For a reader to follow the Argument of a text, find the claims convincing, and understand how the Evidence and Analysis support each claim, the author must provide Orienting information, i.e., things that give readers a sense of background and context. Sometimes, though, a writer trying to provide context can take things too far, resulting in a text that readers will find confusing and digressive. This is a problem that many graduate-level writers face because they feel the need to prove their expertise. If you know that your readers only require a small amount of background, but you cannot stop yourself from including much more, try this 10-minute free writing exercise to draft orienting text that offers an appropriate amount of information.
When you are ready to craft your contextualizing sentences, try the steps below.
Step 1: First, write down who your presumed reader is. Consider using the following sentence template: “My presumed reader is a scholar of / is an expert in insert topic here.” Then, list some of the general areas of knowledge your reader knows about but which you will address anyway.
Step 2: Now, identify one thing that needs to be explained/oriented. For example, perhaps you need to describe a particular historical event or figure, or a key concept, or a theory, or the object of your research (a painting, a text, etc.), or delineate some general knowledge about a pathogen, or rehash some results from an experiment that everyone in your field already knows.
Step 3: Now, set a timer for 10 minutes and write down the background information that comes to mind. The rules are simple: you cannot stop writing, and you cannot check any sources or look up information. In other words, you can only summarize the basic gist of what you want to say. This will be easy because of the logic behind the free write: your brain can only retain so much information, and it generally tends to retain the most important information. And so, if you are asked to write from memory, chances are good that you will only write down a summary of the information, something that captures the broad strokes of your topic without including the finer details. If you find that you continue to have trouble, or if you know that you think and work better by talking out loud, consider speaking about your topic out loud, recording yourself on your phone, and then using an app to transcribe the recording.
Step 4: Finally, repeat this process as needed for the other elements of your text that need to be slightly oriented for your reader.
This exercise also works if you are having trouble getting started with providing background information. You might focus more on the free writing step to generate areas of information to include.
If you are unsure of how much and what kind of information you should include, check out this revision strategy on providing the right amount of contextualization: “Am I Including The Right Amount of Contextualizing Information? A Promote-Demote Exercise.” Further, if free writing works for you see: “Can’t Distill Your Argument? 20 minute Free Write As a Clarification Tool.”