skid marks on gray concrete road

Making Readers Hydroplane: a Caution for Writers

The purpose of this blog post is to give writers an illustration for something unhelpful they may be doing to readers… and to encourage them not to do it. I need to clarify up front – this blog is not about poetry or about types of writing that, as a genre, are not supposed to be clear and accessible.

When I was a middle school student my parents had a set of video tapes (right… this was pre-internet) on how to do well as a student. I recall watching some of them. I remember a few scenes. I remember experiencing a simultaneous desire to be a good student matched with the simultaneous boredom of being forced to watch study videos. So many years later, I recall a comment about how highlighting material in a book does not help learner recall. I don’t know if that is true or not. I certainly did not follow that suggestion. A second thing I remember was a warning that while reader, a reader should not read past a word they do not understand. The warning was that understanding of the material after that point would be precious and suspect. I think there is something (although not everything) to this warning.

I understand “meaning” to consist in the relation of parts to wholes. When we understand something… we grasp something about the wholistic relation between all the parts. To grasp that whole, however we have to grasp enough about the parts. There is a sort of balance that occurs between parts and wholes. The point below is that if we start losing our grip on the parts, we fail to grasp the whole; we fail to understand.

Ever since I returned to graduate school and did an MA in philosophy, I recall a common frustration with reading. Eventually the frustrating focused itself into a specific complaint: writers did not use enough examples. By “enough” I mean, writers often use no examples at all. Here they had gone through a clear process of thinking through a difficult subject (perhaps with their own thought experiments and examples) but then typed out only the generalized skeleton of what they’d discovered….just like I’m doing here. I’ve generalized something and not given you any examples yet.

Offering examples helps the reader to make sure they really know that they are understanding the word the way you are. Incidentally, if you can’t think of good examples, perhaps that is because you don’t understand what you are trying to say. Without examples, a reader—especially one who is newer to the topic—can never be sure if she is tracking with the writers usage of terms or concepts. Often writers wish to use everyday terms in specific/technical ways – words like intelligibility, conceptualize, or horizon. The words are clear enough in vernacular, but if used in a technical sense it is important for the writer to make sure the reader picks up on how they are using it. Similarly, an author may offer a contrast between words that one doesn’t normally take to be contrasts, such as the contrast: “imagining something” versus “visualizing something.” In other words, the author might say, “In these cases we imagine the thing; we don’t visualize it, lest we get into trouble!” Suddenly you lose traction when reader. Something slips. You never knew there might be a difference between imagining something and visualizing it. The writer thinks there is a difference. The writer continues to use the difference, but you aren’t sure what he means. My point is that this could be cleared up if the writer would quickly give an example, a footnote, a parenthetical comment, a reference to where to look in the literature, or …something. [1]

I like to imagine these moments as similar to when a car loses traction at a tire.

If you’ve ever been in a car when a tire or two has lost traction, it can be alarming and frightening. Even though frightening, things remain “ok” because the other wheels keep the car stable. You’ve lost some traction but you haven’t lost control. The real problem comes when a car loses traction at all four tires and begins to hydroplane; it begins to skid across a wet patch of ice or water. Now control has been lost.

When I read academic writing, I encounter spots where I lose traction... as in the example above with imagine vs visualize. Using undefined terms, or unclarified distinctions in your papers is like setting up patches of water/ice on the road in front of a reader (i.e. a driver). Unlike regularly driving, once a reader loses traction at a tire, they don’t gain it back unless you help them as a writer. When we drive, we can regain traction once we hit dry road again. When reading, this is not so. The slippage remains. As the article progresses, the more patches of literary ice/water you hit, the more tires lose traction. Eventually, 25% of the way through, 50% of the way through they’ve lost traction at all four tires. You’ve gone into a complete literary skid. Translation: the reader can’t understand your article/chapter any more. They’ve lost traction. They skid off the track. They flip through your paper (perhaps read the conclusion) and unhappily lay it aside. They took the time and energy to drive your “road” (your writing) towards a destination, and instead wound up in a ditch.

Disclaimer: There is a flip side to this. There are poor road makers who inhibit drivers generally but there are also novice drivers who can’t handle advanced roads. Some driving experiences are only for advanced drivers. Advanced driving is easy for some drivers who have the right skills. Growing as a learner means being able to return to an article/book where you lose traction, and enjoying the fact that you can keep your vehicle on the road. You didn’t lose traction. You zoom round bends you previously crashed at. You’ve grown.

It is not the case that all passages of writing need to be accessible. In some cases this would even detract from the driving experience. Nobody builds a 4×4 to drive it on smooth road. The problem is with he driver, it is with the immaturity of the reader, and not with the road. Readers need to grow in skill/intelligence/disciplinary-familiarity if they want to be on this road. This is the counterpart to the above problem. As an instructional designer we were taught to identify entry-level-skills that learners would need before being able to start a lesson or course. Something like that is afoot here, and it is not the fault of the writer. A certain level of disciplinary expertise is required to appreciate an article.

This week I read an abstract on ontological pluralism that started off by saying the “article assumes familiarity with the going issues and terminology in the debate and instead tackles xyz.” That is helpful; it signaled to me that the writer wasn’t going to spend time doing certain introductory things in the article. Charitable writers could easily add a footnote such as, “This article assumes familiarity with the content found in articles such as xyz. Those new to this topic might wish to consult, so-and-so (2019).”

Disclaimers aside, however, this blog post is about writers who could do more and don’t. Where possible, give the reader traction, give them a parenthetical clause to clarify, give them an illustration, give them something to keep them on the road. I think it makes for poor writing; it makes for lazy road maintenance to not do this some. This wastes the time of readers, it endangers drivers. In some cases writers deliberately write to be sophisticated rather than clear. May God reward them according to their deeds.

The point of the blog, again is to lodge the illustration into the mind of writers. If your readers lose traction on more than one, two, now three important terms (on two, three, and now four tires)… they are going to hydroplane; you will lose them. The above is not always possible, however it is not always impossible to signal to a reader the kinds of assumptions you are making about them as a writer. This is especially important when the genre of writing does not make it clear who the readers are, or if scholars from another field may dip into your work.


[1] We can think of differences. Perhaps the author means that we visualize something when we bring it something into our working memory that we have already seen in the world. By contrast when we imagine we bring something into our working memory that we have not seen or encountered in the world. We can think of such distinctions. The point is not that there are or aren’t such distinctions, but that the author does not tell us what she takes the distinction to consist in. She simply hints that there is on and moves on while using that distinction as a crucial part of her paper.

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