Word limits: Arbitrary or purposeful writing boundaries?

There is a fair amount of art and craft that goes into any form of writing. Scholarly writing is a form that is not often seen—especially by novice writers—in ‘art and craft’ terms in the way that, perhaps, novel or short story writing is. But I think it’s important to understand writing an assignment, a journal article, a book or book chapter, a dissertation or thesis, as an act of ‘crafting’ our ideas and thoughts into a narrative that will engage, inform, persuade the readers we are writing to.

In any form of writing there are word limits. 1500 words for a first-year essay, 40000 words for a Masters thesis, 80000-100000 words for a doctoral dissertation, 7000 words for a journal article. Even in blogging land, the average post tends to hover around 800-1000 words, a fairly standard word limit for the average post. These word limits can frustrate and annoy writers—they either feel like they are hindering creativity and expression or are overwhelming (so many words!) A student once expressed having to stick to a very short word limit for an in-class task (300 words) as ‘deeply painful’ because he felt he had to cut ideas out that he wanted to include, that were part of him.

Image by Markus Weber from Pixabay

All of us writers have, at one point or many, had to sit with a piece that was over the requested or set word limit and work out what to cut, what to leave, and what to rephrase or reword to keep the idea but reduce the word count. This editing and re-crafting process can be a painful and frustrating exercise indeed. It can feel arbitrary after a certain point. ‘Why is there such an issue with an extra 126 words in a 6000-word paper or an extra 10 pages in a 200-page thesis? Just let me say what I want to say!’

These editing and revision experiences and my student’s frustrated plea for more words may beg the question: Are word limits a purposeful boundary around a single piece of writing and thinking or are they rather arbitrary conventions devised by publishers, lecturers and examiners to save costs or reduce marking stress? Why are some word limits negotiable and others are like a solid wall: not one more word may be written!

Image from Pixabay

To answer this question, I am returning to the idea I started with: writing as a craft. In some ways, it is quite easy to include all of your ideas in a paper or thesis; you can write about everything you have read, everything you think on the issue. You can just capture your ideas as they come. This is often what we do in brainstorming and drafting: let the ideas flow so we get them out of our heads and onto paper. But we cannot send this to reviewers, editors and examiners. This is what we perhaps may share with critical friends and supervisors to obtain feedback and help with shaping one argument that can be clearly supported with relevant literature and evidence, organised coherently and cohesively into a structure that will make sense to readers and persuade them to take our ideas seriously.

This ‘stream of consciousness’ type drafting needs to be crafted—edited, reorganised, shaped—into one argument, one ‘golden thread’ that runs through the paper. This is especially the case when working on a journal article or book chapter. If we try to throw all of our thoughts into one paper, or even one thesis, we end up confusing and confused. We struggle to work out where the focus of the paper or thesis is and that leads to confusion around what we should be including and excluding, what further reading we may need to do, what data we need to select, etc. Word limits are perhaps more accurately described as argument or thinking limits.

A word limit is actually a limit on purpose and focus: 6000 or 7000 words for a journal article, for example, makes it possible for one argument to be made well. That argument, or main claim/focus, then becomes a tool that enables you to choose: relevant literature to support your contribution to knowledge; relevant theory to apply to analysing your data; selected methodology and data from your larger methodological framework and dataset, chosen to make the argument; a focused conclusion that draws the argument to a coherent close. For a non-empirical paper (conceptual, systematic review, etc.) you still need a ‘choosing tool’ and that is still the main argument or focal point of the paper.

Word limits help up to choose judiciously with the aim of making meanings clear, well-supported and persuasive. For example, if I know I only have about 800 words for a whole blog post, I can’t spend all of those on the run-up to my point; I have to get to the point quickly so that I can spend my allotted words explaining, supporting and elaborating on my point so that it is made meaningfully and as fully as possible. ‘Rambling’ around the point means I have used up my 800 words and left you wondering: ‘Why am I reading this? What is she trying to say?’ This happens with any writing that is sent to a reader without being crafted into a form that has the reader in mind, as well as the purpose and focus of the writing in mind.

Image by Thomas B. from Pixabay

Word limits, then, are not arbitrary or there to save money or time. They are there to help us as writers focus our thoughts, our reading and our research. The outcome of all this focus is clearer writing that makes a limited set of points or an argument meaningfully and effectively with the reader and the purpose of the writing in mind. While all the crafting work that goes into making any piece of writing effective and meaningful is not easy or quick, it is important. Writing is about meaning-making and meanings take time to make well. For students used to writing a paper once and handing it in for a mark, this can be a big shift in thinking and action. Writing is far more about rewriting than people tend to think it is: re-drafting, re-thinking, re-working, re-editing. But, as I have been learning in editing and polishing my own writing these last few weeks, the work pays off in the writing you are able to share and be proud of in the end.

Contributions to knowledge and the ‘knowledge gap’

If you have spent any time reading advice or ‘how to’ books on writing a thesis at any level, you will almost certainly have come across some version of this concept: the ‘knowledge gap’. And you will likely have been told that you have to create a research project or study that will find knowledge to fill a gap in your specific field or discipline’s knowledge base. This idea of filling a gap or hole in what your field knows or does freaks out many students, at all levels. The idea that you have to say something new when you are still learning your field and what it knows and does can be overwhelming.

But, after a conversation with colleagues who work with researcher development starting from senior undergraduate level all the way through Masters to PhD level, I have begun to wonder whether this concept of a knowledge ‘gap’ is actually not all that accurate or helpful as a starter about the purpose or goal of postgraduate research and knowledge creation, even at doctoral level. Maybe, we need to actively reframe the conversations we have with students doing research about how we can and do make different kinds of contributions to knowledge that grow and challenge knowledge in our fields.

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The most common starting point for students beginning a research process is in the field itself, reading other studies, papers, research findings and so on. This enables them to see what research is being done, what the current trends are around theory and methodology, substantive findings that support or challenge their own research problem and so on. The literature review is almost always the first thing we ask students to focus on when they are developing a research proposal, especially at doctoral level where there is a firm requirement of a ‘novel’ contribution to knowledge. So, you kind of are looking for a gap, of sorts. But you’re not looking for it in terms of a total silence on your own research problem.

The first problem with the notion of a ‘gap’ or hole in the field that your study can fill, conceptually or empirically or methodologically, is that many students seeing this as meaning exactly that: silence, as in no one has ever done this research before. They feel they must claim that there are no existing studies like theirs for their study to be ‘novel’ and to fill the identified knowledge gap legitimately. In most fields, it is almost never the case that no one has ever done your kind of study before, or asked a similar kind of research question. And you really don’t want that either, because what you are really trying to do with your research is join a field that exists, and push it a tiny bit further; you’re not trying to strike out on your own.

This leads me to the second problem with talking about knowledge gaps and the need to fill them with original or novel claims to knowledge: in essence this can prevent many students from really seeing that they are writing about their research in relation to the field, to join an ongoing conversation, rather than writing about their research as an extended proof of claims that are completely new. We need to reframe teaching about the aim of research as being focused on joining an existing conversation as a new voice that has something of value to add to the field, rather than needing to say something radically new that has not yet ever been said. I think this may help student researchers in two main ways.

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The first is with the way they read. Rather than reading every paper looking for a hole or a gap or silence and zeroing in one this, they may begin to read with a greater consciousness of how the field has already addressed similar questions, but perhaps from different angles, or with different theory, or with different methodology. They can then consider how this helps them to build and substantiate a space in which to position their own emerging claims to knowledge. Keeping a reading journal to keep track of these arguments, how they are made, and how they speak to one another or challenge one another (this bit is crucial) may then help students to begin to see the conversation emerging, and where they might be able to join in. Who is saying what, how, and why? Who is critiquing the dominant positions and why? How? Where does my work fit into all of this? What is this ongoing conversation all about?

Thinking and reading like this may then feed into a different, less defensive form of writing. Rather than trying to address every paper or article included in the literature review by showing what it doesn’t say to shore up a claim to the originality of their own research, student research writers may begin rather to craft literature reviews, and perhaps also theoretical and methodological frameworks in their thesis writing, from a different position: as one who is joining an existing field and conversation, unthreatened by all the work that is currently being or has been done. Rather, these sections will be written with the understanding that all the existing work is a resource for substantiating our own claims to knowledge, so that we can show how what we have to add builds on, extends, and perhaps may critique the current arguments dominating the conversation in the field.

Reframing the ‘knowledge gap’ as joining a conversation with a new voice and a small contribution to the field may also help researchers at other, lower, levels of study, such as Masters, Honours and senior undergraduate levels, where the knowledge gap can be particularly alarming. This is perhaps mainly because students typically do less reading, and are not required to make a novel contribution to knowledge to attain their degree. Obviously, the more you read the field, the deeper and more nuanced your sense of the conversations in your field will be, as well as how they connect and challenge one another. But students can join a conversation even at the lower levels, in a more modest form, if they are enabled to see this as what they are doing, rather than using their study to fill a gap that their reading load will not show them adequately.

Pedro Sandrini at Pexels.com

Making a contribution to knowledge and filling knowledge gaps is spoken about a great deal in postgraduate and researcher education, but I wonder how often we stop and think about how students hear this, and what impact this has on their reading and writing behaviors and choices. I hope this post will help that process along, and help us find different ways to talk to students we work with about their own research purposes and goals.

Book writing: making space for the ’emerging argument’

Argument. I have written a lot about that over the past few years. If you are a postgraduate student, you have probably heard that word many times, and as a supervisor, you are probably always looking for ways to explain to your students more clearly and effectively ways to make strong arguments. In this post I want to reflect a bit on my book writing, and the argument I am trying to make there, hopefully with some insights into argument creation that will be helpful to those of you meandering through this nebulous labyrinth yourselves.

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The first thing to say, here, is that no academic or scholarly argument has ever been made in one go, or even two gos. It takes several iterations to think through an argument, with several rounds of reading, writing, feedback and refining as part of the process. This can be really frustrating for many scholars and writers: the back and forth doesn’t always feel creative and generative and clever. It can make you feel small, and stupid, and un-knowledgeable. Why can’t I get this right? Why are my readers confused – why is what I am saying not clear? Why is this thing so tough? The thing that seems clear(ish) to you suddenly is weird and wobbly and fragmented on the page.

The thing about argument(ation) in scholarly and research writing is that it is the thing: if you don’t have an argument, you don’t have a publishable paper, or a thesis that will lead to the award of a doctorate. So, it is seriously high stakes. If I don’t have an argument, I don’t have a book. What is more complicated about book and thesis writing is that this argument has to pull through 6, 7, 8 chapters – it is a multifaceted beast.

The book is a bit different to the thesis, I am finding. In the book, each chapter has to have a bit of everything: literature, theory, methodology, data and analysis and conclusions. In the thesis, each chapter has to make part of the larger thesis argument: the literature review makes one part of the argument for where the study fits in the field, and the theory chapter (if you have one) argues for which theoretical framework will best address the research aims and questions, and so on. This is a big ask for a scholar: to create such a multi-layered argument, over several chapters, and hold the golden thread clearly and presently in the readers’ minds.

I read a blog post recently by Pat Thomson, talking about a book she has been writing, and deadlines etc. What stuck out for me was her comments on the structure and organisation of her book argument, and how what she thought she was going to do was not exactly what had emerged from the writing and thinking process she engaged herself in. This is what I am finding now, and what I found during my PhD too: that I had plans for what I was going to say, and do, and write (my PhD proposal, my book proposal), but what I actually said, and claimed and wrote was different. Plans and reality and not the same thing when it comes to making arguments in academic research. What we have to make space for – in our heads and in our timelines – in the emergence of something we haven’t planned for.

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This is not easy. At PhD level especially, I just wanted my thesis to be right, and clear. I was very unsettled by the not-knowing, because up until that point all my previous education has primed me to know. To know what was what – what does this reading say? What are these authors claiming? What is the answer? I got used to knowing, because that was what I had been trained to do. This is a really odd aspect of higher education for me: that actually, as researchers working in the field, post-studying, we spend a lot of time not-knowing. This is our business, really: We don’t know, so we design research projects to find out, and we get much better at moving between the knowing and no-knowing. We learn to be more comfortable in that space. But, we don’t always translate that into the supervision we do, or the teaching. We tend to emphasise knowing: What is your argument? What methods are you using? What is your theory? Students are expected to have clear answers, and if they don’t they worry that something is wrong. It took me a while to learn to be okay with not-knowing, and to become resilient enough to push through that towards knowing.

I am having to keep learning this now, writing this book. The plan in my proposal is changing. That structure – that argument – is not quite working out now that I am writing and trying to allow the ideas to form, and re-form, and shift within and across chapters. The argument is emerging differently. I must be clear, it is not a whole new argument. What I wrote in my proposal and what I am doing are closely connected, but the closer details have shifted in ways I could not have anticipated when I wrote the proposal last year. So, Chapter 3 is now Chapter 5, and there is a new chapter that was not in the proposal, because the emerging book argument demands that. This is not as scary as it was when I was doing the PhD – this emerging of something un-anticipated, and new.

I quite like that my argument is alive: it is a living, growing thing with its own aims and goals. My work as the writer is to give it space to emerge, and make itself heard, and then shape it into a form that is right for my audience, so that they can really hear and appreciate it, and learn from it. This is not necessarily easy. It requires me to hold the ambivalence, to paraphrase a former therapist I saw several years ago. By this she meant holding different, perhaps incommensurate things, together in the same space while the answers worked themselves out, and the way forward became clearer. In writing, for me, this means holding the knowing and not-knowing, the plans and emergence, together, and just writing through it as the argument does take clearer shape, and becomes more solid, and persuasive and fit-for-purpose.

What I am writing through at the moment is a restructuring of the book argument on the macro-scale – moving chapters around and rejigging the overall organisation of the book. On a micro-level, I am reworking a few of the chapters, within this new structure, so that their smaller arguments actually contribute to the larger, reworked argument. This is what I need to be open to: this lack of closure on what the argument of the book, and its chapters, is, and what form that needs to take. I need to actually create, and hold, an open space where that argument can emerge, and take shape, and where I can write my way into, and through it.

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Writing your own paper, or book, or PhD, this is your work too. To not close down, and pre-determine the argument so definitely that you close this ambivalence – this space where new ideas can emerge, and new avenues for the argument can be brought in and explored. Obviously, the road cannot stay wide open indefinitely. At some point you need to shut down all the sparkly ideas off to the side, and all those other roads and paths, and choose your path and stick to it. But, even having chosen this space, this road, this argument, you can still be open to the alive-ness of your argument, and its ability to form itself in not-totally-known ways. This can make the process scary, for sure, but it can also make it more creative and interesting for you as the writer. I am certainly finding that, and it helps draw me into my writing, because I’m keen to find out where this chapter is going to go. Watch this space… 🙂

Knowledge: claims, contributions and confidence

Going through my blog stats recently (one of my many procrastinations last week), I noticed that my post on what a contribution to knowledge is has garnered many hits in the last 2 years especially. That a doctoral study has to make a novel contribution to the researcher-author’s field is one of the main things that sets a PhD apart from other postgraduate qualifications, but it’s not something I have written much about, other than that one post. I have been thinking about different contributions to knowledge in relation to my book-in-progress, and paper writing for journals, and student development, and have a few more thoughts to add to my earlier ones on this topic.

In South Africa, all our qualifications are set out in government policy, and the purpose and main goal of the doctoral degree is there defined thus: “The defining characteristic of this qualification is that the candidate is required to demonstrate high level research capability and to make a significant and original academic contribution at the frontiers of a discipline or field” (HEQSF 2013: 36, emphasis added). This contribution is judged as significant and original by your supervisor(s), examiners, reviewers all chosen because they have expertise in the knowledge of your field, and where your research fits in this field.

This is pretty full-on – significant AND original, at a high level of capacity and ability (seen through the writing, argument, data and so on), and subject to critical evaluation by more senior researchers/scholars/knowers in your field. Yikes.

This idea of ‘contributing to knowledge’ in a novel, interesting, important way freaks out many doctoral scholars and researchers writing papers for journals, and writing books. But let’s break it down, because it’s not as hard, or as scary, as it sounds.

Research, which is behind pretty much all the formal writing we do at postgraduate and career level in academia, is fundamentally about curiosity, and questions. Why? How? When? To what extent? And so on. We read the field, and engage with peers, and see potential gaps, places where our questions could fit, and lead to answers that could fill that gap, and add new understandings, data, knowledge, practice and so on to our field. You could ask: If you are not going to say something the pushes your field forward, why do research in the first place? Research is active, it involves agency, and choices, and drive on the part of the researchers to find those answers that they really want or need.

This curiosity about possible gaps in knowledge starts us off on a research process, and this is why the first step is always readingimmersing yourself, through published literature, in the existing questions and answers in your field. You will have a sense, after spending a significant amount of time in the reading, what kinds of research is being done and what has been done, what kinds of theories have been used and useful, what methodologies have been employed by other researchers, and what questions remain un(der)-answered. This is a vital part of making your own contribution that is both significant and original.

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Another part of this immersion in the current questions and answers, as part of finding a way to your own original research question, is talking to peers and colleagues about your emerging thinking. This should include other PhD students in your field and department, your supervisors, other academic researchers in your field. I have had students reach out to international scholars via email and Twitter, to ask questions about papers they have read and ideas they have, and joining a writing circle within your university, with writers working across different fields, is always a good idea. This all gives you opportunities to try out your own ideas, and hear them out loud, as well as to test the potential contribution with its future audience: is this idea new enough for the field, focused enough for one PhD, interesting/valuable/useful to those working in this field alongside you?

If you are undertaking PhD research because you are training for an academic career, research will be part of your life from here on. Reading, writing, talking to others about your work, getting critical feedback, being told your arguments are not new enough and pointed in the direction of more critical thinking – this will all be part of your life from here on. The PhD starts this off proper: saying something to your field that has not quite been said yet is important, because it enables the research we do to add to knowledge about the world around us, and because it enables you to find and claim a researcher identity and voice. This is a precondition for working as an academic researcher, scholar and future supervisor.

I suppose, what I am thinking now, is that a contribution to knowledge is not one kind of thing – in papers, dissertations and books, it takes different forms and can be a different ‘size’ depending on the length and purpose of the research, and the written (or visual) text. But, regardless of whether you are doing this in a book, or book chapter, or paper, or thesis, the common point, to me, seems to be that you have an argument that has a place of significance in your field, recognisable to those in your field as such. In essence, you have something to say to peers in your field, in relation to the research that has already been done, that takes it a step further – whether through critique of existing work; new data from a new site that adds information to existing studies; new methodology or theory used to cast a different light on an existing problem; or identification of a whole new problem we need to be solving. There are many different forms this contribution can take.

If you are struggling to find, or see, your contribution and hear your voice, consider a few practical steps. Perhaps you need to do some more reading, and writing in your reading and research journals, and talking with peers and your supervisor. Odds are the idea is there, but we can often struggle with mean voices and Imposter Syndrome, and the fear that we have nothing to say. This can all very much get in the way of your progress, and confidence. You have the agency to claim this though. Rather than letting the fears and doubts paralyse you, get writing, and reading, and talking. Confidence grows as you actively out yourself out there, and discover that you do have a voice, and that people want to hear what you have to say. Claim your space, research it well, and the contribution will be there.

Creating a coherent text: ‘sign-posting’ your argument

Readers of this blog may know that a big part of my work-life is reading and commenting constructively on other people’s writing – PhD scholars, postdoctoral fellows, peers. I spend hours each year immersed in people’s words, ideas, arguments and theses. And, while this work is difficult, and can be really draining of my own writing energy, it has the benefit of giving me a deeper awareness of what makes a piece of writing work, and what does not. In this post I want to reflect specifically on ‘signposts’, as a tool to create a more coherent, reader-friendly text.

When we read, our brains work to make sense of what is in front of us. When the writer has worked hard to ensure that what we are reading is well thought-out, and carefully put together, this is easier. But, when the text is ‘patchy’, and the links between the pieces are unclear, this sense-making work becomes harder. As a reader it is frustrating, because it’s hard work. Readers who have to work too hard may give up and move on to reading something else. So, as a writer, putting this kind of text out there is risky. What we need to be putting out there for our readers is a text where the ‘moves’ we are making in putting the story together are clear, and signalled, so that the reader’s work is less trying to work that all out, and more trying to engage with and appreciate the story itself.

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So, you are writing a paper. You have a basic argument in mind – a claim, or series of claims that you know you need to make. You have done your reading, and have notes around the evidence that will go with these claims to support them. You start writing, and the argument develops and may take a somewhat different turn to what you originally thought. You start to worry that you have lost your argument thread – what are you actually saying anymore? How does this all fit together? Does it, even? This is all the first draft (and maybe second draft) process of working out what you are actually trying to say, and whether and how you can say it in this paper. Totally on track so far.

Where the more conscious connecting, and care, comes in is usually on draft three or more, where you have to start making the thread of the argument clear, and overt, for the reader. This is where you need to start thinking about structure, coherence, and the tools you can use to ensure this. There are a couple of tools that I use, as ‘sign-posts’, to guide readers through my argument. These are ‘foreshadowing’, descriptive sub-headings, and clear transitions.

Foreshadowing

This, in essence, is a tool that uses clever repetition to create links in the readers’ minds between paragraphs, and sections, of the paper. Repetition is often discouraged in academic writing, but there is a use for it, when it consolidates and advances the development of your argument.

From: https://doi.org/10.18546/LRE.15.1.04

See how these writers have used the term ‘bridge’ in the text, and then again in the sub-heading. And, how they have connected this idea of a bridge to disciplinary knowledge structures. This term, in a different way, is then repeated under the sub-heading, and the effect for the reader is to see, without being told in a sentence that starts with ‘The next section will …’, that they are going to read about what the writer thinks this bridge is, and how it is connected to knowledge in the disciplines. The value of trying to use repetition, carefully, to build connections between ideas, as well as complexity of ideas, over the course of a paper, is that you show the reader what your argument is (and why it is useful), rather than telling them what it is. This is a more reader-friendly approach, and more likely to engage the readers with the argument itself, than with the way the argument is structured.

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Descriptive sub-headings

Not everyone is allowed to do this. If you are writing for a journal in the natural or applied sciences, or that has a more ‘traditional’ approach to journal article structure, you may be given your subheading (Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and so on). But, if you are writing in a field, and for journals, that is less prescriptive about this, consider using your sub-headings, with your text, to create sign-posts for readers to move them from one sub-section to the next as your argument builds.

Instead, for example, of ‘Literature review’, consider the main claims or points this section is contributing to the argument overall, and create a sub-heading that captures this. Instead of ‘Theoretical Framework’ or ‘Discussion’, try headings that capture what the theory or discussion contribute to the argument. This further enables the reader to see each step of the argument, and how they are being led in one direction, rather than wandering around in circles or zig-zags. See the examples below, and how the authors use a mix of foreshadowing and descriptive sub-headings (e.g., ‘driven by economic concerns’ and then ‘Drives to increase…’

From: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14703297.2016.1155471

And here: they introduce the notion of the ‘politics of disciplinarity’ in the text, along with the ‘university system’ and then show with the sub-heading that they are moving forward to elaborate on these issues in the next section of the paper.

From: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ523110.pdf

If you are working in a field that will not look kindly upon descriptive sub-headings, you will need to think more creatively about the transitions you create for your readers. I urge you to go beyond statements, like ‘the next section will discuss X’. Too many of these, and the reader starts to feel like they are being taken through a list of points, rather than a joined-up argument. Rather, think about what you have been writing about, and where you are going next, and what the ‘content’ connection is. What is the link between the present section, or paragraph, and the next one? How are they connected together in light of the overall point of this section, and the unfolding argument? Try to capture that in the transitional sentences.

From: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2011.611876
From: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2011.611876
From: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2011.611876

Hopefully, in these examples, you can see a small sense of what I am arguing for – a form of showing your reader your argument, through carefully thought-out links and transitions between paragraphs and between sub-sections that ‘sign-post’ the steps of the argument as it builds.

If you do not pay attention to sign-posting your argument, especially through carefully and clearly connecting ideas, and claims, to one another as part of a coherent whole, the effect on the reader is usually one of two things, in my experience. The first is the sense that they are reading a list of ideas – they may be in more or less the right ‘order’ to be making an argument, but the ways in which you are joining them together are left to the reader to figure out. The second, is the sense that this is a jumble of ideas, not all of which may belong in that paper, or chapter. Neither make for a reader-friendly experience, and if the reader is lost, or annoyed, or struggling to make sense, this is not good for the writer.

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Clear, careful, and visible signposts that are creatively woven into your text take time, and work, and iterations of drafting and feedback from readers. But, they are the ‘glue’ that binds your argument together.