Practical Style, Reflexive Style and Academic Style
In this video I’m going to introduce two new forms of writing style, which have been called “practical style” and “reflexive style”.
As we go over them it’ll become obvious how modern academic writing incorporates elements of these two writing styles.
The most important feature of practical style is that it is READER-DRIVEN.
The model scene starts out with a reader with a problem that needs solving. It could be a decision that needs to be made, or a ruling that needs to be handed down, or an inquiry to conduct, or a machine to design — it can be anything.
The reader has a job to do, and the reader’s need is what initiates the writing, not the writer’s desire to articulate something. The writer’s job is to serve the reader’s immediate need by delivering timely materials.
So on this model of writing, reading is not an end in itself, it’s a means to some other end, determined by the problem that the reader needs to solve.
In this context, the primary stylistic goal is to maximize the ease with which the reader can extract the information that is relevant to the problem.
Writing is viewed as an instrument for delivering information with maximum efficiency and in such a way as to place the smallest possible burden upon the reader.
Example: the Memorandum
A prototype of the model scene for practical style is the memorandum written to a superior who has asked for information. Your manager or boss needs a report on X, Y, Z, and your job is to deliver that report. The flip side is the memorandum written to a subordinate whose activities you are trying to direct and manage.
In this prototype, the relationships among the cast are hierarchical, they’re not symmetric. An awful lot of writing in the workplace fits this description.
Example: the Research Presentation
There’s another prototype of the model scene for practical style that is more symmetric, and that’s the researcher who is presenting the results of his or her research to a group of fellow researchers.
The readers may not all have the same status, but they’re peers in the sense that they’re all “insiders”.
With respect to the topic of the research, the presenter — the writer — knows more about his or her own research than the readers do, but the readers are fellow professionals who expect to know everything the writer knows as result of reading the research report, or at least what they need to know for their own purposes.
So the goal once again is the efficient presentation of information that serves the needs of the reader.
The relationship between practical writing and academic writing is obvious when you draw attention to it, especially when talking about professional academic writing.
In a previous video we talked about why academic essays follow the conventional three-part structure, and that discussion focused on the practical needs of academic editors and research professionals and how the conventions serve those needs.
All of that fits within the model of practical style we’re talking about here.
We’re going to move on now and talk about another writing style that captures another aspect of academic writing, “reflexive style”.
A trend you see in a lot of academic writing as that it has moments where it becomes self-referential — the writer is intentionally drawing the reader’s attention back to the writing itself.
The term “reflexive” refers to this feature of writing that refers to itself.
But let’s start with writing that doesn’t try to be reflexive. The author wants to write about a subject — let’s say it’s the causes of World War 1. So the subject is about the events and conditions that led up to the first World War.
If you’re writing non-reflexively, you want the reader’s attention to be focused on your account of those events and conditions. The text — the writing itself — tries to be invisible — or if not invisible, then transparent; it directs the reader to attend to a subject which is not the writing itself.
Now let’s say that you want to comment on the difficulty of coming up with a definitive answer to the question, “what caused World War I?”, maybe because there are conflicting accounts among different sources, and you think that each account offers a valid perspective that captures part of the story, but you note that any perspective reflects the author’s standpoint and biases, and so anything you say on the subject will also reflect your particular standpoint and biases.
To communicate all of this in your writing requires that you write reflexively — you have to draw the reader’s attention to the act of writing and to you as a writer, and in this case, the challenges inherent in the writing enterprise itself.
Reflexivity appears in a variety of different ways in academic writing. One way is in "metadiscourse".
Metadiscourse is just a writer’s term that means “talking about talking”.
There are different kinds of metadiscourse.
i. Practical Metadiscourse
One kind is what I call “practical metadiscourse”, because I associate it with practical writing and the goal of directing the reader’s attention to the organization and logical structure of a piece of writing.
When a writer says “In this essay I will argue that …”, that’s metadiscourse.
When they give an outline of their essay in the introductory section, that’s metadiscourse.
When they summarize the key points of the essay in a conclusion, that’s metadiscourse.
In all these cases, the writer isn’t talking about the subject of the essay, she’s stalking about the essay itself.
ii. Theoretical Metadiscourse
Another form of metadiscourse I call “theoretical metadiscourse”, because it’s driven by theoretical concerns about the possibility of knowledge and the limitations of language and the importance the writer places on situating themselves as writers in relation to the subject.
You see this a lot in academic writing in the humanities and the social sciences. This is very different from practical metadiscourse, but it’s still metadiscourse.
iii. Hedging and Qualifying
Another way that reflexivity shows up is in the academic’s tendency to hedge and qualify what they’re saying.
In writing, a hedge is an expression that is used to lessen the impact or significance of what is being said.
A qualifier is a way of restricting the meaning of what is said.
So if I say something like “The best research to date indicates that children of same-sex couples are not psychologically harmed by being raised in a same-sex family”, that expression at the front, “the best research to date”, both hedges and qualifies the claim about psychological harm by tying it to the interpretation of a certain body of research.
Now, this list of ways that reflexivity appears in academic writing isn’t intended to be exhaustive, but it’s good enough for our purposes.
There, see what I just did? I hedged and qualified what I’m saying in this section, letting you know that I know that there’s more to say on this topic than what I’ve given here.
That’s a common example of reflexive hedging and qualifying, and you see it everywhere in academic writing.
So, let’s wrap up with a bit more metadiscourse where I summarize what we covered in this video.
We looked at two styles of writing that are important elements of modern academic writing, practical style and reflexive style.
Practical style is focused on delivering information to the reader in as efficient a way as possible, to help meet the reader’s needs.
Reflexive style draws the reader’s attention to the writing itself, and to the writer.
There are better and worse ways of writing that incorporate elements of these two styles. If we understand the conceptual stance associated with each style, it can help us make better decisions about our own writing.