When drafting academic work, it’s not uncommon to feel a bit unsure about or frustrated with what you have in front of you. There can be plenty of reasons for this. It can feel like the writing has too many things going on at once, or like it doesn’t really answer the question. Often, for example, I feel that I know what I want to say, but I’m not really sure how what I have written actually helps me get there. Perhaps you have lots of points that are good on their own terms, but the essay or report as a whole doesn’t really add up to much; perhaps you have made a lot of points and you aren’t quite sure which ones are the best. This post is about a useful and simple strategy that I find helpful when trying to resolve problems like this.
It’s often quite hard to see an entire piece of writing at once, so I like to break it down and look at it on the level of the paragraph. I try to answer a few simple questions about each point in a piece of writing.
- What is this paragraph really saying?
- How does this help me answer the question or problem I’m addressing?
- How significant or essential is this point?
- How is it related to the material that precedes and follows it?
Put simply, the question is: So what?
It is standard (and good) advice that academic writers should include topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs in order to make it clear to the reader what each paragraph is about, and that each paragraph should end with a bridge or signpost to the next. This helps to structure and frame the material into a paragraph. Answering that fundamental So What about each paragraph of your writing can also make for much more readable and accessible work, because it helps improve the overall clarity of your answer to the question. Whereas topic sentences and bridging language help give shape to your writing, the answer to your So What question helps you define what it is about that material that is really interesting. This can help you identify and strengthen the really good bits of your work, and streamline away the parts that aren’t so good or important after all.
Perhaps you’ve had this experience: when reading a confusing or dreary academic text, a beautifully comprehensible sentence suddenly shines through and explains both why the author is making the point they are making and how it is connected to the broader aims of the piece.
This is signposting, and it has two helpful functions.
- It helps to orient the reader, to give them a foothold in your writing and help them follow what you are saying. Sometimes it’s easy to assume that the reader is following you, and including these sentences helps make sure that the reader actually can follow you.
- It can also help you as a writer. If you can clearly signpost to the reader precisely why the information in your work is pertinent to the question you are addressing, then you are able to answer that So What.
Signposting like this can form the architecture of your writing, the scaffolding or skeleton that helps keep everything clear for both you and your reader.
So if the piece of writing you’re working on feels a bit muddled, this one question can help clarify it a little. If you’ve got a rationale for the inclusion of each piece of information – if you can give a definite answer to that So What? – then you may be more able to give your tutor something focused, interesting, and readable to read. Try it with your next assignment, and see whether it helps you. If you want to see an example of how it works, I’m preparing a post with an illustration from my own writing to demonstrate how I’ve used it – watch this space!
Posted by Alex