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IV. Write for Readers

Mar 01, 2016 by Amy Benson Brown

Style is not about adding graceful flourishes or witty asides. Style is about how you reach your readers. Highly effective stylists always make consideration of audience and genre-specific expectations part of the writing process. If you can anticipate what your readers will need as they move through your argument in real time, you can build responses to those needs right into the text. And that is a big part of what makes a text (and its author) compelling.

Focus on Your Audience

Stay in the present. Write for the readers of your current work, not the ghosts of past readers. Some former readers may loom large when you think of your audience. You may think of your dissertation advisor or other committee members, for instance. Be careful not to let the pet peeves of one or a few readers limit your sense of expression.

Consider the audience for the journal. Before you submit an article, check out who is on the editorial board. What are their interests and possible biases? Read through recent articles in that journal. What do you notice about their tone or method of organization? Can you see your article as part of an ongoing conversation on this topic in those journals pages?

Test drive your ideas. Another great way to get a sense of who your readers will be and how they may react to your argument is to try out parts of your argument at conferences and colloquia. Note the kinds of questions you receive and decide if your article might be stronger if you addressed these questions in your text.

Consider the Cognitive Labor of Reading

Put yourself in the reader’s shoes. Have you ever felt overwhelmed by dense academic prose? It’s helpful to understand the cognitive demands that your style of writing places on those reading it. Readers store particulars from a text in their working memory, where they can quickly retrieve things to make sense of the larger picture of what they are reading. However, the capacity of working memory is limited. That’s why dense academic prose can overwhelm readers. The goal is to place your ideas in the text where your readers expect them and where they can absorb them. In other words, try to offer your ideas at roughly the same pace at which readers absorb ideas. You don’t want to make your readers work too hard to make sense of your ideas. Most of the burden of sense making should be the writer’s job, not the reader’s.

Vary your sentences. Experiment with alternating medium and long sentences, even sprinkling in a few very short ones. Imagine that paragraphs are like a stanza of music. Then, consider the rhythm of your own paragraphs. If each sentence is the same length and uses the same sentence construction, the rhythm will be plodding. Alternating long sentences (with qualifying clauses) with short sentences (with simple syntax) tends to pick up the pace. So, review your sentences. Are there unnecessary phrases that you can cut? Can you find ways to express long sentences more succinctly or break them into shorter sentences?

Provide breaks for the reader. Remember that white space is part of the text. The white space at the end of paragraphs, along with the small blank space at the end of each sentence, opens up a bit of space for the reader to stop taking in information, just for a second. These breaks allow readers to pause and digest information. So, consider the balance of type and white space on your pages. Are you using enough paragraph breaks to allow readers to pause and process what you’ve said?

Use headings as guideposts. Similar to paragraph breaks, subheadings help to break down the manuscript into topic-based chunks. Subsections allow a brief pause for reflection and signal the movement of the arguments through its constitutive paragraphs.

Improve Readability

Read aloud. Reading your work aloud is a good way to hear the rhythm of your own prose. Is it dense and laborious? Or rushed? Does it flow with a natural-feeling pace? Be sure to notice the places where you stumble as you read aloud. Your reader probably also will stumble in those spots.

Swap drafts with a friend or colleague. Ask your reader to circle sentences where he or she felt confused or had to read two or three times to grasp the meaning. Your friend doesn’t need to diagnose or explain what threw her. The mere location of the problematic passage is helpful. As you then read it aloud, you probably will realize the source of potential confusion. In my work with authors, I’ve noticed that once the unclear spot is flagged, writers often quickly see how to revise it. If, of course, you still do not see the problem, follow up with your initial reader, an advisor, or perhaps even a writing coach with more specific content-related questions.

Though this blog has gotten into some of the nitty-gritty of designing sentences and phrasing, the next blog in this series dives deeper into sentence structure. After all, sentences are one of the most fundamental units of writing. Yet, too many academic authors just do not understand what readers most need in terms of sentence structure.

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