Writing tips and tricks: reader-centric writing

In many ways, HDR theses are a unique genre—narrowly-focussed pieces of writing with some arcane and specific rules and a very, very small audience to impress. In one way, though, they’re exactly like every other piece of writing: to make them successful, you have to keep that very, very small audience in mind at all times as you write.

In business writing, this is called being ‘reader-centric’. It means stepping out of your own point of view as you write, and focussing on what your reader needs/wants to know rather than what you want to say. It’s a great technique for soothing an annoyed customer. It’s also great for presenting your ideas to a thesis examiner.

Being reader-centric doesn’t mean that you distort your argument to write what you think your examiners will agree with, though. That would defeat the whole purpose of a thesis! What it means is that you write in the awareness that your examiners are 1) busy academics who have added examining your thesis onto an already heavy workload, 2) reading and assessing it in sections based on how much time they have available at any given moment, and 3) broad experts in your field but—and this is crucial—not experts in your specific topic. When you’re writing, you therefore need to make sure that your examiners can always identify what you talked about in the last section or chapter they read, what you’re going to cover in this section, and how all of the pieces fit together as easily as possible. Below are my three top writing tricks for doing exactly this.

1.Signpost every transition

One of the quirks of academic writing is that you’re allowed to be obvious. Even in English Literature, where theses are assessed on the grace and fluency of their prose as well as the quality of their argument, it’s not only necessary but completely acceptable to spell out exactly what you’re going to be doing at each transition point in your thesis—the abstract, the introduction, each chapter, even each section if your discipline permits chapter subdivisions! Some of the most useful phrases you can ever type are: ‘In this thesis/chapter/section I* will…’ And even in Eng. Lit., there’s no limit to how many times you can use the perpendicular pronoun this way, fortunately…

The great advantage of using these ‘signposting’ phrases is that they let your examiner know what to expect at all times, and help them to line up each section with the preceding and following ones more easily as they read—as long as the signposts are accurate. This is why you tend to insert them late in the drafting process, when you know the structure of your chapter and can retrofit the introduction to suit!

2.Structure every paragraph

Along with signposting at the macro level, you can use your paragraph structure to guide your examiners step by step through each point you make. While there are many variations on the idea of paragraph structure, the most basic is a three-part structure adaptable to every circumstance: topic sentence, evidence, and conclusion/connection sentence.

The topic sentence spells out exactly what your paragraph is about—though usually not by means of a formulaic ‘This paragraph discusses xyz’ statement, as these are too clumsy at paragraph level. You can choose from many options, from a straightforward statement to a ‘master plan’** sentence, based on what suits your paragraph topic and your discipline area…but no matter what it looks like, every paragraph you write must have a topic sentence. If you can’t figure one out, that information belongs in a different bit of your thesis, not in a paragraph of its own.

The evidence section of your paragraph lays out all of the pieces of evidence that support your topic sentence in a logical order. The order in question is up to you, but remember: there are no surprises in academic writing, and no spoilers either, so don’t succumb to the temptation to hold things back for effect. Wherever possible, put your best ideas and strongest evidence front and centre, so that your examiners will be sure to see them.

The conclusion/connection sentence wraps up this paragraph and prepares your examiner to encounter the new idea introduced in your next topic sentence. If you think that sounds unnecessary, remember this: every strip of blank space on your page is a potential stopping-point for your examiner, even if the stop is only to answer an email or have a stretch. You want them to put off stopping until they get to a memorable anchor point—the end of a section, or better yet a chapter—and by connecting each paragraph to the next, you make it easier for them to read on and continue absorbing your ideas in the best possible format, and harder for them to stop.

3.Use tag sentences

One of the worst possible ways to end a paragraph in academic writing—but one I see used all too often, even in published works—is with a block quote.

This is because block quotes, unlike integrated quotes, are purely illustrative. They don’t advance your argument; they only supply evidence in someone else’s words to support your point. This means that your examiner has to make a mental transition at every block quote, from processing your words to processing someone else’s words and figuring out how they support the point you just made.

If you start a new paragraph immediately after a block quote, the next thing they’ll encounter is a completely new idea—one not connected to the quote they just read, or the point it was illustrating. They may stumble for a moment, or get a touch confused…or miss a vital connection between two ideas and end up misinterpreting your argument because of it. Therefore, it’s vitally important to follow every block quote with a ‘tag sentence’ (or more than one sentence, if needed) that restates your point, concludes the paragraph and connects it to the next one. Thankfully, this isn’t hard to do. Just think of it as an amped-up conclusion/connection sentence, and you’ll find it practically writes itself!

Next week: writing tips for the micro level.

 

*If you’re in engineering, science, maths, and some of the social sciences, you’d of course write ‘we’ instead of ‘I’.

**Or laundry-list sentences, as one of my students used to call them!

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