Substance refers to what a rhetor communicates.

When employers, teachers, or the general public say someone’s ideas, texts, or presentations lack substance, that’s a harsh takedown. A body slam. A punch in the face.

The thing is, as hard as that is to hear, sometimes it’s right. Sometimes what we feel is on the page, isn’t really there. Rather we can be so emotionally embroiled in a topic that we cannot look at it realistically. And sometimes we make assumptions that are just plain silly. Sometimes we assume our audience shares our values, our histories, our education, our knowledge.

This critique–your text lacks substance–can be linked to any number of deficiencies:

  1. The rhetor may be overly reliant on appeals to ethos or pathos rather than logos.
    • Regarding appeals to logos, the rhetor’s text may reflect a lack of information literacy:
      • claims, purported facts, experiences, and even empirical observations could lack evidence grounded in textual research;
      • the rhetor could be unaware of the scholarly conversations on a topic that the audience considers basic, kinderschoolish;
      • statistics, direct quotes, paraphrases or quotations may not be cited, suggesting a lack of ethics or intentional plagiarism.
  2. The style of the rhetor’s prose may be simplistic:
  3. The text could suggest a lack of rhetorical awareness. You could have written something really smart but it’s possible it’s just written to the wrong audience. They may not have the toolset to understand the nuance of your argument. Sometimes, happily, you’re right and they’re wrong. And sometimes the truth comes in shades of gray and it’s time to revise.

Substance @ Writing Commons

Much of the time a lack of substance is due to lack of effort and revision. Flushed with the fervor associated with self expression, especially when we are super busy, we may not look hard and critically at our language. We may not really dig deep into the facts of the matter and identify the status of the thoughtful conversation on the topic.

But when our texts really matter, when they have real-word consequences, it pays to push our texts through critiques from knowledgeable critics. From a substantive perspective, you want to ask your critics to think seriously about your reasoning, to identify logical flaws, to tell you where you need to shore up your argument with textual and empirical research.

In general, the presence or absence of substance is tied to global, rhetorical matters. Thus, it’s possible to have terrific substance and yet loads of stylistic infelicities. And ultimately, if given the choice to write something really smart and grammatically flawed on something rather specious yet grammatically flawless, you want to go with smart everytime.

Yet it’s a bit too simplistic to say that style doesn’t matter when evaluating a text for substance. The bottom line here is that sometimes people can’t see how clever an idea is when it’s obscured in error. Thus, all of the resources at Style matter in terms of stripping away the clutter, the errors that intrude on a readers’ comprehension. To edit at a professional level, you need declarative knowledge about

Clearly, all that is a lot to think about. Maybe it’s even too much to think about, especially when you’re engaging in preliminary research and drafting.

So, just to get started, to take the first couple of steps with regards to ensuring your texts are substantive, we recommend you begin by reviewing the following articles:

  1. Avoid Vague Language
  2. Concrete & Sensory Language
  3. Figurative Language

Additional articles on Substance:

  1. Add Figurative Language to Engage Your Reader

    Why should figurative language be used in engaging writing? Figurative language makes a comparison that is not meant to be...

  2. Concrete & Sensory Language

    Why should abstract terms be replaced with concrete, sensory terms? The goal of a writer is to communicate ideas clearly....

  3. Incorporating Figurative Language into Your Paper

    How might you engage your reader by incorporating more figurative language (anecdote, narrative, simile, metaphor, dialogue, personification and such)? How...