Critics may fault writers or speakers for lacking substance. Critics (e.g., clients, bosses, teachers, peers) say a text lacks substance when they perceive it to be underdeveloped, superficial, boring, illogical, disorganized.
Substantive Prose concerns what a rhetor communicates as opposed to how a rhetor communicates. Substance is essence. Core matter. If your document lacks substance, it is frivolous, a waste the of reader’s time.
If someone tells you your ideas, texts, or presentations lack substance, you are wise to seriously assess and prioritize the critique(s) with an open mind. Being critiqued for having poor substance is a global critique. In some ways this is a vague, overgeneralized critique. So, if you are told this the first response might be to ask for concrete, specific language about where and how your prose confused the audience.
Sometimes, in real life, however, readers lack a vocabulary for critique or a distaste for confrontation. If your readers tell you they found your work to be a bit boring, if a client didn’t respond to you in a business situation or if a teacher gave you a low grade for content, you may feel a defensive impulse to ignore that feedback. So, the first step in revision for a critique of poor substance is to be open to your critics’ ideas and reading experience.
You may also find it useful to review how you composed the document. Here, some declarative knowledge about composing processes can be helpful. Honestly engage in self-regulation. Ask yourself whether you engaged in professional behaviors.
Next, go back to basics: consider whether or not you have effectively responded to your rhetorical situation. You can guide this rhetorical analysis by first assessing whether or not you overemphasized appeals to pathos and ethos over logos.
When a writer makes a point or claim, his or her position should be supported by evidence from one or more reliable sources. Evidence from reliable sources can make an argument more convincing and build the credibility of the writer. In contrast, unsupported points or points supported by unreliable sources can compromise the integrity of the paper and the writer.
For each main point you have, you should include relevant details or examples to support your ideas. The trick is balance: it’s possible to add too much information just as it’s possible to add too little. To determine the right amount, reflect on your rhetorical situation and the audience, and genre.
Look at the following paragraph:
Niagara Falls is one of the most beautiful sights in North America. It is on the Niagara River about halfway between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Niagara Falls is on the American and Canadian border. The American Falls is 167 feet high. On the Canadian side, the Horseshoe Falls is 161 feet high.
The main idea is: “Niagara Falls in one of the most beautiful sights in North America.”
The supporting details are:
- “It is on the Niagara River about halfway between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.”
- “Niagara Falls is on the American and Canadian border.”
- “The American Falls is 167 feet high.”
- “On the Canadian side, the Horseshoe Falls is 161 feet high.”
In a more developed academic essay, the supporting details of an essay will have quoted material from an outside source to support the essay’s main idea/thesis statement.
It’s possible to provide evidence for your claims and yet be dismissed by your readers. It’s possible that your thesis/research question and topic challenge the world view of your readers. In such rhetorical situations, the critique that your writing lacks substance may be inauthentic, a white lie.
However, it’s also possible that your topic is complicated. Your thesis can be nuanced and sophisticated. In such instances, your audience may have difficulties understanding how the evidence relates to your thesis.
As noted at Substantive Prose, a text may have major stylistic problems and yet be considered substantive if the audience finds the content to be insightful–and perhaps even original. However, because stylistic problems can undermine reading comprehension, you are wise to review your document for stylistic infelicities.