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Is it okay to use the phrase “This essay will discuss” in the introduction? I was told by my tutor that I have to refrain from using it because it is too “mechanical”. Is there any way that I can make an introduction without using this phrase? I really want to introduce the content of my essay to the reader.

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In my opinion, one of the best modern guides on writing clear nonfiction is The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. In Chapter 2, he defends a technique called classic style. One piece of advice therein speaks to what probably concerns your tutor, namely metadiscourse:

The rest of this chapter is organized as follows. The first subsection introduces the concept of “metadiscourse,” followed by one of its principal manifestations, the use of signposting. The second subsection reviews three issues: the problem of focusing on a description of professional activity rather than an exposition of subject matter, the overuse of apologetic language, and the disadvantages of excessive hedging. Following this, the third subsection explains the issue of prespecified verbal formulas. The fourth subsection covers issues having to do with excessive abstraction, including overuse of nominalizations and passives. Finally, I will review the main points of the preceding discussion.

Did you get all that? I didn’t think so. That tedious paragraph was filled with metadiscourse—verbiage about verbiage, such as subsection, review, and discussion. Inexperienced writers often think they’re doing the reader a favor by guiding her through the rest of the text with a detailed preview. In reality, previews that read like a scrunched-up table of contents are there to help the writer, not the reader. At this point in the presentation, the terms mean nothing to the reader, and the list is too long and arbitrary to stay in memory for long.

The previous paragraph reviewed the concept of metadiscourse. This paragraph introduces one of its primary manifestations, the phenomenon of signposting.

Clumsy writers do a lot of that, too. They unthinkingly follow the advice to say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you’ve said. The advice comes from classical rhetoric, and it makes sense for long orations: if a listener’s mind momentarily wanders, the passage she has missed is gone forever. It’s not as necessary in writing, where a reader can backtrack and look up what she’s missed. And it can be intrusive in classic style, which simulates a conversation. You would never announce to a companion, “I’m going to say three things to you. The first thing I’m going to say is that a woodpecker has just landed on that tree.” You’d just say it.

The problem with thoughtless signposting is that the reader has to put more work into understanding the signposts than she saves in seeing what they point to, like complicated directions for a shortcut which take longer to figure out than the time the shortcut would save. It’s better if the route is clearly enough laid out that every turn is obvious when you get to it. Good writing takes advantage of a reader’s expectations of where to go next. It accompanies the reader on a journey, or arranges the material in a logical sequence (general to specific, big to small, early to late), or tells a story with a narrative arc.

It’s not that authors should avoid signposting altogether. Even casual chitchat has some signposting. Let me tell you a story. To make a long story short. In other words. As I was saying. Mark my words. Did you hear the one about the minister, the priest, and the rabbi? Like all writing decisions, the amount of signposting requires judgment and compromise: too much, and the reader bogs down in reading the signposts; too little, and she has no idea where she is being led.

The art of classic prose is to signpost sparingly, as we do in conversation, and with a minimum of metadiscourse. One way to introduce a topic without metadiscourse is to open with a question:

This chapter discusses the factors that cause names to rise and fall in popularity.

What makes a name rise and fall in popularity?

In other words, instead of writing an essay that talks about itself, just talk about the essay's topic. When speaking aloud, you'd never say, "this speech will discuss". The last two lines in the above excerpt illustrate how to avoid metadiscourse in topic identification.

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