Editing: Clarifying your Reasoning

One of the trickiest things I find about being both the author and the editor of your own work is knowing whether you’ve explained your thinking clearly enough. When I’m writing, my argument is obvious enough to me, of course! How can I tell if I’ve spelled out my reasoning clearly enough for the reader, though? Have I skipped stages of my argument, assuming they’re obvious? Or perhaps I’ve gone the other way and patronised and bored them by over-explaining every little obvious thing at great length.

Argument, reasoning, analysis – these are some of the highest level thinking skills, and they’re what lecturers will be looking for above all in your university work. But to check whether or not they’re apparent to the reader, I turn not to university but to primary school for help. Small children are some of the most critical thinkers I know – most of us know some small children and certainly all of us have been children at some point. So I channel that inner three year old to help me check if I’ve layed out my argument clearly enough.
I don’t mean write as if for a child – I mean read your own work with that same persistent use of very simple but powerful questions:

  • Why? (the most powerful question of all)
  • What’s that? (am I defining my terms?)
  • How does that work? (am I explaining cause and effect, or analysing something enough?)
  • What does that mean? (am I defining my terms, or explaining the significance of a point?)
  • What’s that for? (why I am telling the reader this?)
  • Where does that come from? (Have I explained the context enough, or traced the course of a process or argument?)
  • What happens if…? (am I thinking creatively enough – could there be other conclusions to draw?)
  • What’s that made of? (am I analysing enough?)

You can also, as my colleague Alex suggests, channel your inner sulky teenager:

  • So what? (what role does this play in my argument? What’s its relevance or significance?)
  • Says who? (what authority do I have backing up my point?)
  • How do YOU know? (if I don’t have an authority to back up my point, am I explaining my evidence and how I reach that conclusion?)

As you read through your work, pause at the end of each sentence and see which of these questions apply. Have you answered them, either in that sentence or the one just after? If not, would answering them help to unpack your thinking a bit more for the reader?
Of course, there comes a point when even the most patient grownup has to resort to the response ‘Because it just IS, ok?’ And this raises the question of what general knowledge and shared understanding you can assume on behalf of your reader. At what point can you start to feel that you don’t have to explain everything? That some things are just generally known and accepted, and you don’t need to completely unpack every statement you make? This will depend very much on your subject and the level you’re studying at, so it’s hard to give a straightforward answer. But remember that it’s the higher level thinking that your lecturer is mostly looking for, your ability to use and interpret evidence to reach an informed conclusion via sound reasoning. It’s that chain of reasoning that they need to be able to see. These questions can help you make sure you make that thinking stand out.


Posted by Helen

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