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I'm writing a response essay to Medieval Women's Visionary writings that possess power. In this essay I'm supposed to explain how two writers, that I've picked to write about, possess or don't possess power through their writing (we're using Cixous and Foucault as reference for definition of power). I seem to find myself using the the phrase "the reader" a lot to express how a reader is being written to or directed in the writings by the visionaries. Does anyone have any suggestions for avoiding this trap, which probably hurts my argument?

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Using "the reader" is absolutely fine in this context. It says exactly what you need, it is clear, and it is commonly used when describing the interpretation of a text. Just use "he" when you've just mentioned him. Or use "us", or "this comes across as", or "the author wants to express ...", etc. Incidentally, the style of your question is a bit sloppy: I see several spelling mistakes and sentences that are wrong... but I am sure you will be more careful in your essay! –  Cerberus Mar 28 '11 at 23:44
    
I'm betting the question could have been structured better, but I don't see anything that's actually wrong - just for my piece of mind could you point out? I'm actually a Computer Science major taking this class so I'm prepared to accept criticism for writing :) –  jphenow Mar 29 '11 at 0:01
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@jphenow: Hah, nothing I like better! The ability to accept criticism is a very useful and admirable virtue. Your writings that posses power is odd, unless it is part of the title, in which case the words should be capitalized. Possess has double s at the end. There should be "their". As reference for power isn't quite clear: do you mean something like "for definitions / a definition of power"? This trap that would be better as "this trap, which", because it is a non-restrictive relative clause. –  Cerberus Mar 29 '11 at 0:24
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Picking up on points made earlier, I'm sure you'd lose more marks for sloppy spelling, poor grammar, and lack of basic proofreading than for simply repeating the reader a lot in your essay. But you can usually recast your phrasing to achieve much of what you want here. For example, "aaaa calls to mind bbbb", rather than "aaaa reminds the reader of bbbb". –  FumbleFingers Mar 29 '11 at 0:30
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@Cerberus Still, a general discourse on this subject would be useful, for me, and for others. I sometimes fall into this trap myself, when writing academic papers. If it's not answered in a couple of days, I think I may open a bounty. –  Uticensis Mar 29 '11 at 21:21
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3 Answers 3

Something you can do to trim the number of uses is to simply dictate what the author was saying or doing:

Foucault said [x].

This means [x].

This passage is read as [x].

The power of this passage reflects [x].

In other words, instead of saying, "Foucault was expressing power to the reader" just say, "Foucault expressed power."

"The reader" is typically implied by context and can often sound more passive than simply declaring what is happening. Removing "the reader" refocuses your statement on the author, the author's intent, and the writings or passages themselves.

That being said — and as others have pointed out — there is nothing inherently wrong with referring to the readers. It is good to trim a few of them out if you are feeling that it has been overused. What I have suggested is simply one way to do that.

You also have a great advantage in the sense that you have a teacher who can simply tell you what to do. Part of their job is to explicitly tell you how to write these essays and any personal preference they have should be immediately reflected in any essay you turn in to them. Simply ask after class or during office hours. If the class has a TA, they are also a good candidate for input.

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It sounds as if you are also going to end up using the passive voice ("how a reader is being written to or directed in the writings"). Recasting the sentences using active voice might help you find the right object for each verb.

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I am assuming the double "also" in your first sentence was a typo but I couldn't figure out exactly how I should fix it so I left it alone. –  MrHen Mar 30 '11 at 18:08
    
Yes, it was, thank you. –  JeffSahol Mar 30 '11 at 19:29
    
Yeah, I've been yelled at for writing passive voice too often, but does it not work in this situation? This is about the woman gaining power in the Medieval, which I take to mean, use the context. With that said, would I still aim to speak more actively or am I interpreting incorrectly? –  jphenow Mar 30 '11 at 21:02
    
I am not sure what you meant in that last comment, but what I am referring to is the use of verbs in the passive voice, as opposed to active voice. Passive: "the reader is affected by her writing". Active: "she affects her readers". Passive voice tends to be a way to weasel out of identifying the actors ("the cookies were stolen"). –  JeffSahol Mar 30 '11 at 21:16
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Often "we" or "one" is used to name "the reader," I believe.

But would it not be stronger and more forthright to defenestrate "the reader" / "we" / "one" and the rest of that amorphous crew and use "I" throughout? "The reader" seems a kind of camouflage or escape hatch for the essayist.

-- p

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That's an answer I was sort of expecting (in a good way). However, isn't it sort of "against" essay writing rules to use "I" much , if at all? –  jphenow Mar 30 '11 at 4:35
    
@jphenow: This might be helpful: unenlightenedenglish.com/2009/04/using-i-in-essays –  Callithumpian Mar 30 '11 at 15:48
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