What do you do for your reader?


I often say, following John Wagner, that a paper, chapter or book ought to reduce a reader’s ignorance. In other words, when they’ve finished reading what you’ve written, a reader ought to feel that they know more about the topic than when they started.

I like the modesty of reducing ignorance. It has none of the hubris implied by the ubiquitous “filling a gap” . And the idea of reducing ignorance is specific enough for you, the writer, to ask – Well what does the reader already know? And What am I writing that will allow my reader to know a bit more?

I’ve recently heard another bit of advice that sits very nicely with this. It’s from Andrew Wilkins, talking as a journal editor. Andrew was explaining what he thought writers needed to do. Among lots of good advice, he said that a paper ought to leave the reader feeling smarter.

I like the idea of making your reader feel smarter – I like it a lot. The idea of feeling smarter leads to the same questions about what the reader already knows and what your writing will add to their existing knowledge. But it does more than this. It also speaks to how the paper is written.

A reader won’t feel smarter if the text is badly written. Or the argument proceeds in illogical leaps. But less obviously, the reader won’t feel smarter if the paper is written in really dense prose. If it’s full of obscure terms and references that they don’t know. If it sets out to be so demonstrably clever that the reader hasn’t got a clue what’s going on. If it seems that the purpose of the paper is simply to show how clever the writer is.

But a reader won’t feel smarter with the alternative approach either – if the text talks down to them and is written as if the reader is a struggling high school student. Most of our readers are either involved in scholarly work, or they are an interested member of a relevant public. In other words, we can’t assume that our reader knows nothing. We have to assume our readers are familiar with the topic and make sure we recognise their existing knowledge.

The reader will feel smarter if technical terms are used judiciously. If they are explained. If the complex ideas are confined to what’s necessary and not used as theoretical bling. All showy glitter.

And the reader will feel smarter if the text is written with an eye to keeping them on track – and interested. If the sentence syntax is varied. If the headings and categories used are well thought out and they add to what is being said.

The ideas of reducing ignorance and feeling smarter are related. Complementary. And they lead to some questions that you can ask yourself as you near the end of a paper. Perhaps these are questions that you can ask a critical friend to answer before you send the paper/chapter/book off.

  • What does the reader already know about this topic?
  • Will they feel that they have learnt something now they have read my text? What?
  • Have I explained all of the terms and ideas that the reader needs to know in order to understand my text?
  • How do I help the reader feel on top of the subject?
  • Have they been engaged by my argument and by my writing?
  • Will they feel more knowledgeable now they have finished the text?