Monday, December 17, 2012

How to Imagine the Reader

When sitting down to write, you should always have a well-defined claim clearly in mind. It should be expressed in a simple, declarative sentence—your "key sentence", which represents, in a general way, the fact that the paragraph is about. In a sense, it will name this fact and the rest of the paragraph will describe it. But writing a paragraph does not require you only to solve the problem of representation. There is also a rhetorical problem to consider. And to solve this problem it is not enough to know the fact; you have to know your reader.

Moreover, you have to decide how you want the paragraph to affect your reader's mind. This decision will be different from paragraph to paragraph, but at a slightly more general level, we can think about how to address your reader in the major divisions of what I normally call the "standard social science paper". Such a paper will have an introduction, and then a background, theory, methods, results and implications section, finally a conclusion.

The introduction and conclusion describe the same thing, they represent the same fact, namely, your paper. But they will obviously address the reader in different ways; they presume the reader is in very different states of mind. After all, the reader of the introduction has not yet read your paper, and the reader of the conclusion has just read the whole thing. The introduction and conclusion tell the reader what the paper says. But the reader of the introduction does not yet know what the paper says and reader of the conclusion has just heard it all. Keep that in mind when writing those sections.

What about the other sections? Well, you know your reader better than I do, but I do have some suggestions for how to go about it. I'll devote my posts in this final week before Christmas to how your image of your reader can guide your writing, section for section.

The background section should be addressed to the reader's ignorance. This is one of the places in a paper that you can presume your reader does not know what you know. You are writing this in the spirit of informing the reader about the context in which the social practice you are studying goes on. But while you may presume it, remember not also to assume that your reader is ignorant. Many of your readers may know everything you are saying here and will therefore also know when you are wrong. Those readers, however, will not (and should not) feel like you are addressing them.

Tomorrow, there'll be a post about how to imagine what the reader does with the theory and results sections. Both engage directly with the reader's expectations. Then, on Wednesday I'll write about how the methods section should inspire trust in the reader, i.e, build your credibility as a scholar. On Thursday, I'll say something about the implications section, which is addressed to the reader's logical sense, their reason.

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