Sometimes information you want to communicate to a reader can become divorced from the purpose it is serving. At times, it is simply not tied to a claim or wider discussion, which results in the reader being handed information without knowing why they received it. By presenting a quotation without context, for example, or putting analysis of your data in a discussion section without first explaining what that data demonstrates, you run the risk of your reader not understanding how information relates to the core ideas you are presenting, or vice versa. This often occurs because the writer, who is fully aware of the reason that information is included in their work, fails to realize that the reader needs a clearer idea of what larger purpose that information is serving. In the case of free-floating information that is not clearly orienting the reader, this becomes a problem because your reader has to hang on to information for a long time before they reach the relevant claim, argument, or context it is supporting (if they ever do). This exercise aims to give you a structured method for finding this free-floating information, so you can more clearly tie your orienting and your background information together.
In this exercise, you will conduct a hunt for “orphan information”, free-floating info that it’s hard to tie to a particular claim or purpose in your piece. Then, you will think about how to resolve your information presentation so your orienting information (the ways you position your reader) and your contextual information (the information you provide to help with that positioning) are connected more closely.
- Read through your paper, and highlight every piece of orienting information you can find. Orienting information includes your claims and sub-claims, but it also includes other moments when you position your reader in relation to what you’re attempting to communicate: mentions of a critical conversation or an author’s work, a previously conducted study, or any other place where you feel the need to provide background information.
- Now, one at a time, read the information you’re presenting between each claim. Try to see if you can tie this supporting information to a piece of orienting information you identified in step one. You can do this by making comments on each piece of orienting info with the respective background information, or simply drawing a line between the orienting and supporting information.
- Now look at the information that is left over: anything which you were unable to tie to a piece of orienting information. Highlight this in a second color to represent “orphan information”. Additionally, check to see if there are any spaces where supporting information appears before the reason it is present. If there are, label these as orphan information as well. Finally, label any orienting-supporting pairs where the information appears far apart from each other– more than a page or two, at most. This indicates that the supporting information has essentially become orphan info divorced from its original purpose, so the reader may not remember why it’s there.
- Now that you identified your orphan information, it’s time to see how you can better incorporate it into your paper. Read through each entry (anything you highlighted in a second color during step 3). Can you think of what this information is meant to support? Why is it present in your paper? If you can think of a claim or purpose it supports, experiment with moving that information closer to the relevant claim, or inserting it as a footnote. If you can’t think of a claim it supports, there are several possibilities for revision. This might be extraneous information– maybe it supports an argument you meant to make, but cut or never got around to including. In that case, it might be better to cut the orphan information entirely. On the other hand, this information might be supporting something you agree with subconsciously, but have not spelled out yet for your reader. In this case it can be helpful to write out exactly why you feel the information you’re presenting is important to the larger goals you’re trying to achieve. You may find that you’re able to spell out something that makes your work clearer to the reader on a larger scale, too.
This exercise should result in a clarified series of claims and evidence, and a smoother experience for your reader. If you want to further evaluate whether your contextual information is important to include, see our entry on evaluating the level of context.