“You are writing to dance with the reader”

Ting Liu, Social Statistics, University of Manchester (2019 Cohort)

In mid-November, I attended a writing training session “Writing from a reader’s perspective”, which was an interactive workshop examining ideas of academic style. Although writing is seen as the usual routine for a third-year PhD researcher, doing that well is not like a familiar job completed with ease especially for people like me whose first language is not English. I have been doing research on the UK’s climate change attitudes and green lifestyle based in the department of social statistics at the University of Manchester for three years, but I still found it hard to balance what I want the reader know and what the reader wants to know. Telling a good story is not only establishing your authority as a writer, but also getting into an interactive relationship with your readers. What the whole session made a deep impression on me was that the writer may want to dance with the reader.

Before you dance with the reader, the first thing is to acknowledge who your readers will be. Your supervisor, colleagues, alumni, co-operators, and even children in the future are the potential readers. How readers read your thesis matters as this will affect their understanding of your thesis. Then, it is necessary to organise the thesis in the order that the reader expects you to do. You may first want to specify the thesis statement to express the central idea of the essay and deliver a promise to the reader that your thesis will focus only on the stated scope and topic. Next, the essay map would be helpful to provide the reader with signposts of the route your essay will travel. The reader may read the first paragraph or sentence and then decide whether they can skip to the next one. Therefore, the writer and reader need to expect who have the handheld mic in mind and guide through the busy footwork of academia.

During the dance, you would also have expectations for readers to follow your rhythm and steps. However, one of the biggest problems that certain PhD writers have is that you may be very good at your subject knowledge and are possibly confident in your ability as a writer, but you rarely considered the function of a PhD thesis and the audience that they are addressing. What you are trying to explain in the thesis might be clear in your head, but it’s probably not clear in the mind of the reader. You need to step out of your shoes and step into the shoes of somebody that might read your thesis and they need to realize that your job is to help them understand the complex piece of documentation that you have put together. In this sense, there is a need to admit shared knowledge between you and the reader and even the wider academic community you are in.

At the end of a dance, imagine you are showing your dance poses to the audience, make sure you have decided what you want to stress and what to communicate with the reader and put it in the right place. If you find yourself making a long list of details that are not contributing strongly to the point summarized by your theme sentence, condense the list or re-word it. It is not uncommon that the final process of writing is filled up with endless editing. That means, each step you take in your writing process will feed into other steps, doing that may require looping back to a different section of the thesis to rewrite, which in turn, might involve rethinking the organisation. Keep in mind that “All writing is a tightrope walk”.

Above all, when you are sitting down to write the thesis, assumedly you are writing to dance with another person and focus on what a reader is likely to glean from your writing, rather than simply to please yourself. At some point, you can talk to the reader, come and dance with me!

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