Revising with a reader in mind – ten questions


Academics write for different kinds of readers. We are often accused of writing only for each other, but this is no longer true. Many of us now write for many different kinds of readers – or audiences, as they are sometimes called.

But you know, even when we do write for each other, we are not all the same. Different academic readers have different expectations, experiences, interests and disciplinary traditions. And while all academic readers will be looking to see that your writing is well evidenced and argued, they may also approach your writing differently. An examiner, a reviewer of a niche journal, a more general interdisciplinary audience interested in the book of your thesis, or readers of an academic blog may each be looking for slightly different things from your writing.

So, when revising your first draft, one of the key thing to consider is – your reader.

You probably wrote the first draft largely for yourself. You had to get the ideas out onto the page and in roughly the right order. You made decisions about structure and perhaps style.  You put in the kinds of examples and supporting literatures that were to hand and which seemed most relevant at the time.

But now, now it’s revision time – time to re-read your first draft thinking about your reader.

Imagine that reader. Are they your supervisor? An examiner? A journal reviewer? A book publisher you hope will sign you on? Before you even start re-reading your work, it might be good to make a list of the things you think your particular reader will expect to see. Use this list as a ‘critical lens’ for re- reading your work.

Now, you don’t have to make up your re-reading list entirely on your own. I can offer a bit of help about some of the kinds of things you need to look at. Here’s a start – some general pointers that most academic readers look for in more formal texts – theses, papers, scholarly books and chapters.

These pointers are of two kinds. Two because there are two things that academic readers generally notice – what the writing is about, and how the text is written. So it’s important that when you read-like-your-reader you look for both of these things.

So here’s my list of ten points to check out for your reader.

Reading for your reader – the substantive content

(1) Purpose

  • Do you make it clear to the reader right at the start why they should want to read your writing? ( see warrant)
  • Have you an explicit statement about what you are writing about and why it matters?
  • Does your title state what the writing is about? ( see title)

(2) Point

  • Do you have a clear point that you want the reader to understand? Is this signalled in the title?
  • Do you set up the introduction so that the reader knows the point is to be explored and argued in the writing to come?
  • Do you succinctly summarise – crunch – the point at the end of the text?

(3) Comprehension

  • Do you provide enough information about the context for the reader to understand your argument?
  • Do you provide explanations about any key words and code words that you have used?

(4) Credibility

  • Have you provided enough evidence for your reader to trust your argument?
  • Have you anticipated multiple perspectives? Have you thought about the kinds of objections or counter arguments your reader might make?
  • Will your reader see how you have located yourself in the field?
  • Do your citations signal that you are familiar with the field and its concerns? Do they suggest that you are narrowly or well read?
  • Do your citations match your aims –  for example, are you wrtiting for an international audience and only citing from your location? Are  you writing about social justice and citing only white men with the same cultural positioning?

(5) Connection

  • Does the topic you are discussing connect with your reader’s interests?
  • How do you signal this in your introduction, discussion, examples, citations?

(6) Authority

  • Will the reader find you in the text?
  • Will they see the stand you have taken and argued for? (See hedges)

Reading for your reader- the text you have presented

(7) Map

  • Do you provide a map for the reader so that they know what is coming up? Most academic readers in English language traditions expect to see signposts to the organisation of a paper or chapter or book right at the start.
  • Does the paper have a clearly recognisable structure? ( see IMRAD and its others)

(8) Guidance

  • Do you provide enough guidelines for the reader throughout the text?
  • Do your headings and subheadings work to show the reader what they are about to encounter?
  • Do you need to restate where you are up to at any point (where, how often) and anticipate what is coming up?

(9) Tone

  • Are you using the level of formality the reader expects? Have you been too casual? Have you used lists and questions appropriately?
  • Are there any points where you have been sarcastic or humorous  – and will your reader get the joke? Are you at the right level of seriousness?

(10) Readability

  • Do you have too many long sentences with lots of clauses and modifications? Or very short sentences? Remember that sentence variety helps your reader to stay awake.
  • Is there a lot of passive voice and very complex language (nominalisation? )
  • Do your paragraphs each address one idea?
  • Do reader fall down a crevice between some paragraphs? (Look at transitions and the argument’s red thread. Try a reverse outline to pinpoint the problem)

And there it is. A starting list of ten things an academic reader might look for in your text.

There are more than this ten – take a deep breath – because of course, you do need to particularise this list so that it suits the specific reader that you are writing for. But it’s worth taking the time to go through the list thoroughly. You may have to read your draft several times. And don’t worry if you do, re-reading your draft from several angles is A Good Thing to do.

However, the time put in now, the time spent anticipating your reader, will mean that your actual reader, when they get your revised text, will be able to spend time enjoying what you have to say.

So now let’s get ready. Sharpen that pencil, print out your draft – and revise for your reader.