Difficulty #2

Before your readers can believe that what you say is true, they must understand what you mean by your words. When reflecting on your key sentence, therefore, ask yourself whether the reader’s main difficulty will one of belief or understanding. (We’ll get to the third difficulty tomorrow.) Then write with the aim of addressing this difficulty head-on. Should you be providing evidence for the claim in your key sentence, for example? Or should you be defining your terms? Is the reader surprised to learn that the practice you are talking about even exists? Or is your reader just curious to know more about it because it is somewhat novel or otherwise exotic? Notice that you cannot begin to resolve these issues without knowing who your reader is. Please begin there. 

The difficulty need not be great, just worth a paragraph of prose to overcome. After reading your key sentence (or before getting to it) the reader should want to spend about minute hearing more. But remember that your reader is already a very knowledgeable person, so when you decide that their difficulty will be to understand what you are saying make sure you don’t talk down to them. Begin with what the reader does understand. Do not try to teach your reader your theory from the ground up. This is academic writing, and you are supposed to assume a great deal of common knowledge. Indeed, you are supposed to respect the learning that your reader has already acquired.

So, if you’re going to tell the reader that “Foucault’s ‘archive’ constitutes a practice that governs the emergence of statements in a discourse,” for example, you have to address yourself to readers that already know this or who would, at least, be embarrassed to admit they don’t. You have to present a claim like this one ostensibly as a reminder that merely announces that you intend to use the concept of the archive to guide your analysis of a discourse. Your readers do not want you to teach them what an archive is, and they’re happy (let’s assume) to believe that Foucault proposed the concept as you say. What they want to know now is why you’ve chosen to characterize it using the words “constitute”, “governs”, and “emergence”. This, after all, is your way paraphrasing Foucault’s definition of “a practice the causes a multiplicity of statements to emerge as so many regular events, as so many things to be dealt with and manipulated,” right? Your focus here will prepare the reader’s mind to follow your analysis. Finally, remember that your reader is not someone who thinks that Foucault is an intellectual impostor .

Or, if you’re going to say that that you set your alpha at .001 using a Bonferroni correction, don’t talk to your reader like a first-year statistics student who needs you to tell them what an “alpha” is or what a Bonferroni correction does. Just tell them what they need to know: how many statistical tests you did and what kind of tests they were. Justify your alpha to someone who knows what they’re doing, someone who can recognize a suitable significance level when they see one. Even a reasonable person sometimes wants to know your reasons for doing things in particular ways, however obvious or reasonable those ways may seem to you. They are ready to believe you did exactly as you did; they just want to understand exactly why so they can decide whether they think that’s was good idea. Here, too, remember that you are not writing for someone who doesn’t think P levels are ever a good idea.

There are times when you will explain a medical procedure to a social scientist or a piece of military hardware to a historian. Here you are, indeed, engaging with the reader’s ignorance and teaching them something they don’t already know. You are not here merely specifying the meaning of your terms, or establishing their application in your analysis. You are actually providing new information to the reader. Sometimes, you’ll have to recognize that the difficulty is epistemic (i.e.,  believing things, i.e., Difficulty #1). The reader may be shocked to know we can cure a particular condition or have built a particular bomb, and you will want to provide some evidence, some reliable source, to regain your reader’s trust on matters of shocking fact. But often the reader just wants to be able to imagine it. Learning how to write well is really learning how to produce a useful image of a fact in your reader’s mind.

None of this is easy. But remember that writing is hard only to ease the reading. Making yourself understood, one paragraph at a time, is a skill worth learning. Don’t be satisfied with getting past your reviewer. Try to get through to your reader.

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