Am I Including The Right Amount of Contextualizing Information? A Promote-Demote Exercise

If the ultimate goal of academic writing is to convince readers that a proposed knowledge contribution is valid, then it is essential to provide readers with the background information they will need in order to understand your claims and find them convincing. And yet, drafting and revision choices that involve Orienting the reader can become a real struggle for many writers, in large part because judgments about what context readers need depend largely on a writer’s assumptions about who their readers are. Take, for example, an anthropologist who is writing about dating culture among American Gen Z youth. If they assume that they’re writing for an audience of scholars who also work on Gen Z dating culture, they may only need to offer orienting information about US-specific context. By contrast, if they assume that they’re writing for anthropologists who don’t work on dating culture at all, or for scholars who work on dating culture but aren’t anthropologists, then there will be all sorts of  background information they’ll need to provide to their presumed readers to make sure they can follow along and be convinced. Hence the million dollar question: what is the right type and amount of orienting information for your intended audience?

The revision strategy detailed below is designed to help you make these judgments as you revise. The goal of this exercise is to determine how to present context for your project most clearly. Ideally, it will help organize your background information and make the overall progression of your essay clearer.

Step 1: Read through your paper (including the footnotes/endnotes) until you reach an area where you are giving your reader context or background information for your project. Mark these “contextual sentences” for later.

Step 2: Take a moment to reflect on who you understand your intended audience (or audiences) to be. Try to identify your main audience (usually scholars in a subfield or even a specific scholarly conversation), as well any broader communities of scholars you want to be speaking to. It may help to use a visualization technique like drawing a series of concentric circles and labeling each audience, from those who possess more relevant contextual knowledge to those who possess less. For each kind of audience, try to list the kinds of background knowledge you expect them to possess as well as the kinds they are likely to lack.

Step 3: For each contextual sentence, sort it into one of the following categories (1 through 3):

1: If the contextual information is essential to your central audiences understanding of the project, it should probably go in the body of the text. If it is currently in a footnote or endnote, mark it for promotion to the body of the text.

2: If your central audience is probably familiar with the material, or if the context is not directly relevant to the larger point you are focusing on, those sentences should be a footnote or endnote. If it is currently in the body of your text, demote it to a footnote or endnote.

3: If the information is something most of your readers would be familiar with already, either cut out that material entirely or place it in a very brief footnote/endnote.

Not sure whether you should paraphrase, cite, or block-quote? Assessing Evidence Length and Detail uses a similiar “promote/demote” strategy to work determine how much evidence is the right amount of evidence.