Keeping Up with Your Reader

I approach university students as budding scholars. Like scholars, I tell them to write for their peers. They should imagine their reader as a fellow student in their class, someone who is doing the same assignment they’re doing. Since every paragraph poses and overcomes a difficulty for the reader, the writer needs to have a good understanding of the reader’s knowledge of the subject. The context of a course provides this understanding because the reader is someone who enrolled in the course with the same prerequisites and is now following the same syllabus. To know the reader, the student merely has to be themselves and keep up with the reading.

Some students forget this and leave most of the reading until the end of the semester when they’re doing their final exams. These students will often leave their writing til the end too. Not only does this cause a lot of unnecessary stress, it robs them of a community of learning, one that can give them the important experience of forming their ideas gradually as part of an ongoing conversation. This sense of a place in a conversation is what the classroom is all about. By participating actively in a course — attending lectures, engaging in discussions, doing the reading, and writing along the way — students are finding out what it means to know things for “academic purposes”. This is not at all a trivial state of mind; it suggests an ideal that universities exist to promote.

Scholars should remember this ideal student. After all, a working scholar is really just a very successful student, someone who has earned the privilege of remaining a “student” (of their subject) “for a living”. But just as their students have to keep up with the readings in their courses — not just, like I say, in order to understand the lectures, but also in order to understand their implied reader — scholars have to keep up with “the literature” — not just to stay current with developments in their field, but in order understand the needs of their readers and their means to make sense of what they’re saying. A good academic writer has to be a good reader of the literature to which they are contributing. Their readers, after all, are reading that same literature.

This is one of the reasons that it’s important to choose your discipline carefully. If you are going to get any pleasure out of your research, you will have to find a literature that you enjoy reading. This, too, is like the student who must choose their program carefully. If you don’t like any of your fellow students — if you’re not at least a little “like” them in your beliefs and desires, your curiosity and your ambition — you will not enjoy imagining them as the readers of your papers. If you can’t respect their interest in the papers that are published in your discipline, year in and year out, then you will not find it useful to imagine the difficulty they have understanding your key sentences.

Writing is a social act because it depends on the existence of readers for its meaning. You are always writing for someone who recognizes your theories and your methods, not just from their own work, but from the work of the peers you have in common. You are writing for someone who can not only make use of your results if they are true but identify your errors if they are false. I tell students to imagine the most intelligent, most knowledgeable, student in their cohort as their reader. Scholars should imagine a well-versed peer in their discipline. You train this imagination by reading.

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