Sunday, August 23, 2009

Meta-Talk, or Sometimes it's not about the content

I've heard several editors comment that they always delete "Of course" as in "Of course, this won't work." The justification is that you don't need to say "Of course" because the words merely flag that what you're about to say is obvious. You don't need to say "Of course" because your reader will see that what you're saying is obvious. The claim is that "of course" contains no content and so adds nothing. Some editors have commented that they then go on to consider deleting the attached sentence because, after all, if the sentence's content is obvious to the reader, why do you need to include the sentence?

But those editors are missing the point. "Of course" does not, of course, contain any content. What the phrase does is tell the reader something about the author's intent. "Of course" is the author saying to the reader "I'm pretty confident that you know this...but I'm not absolutely positive that all members of the audience know this. So I'm going to include this material, just in case. Please don't be offended." It's not obvious to me that this is always a bad thing. I'm willing to leave "Of course" in.

"Of course" can be classified as 'meta-talk': text that discusses other text in the document rather than dicussing the document's content. And, as I've suggested, some editors feel that all meta-talk is wrong: If you're dicussing the text then you're not discussing the content and, as a result, wasting the reader's time. Rather than just focusing on content, I'd rather focus on "adding value." I.e. I don't want to ask "Does the sentence deliver new content to the reader?" but "Does this statement deliver some value to the reader?". For me, "Of course" does: It tells the reader something of value.

I do recognzine that much meta-talk is unnecessary. I often get authors telling readers what they're about to tell them: The first chapter in the sentence is "This chapter is about x." The author could have just said...well, nothing. If the chapter title doesn't tell the reader what the chapter is about, putting it in the first sentence of the chapter isn't going to help. That opening sentence is actually usually written in the form "This chapter is about x which is..."--I'll edit this down to just "X is..." and just let the chapter carry on. Telling someone that you're about to tell them something seems redundant, even to me.

However, what I'm doing is, as usual, saying that there aren't many hard-and-fast rules that can be applied to technical writing. Instead, we always have to look at the audience, the scenario, and our purpose and use that to guide our judgments.

Reading or read

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