Tag Archives: Metadiscourse

Academic Writer as an Identity

Since this is the 100th post on Explorations of Style, I thought I would allow myself to return to one of my favourite topics: the notion that someone who engages in academic writing is, in fact, a writer. The most common search terms that lead people to this blog involve the words ‘identity’ and ‘writer’. As a result, the post in which I first looked at this question is one of the most popular on the site.

In the original post, I discussed how graduate students often embrace the category of ‘bad writer’ with an ontological fervour while still disavowing the simpler category of ‘writer’. But can you be a bad writer in any meaningful sense without being a writer? In other words, surely ‘writer’ is an inductive category: if writing is an essential aspect of your life, then you are a writer. Needless to say, this move from activity to category doesn’t work in all cases; doing something regularly doesn’t automatically turn that activity into a category. But while you may not want to adopt the personae associated with all your daily tasks—think how unwieldy that would make CVs and obituaries!—the transition from writing to writer is special. Being a writer may flow inductively from the act of writing, but it also doubles back and changes the act itself.

Writing can be changed by the explicit adoption of the writer persona in two ways. In the first place, being a writer suggests a particular practical orientation towards the way writing fits into your life. And, in the second, being a writer suggests a more conscious awareness of writing as an intellectually complex process of transforming inchoate thoughts into meaningful text.

At the practical level, identifying yourself as a writer makes the act of writing more intentional and thus more than just a necessary evil. As a writer, you will have a reason to seek out explicit writing support or devote time to improving your abilities as a writer. My students often say to me that they would love to work more on their writing, but that they are too busy with their work. To some extent, I take that invocation of an artificial dichotomy between writing and work as a sign of my own failures in the classroom. My job isn’t just to provide helpful insights into the writing process; it is also to convey the urgency of the writing task. But I try to focus more on the helpful insights since those who do buy into the urgency are poorly served by a continual harping on that theme. I continue to work on finding the best classroom balance between exhortation and instruction, but the fact remains that people who don’t accept writing as central to their identity often continue to devote insufficient time to the task and to feel a commensurate frustration at their lack of improvement.

At a deeper level, accepting the role of writer means accepting that you are constructing meaning through your arrangement of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. If the role of writer is slighted, nothing is left but text and reader. And readers are rarely going to be satisfied with those sorts of ‘writer-less’ texts. Those sorts of texts are notoriously light on the sort of signposting and metadiscourse that the reader needs to appreciate what is being presented. If you are in the habit of thinking of your text as self-explanatory or if you tend to frame writing as a purely responsive act of ‘writing up’, you may be neglecting the role that you ought to be playing as writer. As the writer, you must perform the essential act of framing what is being read according to the overarching demands of your project. I read so many selections of graduate student writing that are brimming with insight and fortified by an impressive amount of research but that lack an authorial voice to help the reader manage the text. Deepening the connection to the persona of writer is one way of reminding ourselves that our job as writer is to go beyond the provision of helpful content to the more complex task of structuring that content in a way that anticipates how the reader will experience the text.

While I do believe that there is a manifest benefit to identifying ourselves as writers, I’d like to close by considering a possible downside to accepting this identity. Could identifying as a writer actually make things worse by hindering some students from getting the writing support that they need? Unfortunately, I think that possibility exists. Some students have bound their sense of self-worth so tightly to the activity of writing that they may resist accessing writing support; these resistant students have often accepted the widespread notion that graduate students should ‘already know how to write’. Similarly, these students often have trouble resisting the urge to compare insides and outsides; they may end up with a wildly inaccurate sense of how their writing actually stacks up because they are constantly making invalid comparisons between their own initial drafts and other people’s final products. On the other hand, I see some students who are very receptive to what I have to say precisely because they don’t see their writing as expressive of their truest professional selves. I think the answer to this dilemma comes from how we think about what it means to identify ourselves as writers. Ideally, adopting this persona will actually help to undermine the sense that we ought to be good writers already. Saying ‘I am a writer’ isn’t like saying ‘I was born a writer, but am somehow failing to live up to this legacy’. Rather, adopting the persona of writer means making a commitment to learning how to be a strong and confident and competent writer, a writer who is able to meet key professional responsibilities with clear and assured prose. This goal is hard to reach and remains, for most of us, aspirational. But the goal cannot be met either by undervaluing the writing process and thus neglecting its development or by overvaluing it to the extent that the weakness becomes a crisis of confidence. Taking hold of ‘academic writer’ as an identity means devoting ourselves to writing and doing so because that devotion is the only sure-fire way to become the writers that we all want to be.

Structuring a Thesis Introduction

A few weeks ago, I had a post on writing introductions, in which I discussed the standard three moves of an introduction. This model works very naturally in a short space such as a research proposal or article but can be harder to realize on the bigger canvas of a thesis introduction. Many thesis writers struggle with the need to provide adequate contextualizing detail before being able to give a satisfying account of their problem. Truth be told, this inclination—the feeling that our problem is so complex that any explanation will require extensive background—can be a bit of a graduate student weakness. Understanding that your thesis can be explained in a compressed fashion is often a step forward, if for no other reason than it can give you the wherewithal to answer the inevitable questions about your thesis topic without the stammering and the false starts and the over-reliance on the word ‘complicated’. I suggest that thesis writers take every possible opportunity to articulate their topic under severe space or time constraints. One possibility: look to see if your campus is having a Three Minute Thesis competition.

When I approach a thesis introduction, I start from the assumption that the reader shouldn’t have to wait to hear your guiding problem until they have the full context to that problem. You have to find a way of giving them the big picture before the deep context. Let’s take an imaginary example. You are writing your thesis on the reappearance of thestrals in the 1980s in Mirkwood Forest in the remote country of Archenland after a devastating forest fire caused by mineral extraction in the 1950s.* How are you going to structure an introduction in such a way that your reader doesn’t have to read 10 pages of bewildering and seemingly unconnected background? When a thesis writer attempts to give the full context before elaborating the problem, two things will happen. First, the reader will labour to see the significance of all that they are being told. Second, the reader will, in all likelihood, struggle to find connections between the various aspects of the context. Once you have explained what we need to know about thestrals, you will need to discuss the topography of Mirkwood, the endangered species policy framework in Archenland, the mineral extraction practices commonly used in the 1950s, and the way forest fires affect animal populations. If you haven’t started with your problem—the thing that brings these disparate areas into a meaningful conversation with each other—your introduction will begin with a baffling array of potentially disconnected bits of information.

The simplest solution to this problem is to provide a quick trip through the whole  project in the first few paragraphs, before beginning to contextualize in earnest. I am picturing a thesis introduction that looks something like this:

  1. Introduction to the introduction: The first step will be a short version of the three moves, often in as little as three paragraphs, ending with some sort of transition to the next section where the full context will be provided.
  2. Context: Here the writer can give the full context in a way that flows from what has been said in the opening. 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.
  3. Restatement of the problem: With this more fulsome treatment of context in mind, the reader is ready to hear a restatement of the problem and significance; this statement will echo what was said in the opening, but will have much more resonance for the reader who now has a deeper understanding of the research context.
  4. Restatement of the response: Similarly, the response can be restated in more meaningful detail for the reader who now has a better understanding of the problem.
  5. Roadmap: Brief indication of how the thesis will proceed.

What do you think about this as a possible structure for a thesis introduction? While I realize that it may sound a little rigid, I think such an approach is warranted here. Using this type of structure can give thesis writers an opportunity to come to a much better understanding of what they are trying to say. In other words, in my experience, thesis writers tend to feel better after reconstructing their introductions along these lines. For some, it may prove a useful way to present their introduction in their final draft; for other, it may just be a useful scaffold, something that they can improve upon once everything is on a surer footing.

Using this structure can help the writer craft an introduction that responds to the needs of the reader, rather than the demands of the material. Typically, the thesis introductions that I see provide an introduction to the topic but not necessarily to the piece of writing. Writers—especially writers in the throes of trying to conceptualize a book length research project—often forget that the audience’s ability to engage with the topic is mediated by the text. Introducing your introduction is one way to meet your key responsibility to guide the reader through the text. The thesis reader’s journey is a long one—why not do what you can to ensure that your reader sets off with the maximal understanding of their destination?

* With apologies to J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis.

Introductions

In a one-on-one writing consultation, the most common thing—hands down—for me to discuss with a student is the effectiveness of an introduction. Masters or PhD, humanities or sciences, native or non-native speaker of English, it doesn’t matter. Most draft writing comes with introductions that are inadequate to the task. Which is why I am grateful to John Swales for his essential Creating a Research Space (CARS) model. His model consists of three moves: establishing a research territory; establishing a niche; and occupying the niche.

While I value Swales’s insightful and durable model, I have never particularly warmed to the language he uses. I find it a bit removed from the language that we naturally employ when talking about our research; for me, it seems useful to use more hospitable language, language that reflects the instinctive way we talk about our research. I very much like the way that Booth, Colomb, and Williams talk about the moves of the introduction; indeed, as I have said before, I generally like the way that they talk about all parts of the research process.  Their introduction model also has three stages: a common ground, a problem, and a response. Although I generally like their wording, I’ve moved away from using the phrase ‘common ground’. I find students sometimes interpret common ground as requiring an actual consensus rather than just an established context (which may, of course, be highly fractious). To avoid this misunderstanding, I find it easier to use the word ‘context’ to characterize the opening of an introduction.

Drawing on these two sources, here is the way I present introductions:

1. Context: What your audience will need to know in order to understand the problem you are going to confront. This background material will be familiar rather than novel to your target audience; it may act as a refresher or even a primer, but will not cover new ground. I usually suggest that students try to form a template sentence that they can then use as a prompt to help them sketch out each of the three moves. For instance, “Over the past two decades, research in this field has focused on … ”.

2. Problem (and Significance): What isn’t yet well understood. That is, the problem statement will explain what you want to understand (or reveal or explain or explore or reinterpret or contest) and why it will matter to have done so. For instance, “However, [topic] is still poorly understood (or under-examined or excluded or misinterpreted). This lack of attention is significant because knowing [about this topic] will provide a benefit OR not knowing [about this topic] will incur a cost”.

Given the importance of establishing significance and given the frequency with which this step is neglected, I have often wondered about framing it as a separate step. I haven’t done so, for two reasons. First, the three moves are so well established; it seems needlessly confusing to disrupt that familiarity by talking about four moves. Second, and more important, the problem and significance are genuinely connected; it doesn’t make sense to treat the problem and significance separately, even if doing so would encourage us to pay more attention to the significance. The significance is requisite for the problem, not separate from it.

3. Response: What you are actually going to do in your research. For instance, “In order to address this problem, I will …”.

The beauty of this basic model is, of course, that it makes a great deal of intuitive sense. When students hear it for the first time, they generally feel an immediate sense of familiarity. That intuition doesn’t, however, necessarily make it easy for them to deploy it in their own writing. I focus on four things about this model that may help writers deepen their understanding and thus be better able to use these moves proficiently.

The way it encourages us to take the perspective of the reader. These three moves tell readers what they need to know; having these needs met will then motivate them to continue reading. Our natural inclination is often to express our research as a by-product of our own thinking process. These three moves remind us to disrupt that inclination: instead of telling a story about the twists and turns of our research process, we need to tell the story about our research that the reader needs to hear. Take the example of context. As writers, we often struggle to define the correct amount of context to provide; if we approach this question from the perspective of the reader we are more likely to provide the right amount of context. The reader needs enough to appreciate the topic but doesn’t want us to take them through all the contextualizing information we have at our disposal.

The way it forces us to express the significance of the problem. The significance is generally the least apparent thing to the reader and yet is often the most neglected by the writer. The key here is to remember that the significance needs to be connected to one’s own discourse community. Some novice writers suffer from the sense that there isn’t much significance to their research because they are looking for significance in an unduly broad sense. Remembering that the current work needs to be valuable in the narrower context of the existing work in the field—responding to it, extending it, altering the way it may be done in the future—can help us to craft a clear and credible statement of significance.

The way its explicit breakdown shows us what may still be underdeveloped. By breaking down the introductory passages into distinct parts, this model helps us to see what is already there and what still needs to be addressed. It is very common, for instance, for writers to have a clearly articulated response but a confusing context and weakly expressed problem. For those writers, the response is what they have right, but they don’t yet know how to provide the necessary preceding information. Making the breakdown explicit can help us see what we still need to develop.

The way its scalability helps us to see how we must repeat and reinforce our key issues. Once these three moves are clear to you, you will see them—writ small or writ large—throughout your text. Take the literature review, for instance. Understood as a deeper iteration of the context, we are better able to understand what the work of reviewing the literature means. And we will grasp more easily that a literature review needs to be repeatedly connected to the problem that will be articulated in its wake.

These general observations can help writers to understand the three moves as central to our overall project of connecting our research to our intended audience. I’m out of space for today, but I will return to this topic soon. In particular, I will focus on this notion of scalability in a post devoted specifically to thesis introductions. Given the length of thesis introductions, the three moves have to be used in such a way that the reader doesn’t drown in an initial sea of detail.

References:

Booth, W. C., Colomb, G. C., & Williams, J. M. (2008). The craft of research (3rd ed.). Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

2012 in Review

Happy New Year! I’ll be back with a new post next week, but in the meantime here is a quick overview of 2012. The nice people at WordPress gave me a very pretty year-in-review page that is probably of interest to me alone: how many people looked at various posts; how they got there; and where they were from. But you—especially if you are new to reading this blog—may be interested in a quick recap of what we talked about last year.

Last year started with a bunch of posts on comma use: commas to punctuate for lengthpairs of commas to signal unambiguously that the sentence is being interrupted; and commas in relative clauses, a perennial topic of writing consternation. Apparently these three posts really took it out of me; I have yet to return to the topic of commas, despite the fact that I had promised two additional posts on commas! I’ll have to revisit this issue in 2013.

As always, I talked a lot about the editing process: letting go of ‘perfectly good writing’; deciding what to do when you have deviated from your own best laid plans; managing the perils of local cohesion; satisfying the reader’s desire for a one-way trip through your writing; and engaging in rough editing to bridge the gap between drafting and editing.

I took a break from writing about writing to reflect on my very own blog; in light of an article about the benefit of multi-authored blogs, I argued for the value of a single-authored blog.

During the summer, I did a podcast interview with GradHacker, in which we touched upon a lot of the issues central to this blog.

Over the course of the year, I looked at lots of general writing issues: the value of the injunction to put it in your own words; the pernicious impact a fear of error can have on the writing process; the way a reverse outline can help to structure a literature review; and the strengths and weaknesses of building a text through cut-and-paste.

Academic Writing Month provided the opportunity for lots of great reflections on the writing process; once it was over, I wrote about my own experience and the importance of reflecting on our own writing practices.

At the end of the year, I was interested in how graduate students ought to orient themselves towards dominant writing practices. Is graduate writing self-expression or adherence to form? And how should graduate students orient themselves towards established style conventions? I’m fascinated by this topic, so I’m sure I’ll return to it over the coming year.

Finally, here are a few links posts that I thought touched on important issues: caring about writing without succumbing to peevishness; the balance between disciplinary and professional training for graduate students; the value of writing early; and avoiding the temptation to compare insides with outsides.

Thank you all for reading—I feel very lucky to have such a great audience.

Next week I’ll talk about how to structure and introduce an introduction.

Best Laid Plans

I’ve talked a lot in this space about the importance of extensive revision. Today I’d like to go a bit deeper into one of the tensions that can emerge during that revision process. As I go through a piece of writing with a student, we often find significant discrepancies between the plan articulated at the outset and the subsequent text. Obviously, such discrepancies are common, especially if we are liberal in our use of explicit signposting in our early drafts. But this observation leads to an interesting question: when the plan and the actual text start to diverge, what should we do?

Let’s take a generic example. Imagine an introductory passage of this sort:

Our discussion of this issue will revolve around three key themes. We will begin by discussing X. This treatment of X will lead us into a consideration of the importance of Y. The obvious tension between X and Y will necessitate a discussion of a third theme, Z.

This piece of writing will now head into a discussion of X. Everything will run smoothly until X doesn’t in fact lead into a consideration of Y. Instead, it may lead into a discussion of W. This introduction of W then leads away from the notion of a tension between X and Y and necessitates a discussion of the way W and X affect of our central issue. Once editing begins, we’ll have to choose between our roadmap and our actual text.

Depending on the state of our editing abilities, we will either register this disjunction consciously or just feel a general discomfort with the text. If you tend to fall in the latter camp, try something like the reverse outline to help you figure out what might be triggering your discomfort.

Once you have sorted out that a discrepancy exists, the next step isn’t necessarily clear. Should the plan be changed to reflect the ideas that emerged through the writing or should the text itself be changed to reflect the original plan? Since each case will be different, I have no across-the-board answer to this question. However, I do think it is worth giving some thought to a general understanding of the way this tension manifests itself in our writing. For some writers, the writing itself is generally more significant than the plan. This emphasis on allowing ideas to emerge through writing is in line with my general emphasis on writing as a form of thinking. But there are some writers whose writing process simply takes them too far afield; given a free hand, these writers can end up so far from where they started that the text can no longer fulfil its intended function.

If you are such a writer, you  may wish to approach the reconciliation of plan and text somewhat differently. In fact, you may wish to take steps to avoid a dramatic discrepancy. One technique is to transform the original plan into a series of in-text directions to yourself. Once you have laid out that business about X, Y, and Z, write yourself a few brief sentences (or sub-heads) that will serve as a reminder to remain within certain parameters as you write. It isn’t that you shouldn’t stray, but if straying is your natural mode of writing, you may be struggling with scattered texts. If that is the case, it can be helpful to put  some tangible reminders of the original plan in place. In other words, take steps to make it harder for you to take unanticipated directions in your text.

The key here is coming to an understanding of your own writing practices: do your drafts naturally evolve beyond your early planning or do they need that early planning to keep them on track? Once you have a sense of that, you can decide how to position yourself in relation to the provisional plans that guide your early drafts.

Signposting and Metadiscourse

When I recently asked for ideas for future posts, many people suggested one on metadiscourse. This topic certainly needs addressing, but I have been dragging my feet about doing so. And the reason for this reluctance is simple: I find metadiscourse difficult to teach. The great thing about writing this blog is that I have now had to think about why I find it a hard topic to teach. What I have realized is that I struggle because I am using both a simple and a more complex understanding of metadiscourse. Let me begin by explaining these two ways of looking at metadiscourse.

First, the simple version: metadiscourse is often presented as the writing that we do about our writing, rather than about our topic. I find this definition to be simultaneously useful and limited. It is useful because it makes intuitive sense and because it highlights the crucial—and often neglected—task of explicitly guiding the reader through a piece of writing. It is limited because it overlooks all the other things that we do as writers to help our readers understand and accept our ideas. This brings us to the more complex understanding of metadiscourse: the linguistic strategies that we use to manage the evolving relationship between writer, reader, and text. In the words of Hyland and Tse (2004), metadiscourse is “the range of devices writers use to explicitly organize their texts, engage readers, and signal their attitudes to both their material and their audience”. I love this definition because it offers a valuable description of what we can accomplish through our writing choices; I think all writers benefit from thinking of writing in this multifaceted way. But as a teacher, I also value the conceptual clarity of dividing writing about writing, on the one hand, from writing about the topic, on the other. Essentially, an unsophisticated understanding of metadiscourse ends up being, for me, a valuable teaching strategy.

For the purposes of this post, I am going to follow my classroom practice and call this writing about writing, ‘signposting’, and I am going to call the more subtle devices that we use to structure the three-way relationship between text, reader, and writing, ‘metadiscourse’. According to this breakdown, signposting is, of course, a form of metadiscourse. (Other key forms of metadiscourse: making transitions between ideas; providing evidence for claims; offering elaborations of key points; managing different degrees of certainty; signalling authorial attitudes; seeking to engage the audience; and introducing an explicit authorial presence. These forms, taken from Hyland and Tse, overlap with one another and with what I am calling signposting. I will devote a later post to discussing all of this in more detail.) The reason I like to pull signposting out and treat it separately is the tendency of novice academic writers to neglect it. In the student writing I encounter, metadiscourse is generally already there—and just needs to be better understood so as to be used more effectively—while signposting generally needs to be increased.

It is very common for me to say something like this to a student in a one-on-one session: ‘You have introduced your topic, but you have not introduced your paper.’ In other words, the reader knows what the paper is about, but not how the paper itself will proceed. The interesting thing for me is that this is an area in which I find some students are actually quite reluctant to follow my advice, either out of their own inclination or because they believe that their advisor is against that sort of writing. My approach in these cases is to acknowledge the way that signposting can make writing appear laboured and then suggest that they try it, at least provisionally. If they really hate it, they can always take it out later. There is a real benefit to using signposts, even as a kind of scaffold: the very act of writing such phrases—for example, ‘In this paper, I will’ and ‘After a discussion of x, I will turn to y’ and ‘This paper will be divided into four sections’—gives clarity to the writer as well as to the reader. If you are one of those people who really dislikes the way that sort of writing sounds—I confess that I don’t see the problem, but my own writing tends to be somewhat pedestrian—you can remove it later or, even better, turn it into something that sounds more sophisticated. As your understanding of your own writing deepens, it is often quite easy to move from ‘In the first section, I will discuss X’ to ‘Given the centrality of X to any treatment of Y, this paper will begin by demonstrating the internal complexity of X within the context of Z’. Even this highly generic example suggests how we can use signposting (‘this paper will begin’) within sentences that also serve to deepen the reader’s understanding of the topic.

One final point for today: the central idea behind signposting is that the reader needs to know how your text will be structured. In those cases in which the reader doesn’t need to know, signposting will obviously be unnecessary. I can think of two such cases: one, a really short text in which the reader will know what’s what soon enough; and, two, a text with a completely predictable structure. Sometimes a student, in a laudable attempt at clarity, will end the introduction of an IMRAD-style paper with something like this: ‘The method section will discuss the method. Then the results will be discussed. Finally, concluding remarks will be given in the discussion section.’ Since the reader already understands the form that the author is using, they don’t need that information. You can usually tell that you don’t need to be providing structural hints of this sort when you find that you are writing redundant-sounding sentences like these.

This post has just been a general introduction to the idea of signposting and metadiscourse. In a future post, I will look in detail at the various forms of metadiscourse. I also hope to write a separate post on the related question of using  the first person in academic writing. In the meantime, please raise any questions or confusions below.

Source: Hyland, K., & Tse, P. (2004). Metadiscourse in academic writing: A reappraisal. Applied Linguistics, 25 (2), 156–177.

Structural Lists

This post will be the last one for a few weeks. Explorations of Style will return in the first week or two of August. If you have any ideas for topics that you would like to see addressed in future posts, please feel free to leave your questions in the comments below. Have a great summer!

If you can stand it, I am going to talk about using lists one more time. (Then I’m going to stop before I have to relaunch this blog as Explorations of Lists.) As I said in the first post on lists, they are an inevitable by-product of the complexity of academic material. Consider this example, which we have seen before, of a simple list:

Today’s educational leaders must  face increasing demands for public accountability, work long hours to improve student achievement, provide instructional leadership, demonstrate moral leadership, exercise fiscal prudence, support their staff, and navigate a litigious environment while facing low teacher morale.

After reading that passage, my expectation would be that these seven points will not be important in what follows. That is, the author wanted the audience to know a bunch of things about educational leaders but isn’t planning to devote any more time to those individual points. You can easily imagine that the next sentence would build on the overall point of the previous one without dealing in the specifics (for example, ‘Given the complexity of this role, educational leaders often …’).

Lists, however, aren’t just ways of describing detailed material. They can also be ways of structuring our writing. That is, lists can do more than just list stuff; lists can also establish crucial information that will be used to structure later parts of the text. The key to these ‘structural lists’ is that the reader is getting useful guidance on how to read the text. Contrast these four (deliberately simplified) lists:

Blood is composed of erythrocytes, leucocytes, and blood platelets.
 
Blood is composed of three types of cells: erythrocytes, leucocytes, and blood platelets.
 
Blood is composed of three types of cells: one, erythrocytes; two, leucocytes; and, three, blood platelets.
 
This section discusses the three types of blood cells: one, erythrocytes; two, leucocytes; and, three, blood platelets.
 
In the first sentence, we see simple information about blood composition. We can’t tell, from this sentence alone, whether this is a passing reference or whether we are likely to hear more about these three components of blood. The second sentence places more emphasis on the fact that there are three types of cells; even if we don’t hear much more about each individual type, we may see further discussion of the fact that a tripartite division exists. The third sentence–with its use of numbering–is telling the reader to pay particular attention to these three things. If they are not discussed in what follows or if they are discussed in a different order, the reader will be disappointed. Incidentally, this sentence structure would also easily accommodate additional information; for instance, it would be easy to provide a definition, explanation, or example of each type. The fourth example goes beyond an implicit indication of the importance of the division; its use of metadiscourse tells the reader explicitly that this division into three types of cells will be used to organize the rest of the section. Generally, sentences like the fourth one are written retrospectively, during the editing process; when we are creating a first draft, we frequently discuss a series of things without necessarily grasping the internal structure. Once we start to revise and thus begin to perceive (or develop) that internal structure, we can add in useful structural lists that tell the reader what to expect.
 
Let me end by addressing one question that often arises in this context. Once you have created a structural list, you must be careful about creating sub-lists. In other words, once you have said that three things are coming, you must be very clear about any subsequent use of numbering. If the individual items on your first list can themselves be broken down into a number of parts, your readers need to be able to understand at all times which list they are in the midst of. Consider this generic example:
 
This issue has three key elements: X, Y, and Z. We will begin with a discussion of X. Scholarly research into X usually takes three distinct forms. First, X is seen as …. Second, X is seen as …. Third, X is seen as …. The second element of this issue is Y.
 
In this example, the final sentence is designed to tell readers that they are back in the main list. If, instead, this last sentence had begun with a ‘second’, it would have followed awkwardly on from the ‘third’ that immediately preceded it. In my experience, however, it is common for writers to neglect to tell readers whether they are reading an element of the broader list or a subpart of one of those elements of the broader list. Since creating lists, as I keep saying, is an inevitable and valuable feature of academic writing, we all need to be sure that we are making the divisions and subdivisions in our writing crystal clear to our readers.