How Much Do I Need to Explain? Finding Places to Condense and Expand

Academic writing, by its nature, involves explaining complicated concepts. But not every concept you need to explain is central to your analysis. A useful guiding question for revisions is how best to ensure your readers experience for themselves the centrality of certain concepts or theories that you are putting forward as a pivotal element of your essay, article, or chapter. While it is easy enough to present your reader with an assertion that a particular theory or idea has a very high place in your paper’s conceptual Hierarchy, it is much harder to get readers to experience that theory as deep and significant in their own comprehension of your work. The revision strategy in this entry focuses on combining two different ways of putting emphasis on a concept: detailed elaboration and clarifying summation. Elaboration involves zooming in on a thing you want to explain at more length, offering more with more detail and nuance, and, from your reader’s perspective, offering more time  to consider what you are saying. Summation involves articulating the broad strokes of the thing you are explaining in a notably brief and efficient way. Alternating between these two explanatory modes is an effective way to bring readers into a full and deep comprehension of a complicated concept.

We can approach this issue using some of the same techniques we use for other paragraph-level edits. Rather than using color-coding to identify which ideas certain passages are following, here we use it to identify types of passages:

Step 1: Identify a section where you are trying to explain a complicated idea that is central to your analysis.

Step 2: Color-code according to functions that sentences or paragraphs are serving. Is a given passage expanding on the explanation of a concept, or is it condensing the foregoing discussion, restating the concept in a succinct way?

Step 3: Consider the relationship between the two colors you’ve used. If you have both colors, are they set up in a way that supports each other? Ideally, there should be a clear relationship between elaboration and summation. A section might begin with a condensed articulation that is followed by elaboration. Or a long and detailed passage might end with a powerful and clarifying summation. If that isn’t happening in your draft, revise accordingly.

Keep in mind that these issues may be evident at different scales. Condensation and expansion may happen within a single paragraph, throughout a section, or across an entire chapter.

For more on color-coding check out: “Disorganized first draft? Color-coding as a tool to reorganize and restructure“.