Even if you’ve only ever written a single essay–or even a line of an essay–you’ll be familiar with metadiscourse and the challenge it presents. Metadiscourse is a fancy word for the language we use to frame our ideas:
It’s hard to write without using metadiscourse. For instance, anytime you indicate a change in direction, you end up using expressions like however, on the other hand, or yet one might argue that. All of these are examples of metadiscourse.
Use too much of this kind of language and your prose will seem stilted and cumbersome; use too little and the reader will be lost in a jungle of disconnected observations. Let’s take a closer look, then, at how you can use metadiscourse to frame your ideas effectively.
The word metadiscourse consists of two parts. The word discourse means communication or debate. The prefix meta comes from Greek and means something like about. In other words, metadiscourse refers to the language we use to talk about our regular communication.
If your thesis reads “I will argue that according to Plato thinking for yourself is antithetical to an oral tribal culture,” then the phrase “I will argue that” is metadiscourse. It frames the idea and tells the reader how you want your words to be understood.
Metadiscourse is important because it allows us to put our stamp on the material, to give direction and relate the various facts and opinions to each other.
Here’s how one scholar defines metadiscourse:
Essentially metadiscourse embodies the idea that communication is more than just the exchange of information, goods or services, but also involves the personalities, attitudes and assumptions of those who are communicating. (Hyland 3)
In other words, your choice of metadiscourse affects your writing style. It affects how readers perceive you as a person.
Editing for Metadiscourse
Here’s a sample essay introduction filled with metadiscourse:
When comparing two pieces of literature, there are many different aspects that a person can analyze. When we take a closer look at Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass or C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe we see that this is true. For example, Lewis shares a Christian message, whereas Pullman promotes an atheist worldview. In this essay, I will demonstrate that these themes come up especially in relation to lying. Whereas Lewis condemns Edmund for being a liar, Pullman makes his heroine, Lyra, an accomplished liar and praises her for it.
Clearly this paragraph is very self-referential. The writer constantly reminds us that literary analysis involves comparison, analysis, close reading, and argumentation. Much of this language is redundant, and we could easily do with a shorter version:
Philip Pullman wrote The Golden Compass in part because he hated C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Whereas Lewis shares a Christian message, Pullman promotes an atheist worldview. We see this especially when it comes to lying. Lewis condemns Edmund for being a liar, but Pullman makes his heroine, Lyra, an accomplished liar and praises her for it.
The revised version is more direct. By minimizing the frame we can focus on the picture.
The point, then, is that metadiscourse should be used judiciously. Some writing instructors go overboard and launch a crusade against metadiscourse, deleting as much self-referential language as they can. Instead, the challenge is to find a happy medium, where your metadiscourse makes the reading process smooth and easy.
Finding Your Voice
A common struggle for writers is to decide what pronouns to use (or whether to use them at all). Let’s review whether it’s acceptable to use “I” and “we” in academic writing.
I can’t tell you how often students have come to me and said “But my teacher told me never to use ‘I’ in my essay.” While such advice may be well-meant, it has the unfortunate effect of making the act of writing seem somehow impersonal and distant, as if essays have to be composed in a different language.
Now it is true that in some disciplines (e.g., history) the first person voice is frowned upon, mostly because the author is expected to seem objective and unbiased. It’s also true that “I” is often redundant. If you’re writing a book review and you open with “I think that Slade House was a gripping read” you could just as well say “Slade House was a gripping read.” The reader will assume that the statements on the page are your opinion.
Despite these caveats, using “I” is not forbidden, and is often preferred. The first person voice is particularly useful when you’re distinguishing your ideas from those of others:
Whereas Sarah Jones argues that … I would suggest that …
I agree with Michael Smith that …
The first person pronoun is also great for indicating shifts in your argument:
I will argue that …
Having seen that … , I think we can safely conclude that …
Even if you later decide to delete some of those “I’s,” they will have helped you to get your ideas on paper, and that’s a good thing.
Another pronoun that tends to confuse writers is “we.” Here’s how to use “we” without sounding pompous.
First, avoid using the “royal we,” where “we” is just a grander way of saying “I”:
We will argue that …
As we have demonstrated …
Unless you are coauthoring a piece of writing, this use of “we” is not advisable.
On the other hand, you can use “we” if you’re actually referring to multiple individuals:
In our study group we found that …
As we examine the evidence, we will see …
Notice that in the second example “we” refers to the writer and the reader(s). This use of the pronoun can be an effective way of making your audience feel part of the process.
Much of essay writing consists of learning to use metadiscourse properly. It’s about discovering your own voice, of developing your writing personality.
At first the tendency will be to do too much, to start every sentence with a transitional word (therefore, thus, etc.), or to add unnecessary modifiers (e.g., essentially). Then the pendulum might swing the other way, and you feel self-conscious every time you write “I will argue,” or “we will see.”
But in the end you’ll find the right style for you, and that’s really all that matters.
Hyland, Ken. Metadiscourse: Exploring Interaction in Writing. Continuum, 2005.