Friday, March 9, 2007

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So you want to write for a wider audience

David Damrosch has a thoroughly accessible essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the difficulties scholars face when they try to write for a wider audience. This paragraph in particlar explains why academics generally don't do this all too well:

The problem isn't that academics "can't write," as is often claimed, but that we are typically engaged in what scholars of the Renaissance know as coterie writing. In 16th-century England, for instance, small groups of aristocrats such as Sir Philip Sydney, his sister Mary Herbert, and their circle would compose poems for their mutual entertainment, circulating them privately from one country estate to another. Scholars today may reach a somewhat larger circle, but most academic writing is part of a continuing conversation among a coterie of fellow specialists with common interests and a shared history of debate. Even for scholars who are elegant prose stylists, it isn't an easy matter to make the transition from writing for Milton's "fit audience, though few" to a larger but less fit readership.
Damrosch then discusses his own efforts to write an accessible book that doesn't feel "dumbed down." He runs into an editor at Holt who provides the way:
Not only did the people at Holt want the book I wanted to write antiquity and all but they also suggested ways I could revise my sample chapters to better effect. The "Aha!" moment came when John Sterling, Holt's publisher, pointed to the opening of my first chapter. I had begun with a flourish, emphasizing the excitement created when a young curator at the British Museum first deciphered the Gilgamesh epic, with its seeming confirmation of the biblical story of the Flood: "When George Smith discovered the Flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh in the fall of 1872, he made one of the most dramatic discoveries in the history of archaeology." Sterling ran his pen along these lines, but instead of praising this bold beginning, he tapped the page and asked, "Couldn't you make this opening just a bit more dramatic?"

He was right. I had told the reader that George Smith had made a dramatic discovery, but I had failed to dramatize the scene at all. Rewriting my opening, I placed Smith at the long trestle tables where he worked amid the watery sunlight coming in through the museum's windows. I went on to detail his awkward social position: Never having gone even to high school, he had been apprenticed as a bank-note engraver. Brilliant and ambitious, he had taught himself Akkadian and begun to haunt the museum's Near Eastern collections during his lunch hours, making his way up from Fleet Street through the press of carriages, pedestrians, and hand-drawn carts full of cabbages and potatoes.

With the scene now set, Smith was on his way, and so was my book. I could still make my central cultural and political points, but they had to be carried by a strong narrative line, built around intriguing characters and fleshed out with a judicious use of telling detail. An ominous mongoose, for instance, made an effective lead-in to a chapter on the Assyrian empire, "After Asurbanipal, the Deluge." The mongoose's sudden appearance beneath King Esarhaddon's chariot led to a revealing exchange of anxious correspondence between the king and his chief scribe, who tried to reassure the king that the mongoose was not a warning sign from heaven but merely a bit of imperial roadkill.

The lesson I would draw from my Goldilocks experience is that it is neither necessary nor desirable to dumb our projects down when writing for a general audience. At the same time, we need to write quite differently when we want to reach beyond the comforting confines of our disciplinary coteries. It is good to have a clear and vivid style, but equally, we have to retrain ourselves to write for readers who don't already know what we're talking about, and who need to be shown why they should care about the things we know and love so well. The trade market can bear an impressive degree of scholarly substance if we can teach ourselves to reach out to a substantial nonscholarly clientele.


posted by Dan on 03.09.07 at 09:21 AM




Comments:

This assumes, of course, that we have anything to say to a general informed audience that they will find even mildly interesting. A Longtitudinal Cross-Correlation Functional Analysis of Relative-Gains-Seeking States in Multilateral Economic Trade Relations Under a Democratic Peace, 1792-1793: A Critical (Re)Investigation of the Trade-Peace-Microbus Hypothesis Theory, ain't gonna cut it.

And even if it did, we would have to convince our peers that it's not a sin to talk, as opposed to "theorizing."

posted by: Hemlock for Gadflies on 03.09.07 at 09:21 AM [permalink]



As a humble grad student, I have learned that writing in an "academic" fashion is the only way to show your peers how absolutely brilliant you are. As the author of the Chronicle article so aptly stated, to hear "rather journalistic" is a death knell for the untenured assistant professor. Who cares about style? Who cares about making things interesting? Who even cares about proper grammar? The editors of the top journals will take care of that. What's important is that you use lots of jargon, lots of equations, lots of models, lots of graphs so that all but the smartest and future Nobel-prize winners can understand your publication. Not to mention it renders you immune to criticism save from the most ardent grad students and the horde of assistant professors seeking tenure.

Sure you get advice telling you how important it is to make things interesting, to communicate to the reader why your topic is important and the potential life-changing contribution your paper will bring to the field. But bear in mind the Reader is not the typical layman with only a Bachelors, the Reader is a Doctor of Philosophy. So pray, don't insult the Doctor's intelligence by using journalistic, literary statements! Honestly, what better way to communicate to Doctors of Philosophy than writing something like the title Hemlock for Gadflies posted? Even better, remember that 1 + 1 = 2 comes across better than one plus one equals two; besides, you get to show off the LaTex skills you've so carefully honed over the decade you spent in grad school. Also, jargon is so much more elegant and it saves you on keystrokes (and makes the keyboard last that much longer)! So remember, adjectives never did anyone any good. Analogies? Leave that to the journalists.

So...writing for a wider audience is really for false academics who have stylistic prose, are truly able to express themselves, and do not suffer from over-inflated egos because of the three letters after their names. Also, they are the sinners who have betrayed the profession because they deigned to communicate with the primordial masses! (with this, I have just damned myself...)

As my untenured assistant professor said, "Writing a political science research paper is a serious endeavor. You are not a history PhD and you don't have to write well. The editors will take care of that."

I suspect he will get tenure yet.

posted by: veblen on 03.09.07 at 09:21 AM [permalink]



Veblen, you've made a (historian's) day!

"""As my untenured assistant professor said, "Writing a political science research paper is a serious endeavor. You are not a history PhD and you don't have to write well. The editors will take care of that."""


I will remember to cite this to all of our graduate students, along with the obvious correlate: "You are a history PhD, and you have to write well!" (Could this be because too many journal editors have given up helping us?)

But then reality strikes: if only I, and too many of my colleagues, could actually fulfil this expectation a little better than we do!

posted by: PQuincy on 03.09.07 at 09:21 AM [permalink]






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