations?
  • Lastly, if we are under-using some sorts of metadiscourse because we lack a sufficiently deep understanding of our own text, can we learn how to develop that understanding in order to meet the reader’s need for guidance through our text?

Taken together, these questions can help us to see how we might adjust and thus improve our use of these many varieties of metadiscourse. I recommend that any academic writer devote some revision time to the identification of the metadiscourse employed in their own texts. My strategy for doing this would be to keep in mind the breadth of work that metadiscourse accomplishes without focusing too much on the sort of classification found in this post. For most writers, it is sufficient to think about all the things we do to guide and engage our readers and look for those. Highlighting those places where we are present in our texts can be hugely instructive for all writers. In particular, if a supervisor is asking about voice or questioning overall coherence, I would use this highlighting strategy to see where you may still be absent in your own text. Even if you are more comfortable with the use of metadiscourse, I would still suggest this highlighting strategy as part of late-stage revision. It is only by coming to an understanding of our role in our own text that we can ensure that our readers will have the guidance that they need to get the most out of our writing.

 

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).

You Know It and I Know It

A recent post from the After Deadline blog about the use of ‘of course’ got me thinking. Mostly I started thinking about how I 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 @MacDictionary, a great plea for descriptivism.

From Crooked Timber, a fascinating post about employing a former student to critique current teaching practices.

From @chrishumphrey, a list of websites that carry post-PhD interviews and profiles.

From @ThomsonPat, advice on what to do in the event of conflicting reviewer comments.

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 @ProfHacker, how grad students must say ‘no’ in order to evolve from student to scholar.

From @LSEImpactBlog, a reblog of my post on articulating the contribution of your academic writing.

From Inside Higher Ed, an attempt to define the academic job market as something other than a lottery or a meritocracy.

From @UVenus, a thoughtful post on deciding not to go to graduate school.

Great comment from @Comprof1 about how lack of ownership may also hinder our ability to articulate our contribution.

From @Gradhacker, the possibility of ‘meta-dissertating’: Can you plan/prepare/organize too much?

From @fishhookopeneye, interesting reflections on negotiating conflicting graduate student identities.

From @ThomsonPat, the perils of ‘early onset satisfaction’, especially given the pressure to publish.

From @scholarlykitchn, a new podcast on projects, issues, and trends in scientific and scholarly publishing.

From @chronicle, a touching letter to Jacques Barzun from his grandson.

Great advice at any stage of your academic career: Make a date with your academic writing.

From @ThomasBasboell, a provocative claim: ‘The paragraph is really the smallest unit of scholarly composition’.

From @GradHacker, a great list of questions to help grad students decide whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a request.

From @ThomsonPat, helpful questions about co-writing with a supervisor.

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 @academiPad, extremely helpful advice on using QR codes in academia.

From @kar_took, an interesting discussion of the difference between an author and a writer.

From The Singular Scientist, why imagining your audience naked is a terrible idea.

From @ThomsonPat, helpful thoughts on academic self-promotion and how it may vary by nationality, gender, age, &c.

Understanding Incoherence

Peter Elbow had a post this week on the OUP blog on why academic communication can so easily become incoherent and why that fact isn’t as bad as it sounds. What I love about this post is its wonderful lack of cynicism about academic writing. Elbow, here as elsewhere in his writing, is looking to expand the way we think about writing, not lay blame. So many harsh things get said about academic writing: it’s dense, jargon-laden, oblivious to audience, and so forth. Those generalizations are true at times, but most of that writing isn’t produced by malefactors deliberately trying to obfuscate with specialized vocabulary and serpentine notions. The first thing I want my students to understand is that they write hard-to-understand prose because they are trying to convey highly sophisticated material. The second is that a failure to craft an audience-friendly text out of that sophisticated material is not an indication of an unwillingness to do so.

Whether you are discussing densely layered theories or explaining complex physical processes, chances are you are labouring to meet the often-opposed goals of clarity and accuracy. I think we all know the somewhat magical feeling when those two goals demand the same thing of us in a single sentence. So often we can see a ‘better’ version of a sentence that would be great except that it would also be wrong. Adding in the detail and nuance to make it right then undermines the clarity that we had hoped to achieve. The way forward isn’t always apparent, but it won’t be found by disparaging either pole or by despairing of the entire project of academic writing.

In fact, Elbow does give us a way forward. He asserts that a great deal of our academic writing difficulty comes from our habit of interrupting ourselves to provide extra evidence, forestall possible objections, or even attack potential detractors. And while the effects of this habit can be deleterious for the reader, Elbow is clear on the value of the underlying state of mind that keeps us alert to digression and dissent. Interestingly, he believes speech—despite the real tendency of academic speech to become incoherent—can help us bridge the gap between our often tentative, ambivalent, overqualified prose and the strong coherent version that our reader is looking for. In his words,

If I want strong written words that readers will hear and take seriously, I need coherent, well-shaped prose. For this goal, it turns out that the unruly tongue comes to the rescue. My tongue may breed incoherence when I let it run free, but if I take every written sentence and read it aloud with loving care and keep fiddling with it till it feels right in the mouth and sounds right in the ear, that sentence will be clear and strong.

Overall, Elbow is offering us an encouraging account of why it is legitimately hard to accomplish the essential goal of clarity in our academic writing. In doing so, he is also offering us inspiration to keeping on trying.

Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter

From @ProfessorIsIn, resources on mental illness in academia. I’ve been haunted by this related article from The New Yorker.

From @StanCarey, writing in the @EmphasisWriting blog, on making 140 characters go further. Try the fun Twitter challenge!

From @evalantsoght, great advice on #acwri for multilingual graduate students.

From @Margin_Notes, data on PhD completion rates and times to completion in Canada.

From @jpschimel, interesting thoughts on what acknowledgement slides do to the end of a presentation.

From @thesiswhisperer, thoughts on why being obnoxious might actually be helping some people get ahead in academia

From the After Deadline blog at the New York Times, great reminders about the errors spell-check won’t catch.

From Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint blog, a helpful distinction between ‘content visuals’ and ‘design visuals’.

From ‏@DrJeremySegrott, a #Storify of the February 7th #Acwri Twitter chat on motivation.

From @UA_magazine, an amusing account of the bureaucratic absurdity of a large institute of higher learning.

From Mark Bauerlein in @Chronicle, thoughts on the implications of teaching writing through personal reflection.

From @ThomsonPat, using a detective metaphor for academic inquiry.

From @grammarphobia, ‘Most of What You Think You Know About Grammar is Wrong‘.

From @utpjournals, ten rules of writing adapted for #acwri.

From @GradHacker, concrete and helpful tips on surviving your dissertation.

From @GradHacker, a discussion of the ‘digital skills, technology, and tools‘ that ought to be developed in graduate school.

From @ryancordell, reflections on conference tweeting, politeness, and community building.

From the After Deadline blog in the New York Times, helpful advice about using ‘like’.

From the Draft blog in the New York Times, the upside of distraction and the dangers of a monomaniacal approach to writing.

From @ThomsonPat, a list of common flaws in methods sections.

Self-Expression or Adherence to Form?

Earlier in the fall, The Atlantic ran a series of articles about teaching writing in American schools. One of the major themes in the conversation was the tension between writing as a form of self-expression and writing as a matter of adherence to established convention. That theme as it pertains to the way we should teach kids to write in the first place, while fascinating, is obviously outside the scope of this blog. But I am intrigued by the way that this dichotomy can influence our understanding of academic writing. Does strong academic writing come from an authentic sense of self-expression or does it come from an adherence to the existing genre conventions in the field? This formulation may appear impossibly stark, but it does reflect a tension experienced by many graduate students.

Graduate students often feel that they must choose between expressiveness and convention, even though they are ideally doing both. They are looking to give expression to something profoundly important to them, and they are doing so within the confines of an existing form. Coming to a sophisticated understanding of that existing form is what ultimately makes the dichotomy false; our self-expression as academic writers comes from our ability to express ourselves through the productive limits of the established form. The perception that the form is a rigid imposition rather than a meaningful framework is often what causes graduate writers to feel that they are being asked to check their creativity at the door. A lack of  familiarity with academic writing can make a potentially productive set of limits feel like an arbitrary set of constraints. Increased familiarity with those limits enables writers to find the space they need to give full expression to their insights.

Despite these assurances, some graduate students express concern that I am offering a vision of academic writing that is worryingly conservative. My argument, however, is that adherence to form is something other than just conservatism. The established form supports and promotes conversation, thus allowing openness and engagement. Some would argue that this view of conversation is inherently inhospitable to radical views that will inevitably go unspoken or unheard. I am not, of course, trying to dismiss the idea that there is power entrenched in the academy in ways that can determine who gets to say what. But at the level of writing, I believe that established forms are more capacious than some give them credit for. Conversation always carries the potential for something radical. Starting where others are in order to move to a new space is different from just starting in that new space. Novice academic writers have many key decisions to make about how they will orient themselves towards the status quo in their fields of study, but joining the existing conversation won’t diminish—and may well enhance—the power and innovation of their ideas.

One-Way Trip

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.

Audience and Anxiety

While writing a recent post on signposting and metadiscourse, I experienced a bout of writers’ anxiety that nearly derailed the whole post. Writing this blog is, of course, a source of some anxiety; it is hard to avoid feeling self-conscious about writing while simultaneously telling others how to do it. In many ways it is easier to talk about writing in the classroom because nobody can evaluate your own writing at the exact same time that you are holding forth on good writing. Although there was this one time that someone accessed my dissertation online during a class on thesis writing. And then announced to everyone that he had done so! I carried on teaching, but I was seriously unnerved and totally convinced that I could see a ‘gotcha’ look in his eye the whole time.

So, there is a root anxiety present every time I hit the ‘Publish’ button. In fact, I think it is a bit unfortunate that WordPress gave the button such an intimidating name. What’s wrong with the friendly ‘Share’ button used by Facebook or the silly-but-not-intimidating ‘Tweet’ button? Every time I have to hit ‘Publish’, I mutter ‘publish-ish’ to myself as a comforting reminder of the limitations of this endeavour. But since this is, after all, a blog about writing, I thought I should use this space to reflect a little on working through writing anxieties.

I have talked frequently in this blog about the importance of audience, but I haven’t talked about the anxiety of audience. My emphasis on audience awareness as a way of strengthening writing may obscure the way that acknowledging an audience can complicate the writing process. Thinking about audience means imagining that someone will actually read our writing—not always a welcome thought. The anxiety caused by writing is the anxiety that putting something down in black and white will allow our  audience to find out the various ways in which we are inadequate. We fear that the reader will dislike the current piece of writing and thus, by extension, see us in a less favourable light. The reticence that this anxiety creates can be pernicious for two reasons. At a simple level, writing less undermines our ability to write well. Anything that inhibits our writing will put us in a potentially vicious cycle since more writing is a necessary, if not sufficient, strategy for improving our writing. At a deeper level, shielding our ideas from criticism only guarantees that we won’t improve those ideas; allowing our ideas to take shape on the page and then allowing others to see them is the only way we can establish if they are worthwhile.

Sometimes the best way to get through writing anxiety is to trust our eventual readers to let us know where we’ve gone wrong. We tend to imagine a dissatisfied reader as someone who scoffs and vows never to bother with us again; more often than not, if we are serious about what we are saying, dissatisfied readers will actually come back to us with ways to rethink, rework, and improve. Not every reader we encounter will be this ideal charitable reader, but it is still legitimate to use that reader as the target audience. The value of the imaginary charitable reader is that such a reader could come back to us with grounded concerns about problems in the text and not just disdain. You may disagree with what I said about metadiscourse, but I have to trust that you’ll explain those disagreements rather than just dismissing me out of hand.

In short, we may be able to lessen our anxiety by re-imagining our relationship with our reader as less adversarial and more constructive. The constructive reader may have lots of criticisms, but those criticisms will be grounded in the text and, as such, will not call into question our overall worthiness. Imagining this ideal reader is one way that we can help ourselves think about audience without succumbing to the attendant anxiety.