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Who You Are and What You Say: “Platform” and Writing May 1, 2012

In any discussion of writing (particularly writing in order to be published), the conversation comes back to platform.  You may not have heard that term for it, but “platform” refers to how the author wishes to present themselves.  In the publishing world, this usually means the author’s credentials, where they “fit” into a few conventional categories, and what makes them worth listening to.  You can’t just be a cookbook writer anymore, you have to be Joe Writer, winner of these various national awards and ruler of a social media empire, comparable to this Food Network personality.  “Platform” sounds pretty shallow, but consider the meaning in politics.  Politicians talk about platform all the time to discuss their positions on various issues, and what makes their ideas worthy of your time.  Platform determines how the reader (or the voter) sees you, and affects how they react to your writing.  It’s worth considering, then, how paying attention to your “platform” in academic writing can help you connect with your reader (or professor) most effectively.

Usually when we write papers, we just start typing and hope that what we end up with is what we wanted.  However, there are advantages to setting a few ground rules as to tone and register before you even start writing the paper.  Consider, first of all, what your perspective is.  Who are you in relation to the topic?  Will you be presenting yourself as an expert on the topic, or just someone with an opinion?  Are you as knowledgeable as your reader, or more informed?  Are you a friend or an instructor?  Is there anything in your background or daily life that would color your perspective?  (Admitting bias early on is a good way to get your reader comfortable with your opinions.)  Knowing how you feel about a topic and how much of that judgment you want the reader to hear – thinking about these things is a good way to begin a strong scholarly argument.

It might help, as well, to think in advance about what you want to accomplish with your paper.  Do you mean to persuade the reader towards a certain view, or to simply inform them on a topic?  Some writers set out to write one paper and end up with another, which can be very confusing to a reader who starts out expecting one thing and getting something quite different.  This is why pre-planning is so crucial, and can help you figure out what you want to accomplish in your writing.  It can be very awkward, in other words, if a history paper on Belize becomes a chronicle of your last vacation there, or if a point/counterpoint about gay marriage spends too much time on historical data and not enough on reasoning and argument.  What is this paper doing, and how can you structure your prose to achieve that end?

Finally, why you?  Why should the reader listen to you?  This is where your “platform” really comes in.  If this paper is, in reality, one student speaking to another or a student speaking to a professor, the reader may not trust you to be the authority (or to have a convincing opinion).  If they don’t know about the topic, why should they believe that you are any more informed?  If you really are just one writer expressing an opinion on a topic, let the reader know.  Conversely, if you have special knowledge or training or experience on the topic, be sure to cite these things as marks of your expertise.  Quoting and paraphrasing others’ arguments will show your research into the topic, and discussing these arguments systematically and reasonably will show that you have put serious thought into this.  If you’re writing a book review, show that you’ve read the author’s other works, for instance; in a work of literary criticism, mention a few big names in the field to show that you’re familiar with them.

If you think about your “platform” before you even start to write, your tone will be more consistent and your voice more appropriate to the audience than if you left these considerations for later.  Once you know what kind of writer you are in this paper, and how you want to present yourself to the reader, you can write with more confidence and ease, and really sell it.


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