Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Reader's Situation

Let's look at your journal article one paragraph at a time, but from the reader's perspective. Think of reading as a linear process, with a clear beginning and a clear end. There's a moment just before the reading begins and a moment just after it ends.

Let's imagine the reader in that first moment. What's on the reader's mind? Well, the reader has some reason to read your article. (Remember: the next thing that happens is that they begin to read.) The reader's mind, then, is full of expectations about what you are going to say. They probably know who you are, i.e., what field you work in. They come to the text with some questions and with a great deal of rather specific opinions. Even a few prejudices.

Then the reading begins. After about a minute, the reader will have gotten through your first paragraph. If you have written it deliberately, which is to say, in support of a clearly defined key sentence that says one thing you know, then the reader will now presumably believe one particular thing to be true (sometimes "for the sake of argument", sometimes in charitable "suspension of disbelief"). If you are following my outline, this truth will not be new to them; they actually believed it before they started reading, but now they are also thinking about it. It is a truth about the world in which they live. More specifically, it is about that area of the world that contains the objects of their research—and yours.

One minute later, they will have been reminded of the state of the field in which they work, which is also the field in which you work. They will be thinking about the constitutive controversy or consensus that defines their own research program. A minute later, they will know what your paper is going to try to show them and how you intend to show it. After three minutes of reading, then, the reader will have had three distinct moments of understanding: "This is the world in which we live." "This is the scientific field in which we work." "This is what the author wants to show me."

Over the next few posts, I want to think very carefully about these first three minutes of reading. A great deal depends on them. They determine how the next 37 minutes will go.

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