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By Susan Carter

Rash promises are made in good faith, but are often followed by regret when the time comes to deliver. I was reminded of this recently. I had offered ten postgraduate writers who were principally working on improving their writing that I would give each of them two hours feedback. My intention was to show them the benefit of another set of eyes to see how they might carry on their own revision. What was I thinking of?!

These people came from across campus, so spanned several epistemologies, those frames that quite drastically affect writing styles. It confirmed for me a few things I have written and taught about, driven home by long hours trying to give feedback that explained the meta-levels of establishing clarity.

What fulfilling my rash promise confirmed for me:

One: For hard science writing in particular you need a simple story behind the formula. Here are two simple stories:

  1. W is a problem, especially in situation A, when B and C, the things that cause W, are exacerbated by Z.
  2. To date, research has aimed at eliminating Z, but this is not possible in situations M and N.
  3. So we are trying to defuse the effects of Z by making use of enzymes in the body that could reduce the B and C effects through function F.

Or

  1. These systems produce trees that are captured in sequence to show drift in X. The ratio of drift can be factored into plans for modifying the systems.
  2. However, in real life, the drift in X is dependent on how the individuals making decisions at level Q estimate how those working at levels R and S will interpret the system’s efficiency. The drift is influenced by individual expectation.
  3. That means that the drift captured by the trees may be unreliable should those individuals change. Here I factor into the equation possible variants of Q estimates that allow a more precise understanding of what the drift implies into a sustainable future.

I could understand the writing—well, almost‑-if the big words were fed into a simple story—I couldn’t if the author focused only on the big words and left out the story.

The hard science authors were a little sceptical that this level of clarity amounted to much. They felt that someone in their discipline would be able to join the dots when facts were listed without the story explaining their relationship to each other as causality, or effect, or sequence. Yet I argue that even discipline-savvy readers will understand much more easily if they don’t have to do the cognitive work of dot-joining. The writer should do this for them to ensure they themselves have in fact got the story right. It is not uncommon for an aothor to become confused in the clusters of jargon, the big words.

Two: The need for a framework of argumentation applied equally in all disciplines. In my own writing, this is something I will often insert at the end. If I realise that I have become engrossed in detail (that often happens), I will insert (usually as topic sentences) how this detail supports the main argument. The framework ought not be boringly heavy-handed, but without it readers can lose energy in ploughing through pages of information that seems to have become detached from what is important about this chapter or article. About half of the group I was working with recognised that adding topic sentences to provide linkage greatly improved their writing.

Three: Readers other than the author notice writing tics. That is the main value of peer review of writing: you learn about your own habits as an author. The outside reader will grow irritated, or let’s just say they will spot overused abstract nouns like ‘complex issues.’ The author can then do a find search and replace some of them with more accurate words, noting that the term is a broad one that ripples with different nuances. Changing the big general term for the most accurate crispens the writing. When ‘we’ is used to mean both ‘we the research team conducting this research’ and ‘we, all researchers working in this field,’ and is also used too often, this also discombobulates readers.

And I learned something else—think twice before making rash promises. This time, though, I have enjoyed fulfilling one because, as usual, engaging with other academic’s writing taught me more about how it works.

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