Writing for a Non-Academic Audience is Hard

It seems like every year someone pipes up with the suggestion that academic writers – particularly in the humanities – should write in a more accessible style and try to engage non-academic readers. Often the suggestion comes from frustrated graduate students in my graduate historiography class who have just had to endure some or another theoretically or conceptually demanding text. (In fact, I once had a class mutiny over just this issue.) Other times, the observation comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education or some other mainstream publication that can’t resist taking a shot at perceived academic shortcoming. Some have even identified the causes and offered solutions.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been playing around with writing for a non-academic audience for a few years. I contributed to this article on The Atlantic’s website, I’ve wrote a few things for North Dakota Quarterly, and I have a book called, A Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch under review.

I’m not very good at it (yet), and I think I know why.

1. It’s hard. Non-academic writers work very hard for years to develop a personal style and get work published. However hard it is for academics to get work published in respected places, it’s much harder for non-academic writers. They not only have to come up with good story ideas, but also write them in an engaging way. Then their work has to run a gauntlet of ruthless editors and hope that their work reaches an appreciative (or even just interested) audience.

By comparison, academic writers have it easy. I write for existing audiences, encounter relatively little editorial resistance, and have yet to witness any culling of the ranks of academic writers based on their ability to write. In fact, we are rewarded as much for the quantity of work that we produce (or at least the quantity of thoughtful work) than the quality of our writing. There are almost no external incentives to write better. 

2. I don’t read much creative non-fiction. I barely read at all these days outside of the typical line-up of academic monographs and articles that my research requires. Many of these works are filled with exciting ideas, complex prose, and useful information and arguments, but few of them are well written when compared to quality non-fiction. I suspect that many of these works also deaden my reading (and writing) palate and loosen the limits on what is acceptable forms of expression.  

3. I don’t have time. Finally, I don’t have time to write, and more importantly, I don’t have time to write and revise and write and revise. Most of my academic writing gets at most three or four revisions which mainly focus on argument. At best, I manage a single reading for style, and it usually comes toward the end of the revision process, immediately before the article is due for publication. This is hardly an ideal time to think critically about larger compositional issues. I mostly look for glaring infelicities (adverb parties, redundant words, or sentences with similar introductory clauses). With competing priorities from endless meeting to teaching (and, of course, critiquing my students’ writing), I can’t imaging having the time and attention necessary to hone my style into something approachable for a non-academic audience. I certainly can’t imaging competing with authors who write for a living, full-time, and without other priorities. 

I don’t mean to say that it’s impossible for all academic writers to write in a way that is more engaging for a non-academic audience, but I suspect that my experiences are not unusual among academic authors. 

In the meantime, you can read my latest efforts at trying to write non-academic prose here. It’s the revised version of my “Wormholes and North Dakota Quarterly” article that I originally posted here.  It’s slated to appear in NDQ 80.4.

5 Comments

  1. Okay, so not exactly in opposition, but certainly in response to this post, here are my thoughts both as an author of fiction, and as someone outside of Academia:

    I think this idea that Academics should write more accessibly is important, and I think it boils down to one major reason why: If Academics cannot effectively communicate their ideas and discoveries to the public, it could be argued that they are failing at a critical component of their job.

    I know this is a bold statement to make, particularly from someone who is NOT an academic, but I’d hazard that when the complaint most often comes from frustrated graduate students, it is a blinking neon sign of support for my position — if Academics cannot even communicate their research and findings to the students they are *teaching* who are *trained* in Academic pursuit *by* Academia, that is absolutely unquestionably a problem that needs to be examined. Additionally, as a non-academic writer of historical (and other) fiction, I absolutely rely on Academics and their ability to communicate their research and findings in a manner that I can study OUTSIDE of academia (I read everything from academic articles and monographs to more generalized text books, translations of primary sources, and general non-fiction on the topics of my books as well as other fiction treatments of my subjects when applicable in order to synthesize the world I’m building), and I am definitely not alone, even if I’m maybe toward the bottom of the “people of import” totem pole. MORE critically, people who rely on Academics to communicate clearly in an accessible style include government officials and policy makers, lawyers, innovators in public and private sector, heads of state in general, public servants of all stripes, and pretty much all creators, movers, and shakers. People, in other words, who have enormous influence over our lives and how we live them.

    Having said all of that, I’ll admit openly that I find Academic writing to be a beastly and torturous form, most of the time. This isn’t to say that it can’t be readable, just that it isn’t something I want to wrestle with — I’d much rather spend my time communicating my ideas through fiction and metaphor outside of that structure, and I tip my hat to Academics who manage not only to communicate their ideas in an accessible ways, but do it through the academic writing. But, in my humble opinion, because communication through writing is part of their job, no Academic should get a pass on being a bad writer or a bad communicator for ANY reason. They should be *making* the time to do the work required to hone their skills as a writer, and part of that skill is making one’s work readable, understandable, and accessible. (And Bill, I think you do a good job of trying to drill this into your students — at least, I felt there was a strong emphasis on GOOD writing when I was taking your classes, and I assume that you haven’t made life easier on your students in that regard if they’re producing their own text book for world civ.)

    There are many writers of fiction who will claim they don’t have time to read, for example. Somehow, for these people, from their perspective, it becomes a mark of success — that they are SO busy writing NEW books that are IN DEMAND, that they can’t take the time to read other books in or out of their genre. But reading widely is the second most important part of the job of writing, not just so that the writer is aware of the market and the state of the industry itself in order to keep their own work relevant, but also to continue to grow as a writer generally, by exposure to new ideas, styles, and technique.

    Now, maybe the problem is that in Academia, people who shouldn’t necessarily be writing books and articles at all are being forced to publish — because talent for research maybe doesn’t always go together with a talent for writing. (I feel like this is most often the case in the sciences, but certainly it won’t get better in any field if Academics don’t consider writing and reading to be part of their job. I don’t believe just ANYONE can be made into a GREAT writer, but I do believe that most well-educated people should be able to get a handle on the basics of clear and effective writing.) And maybe the structure of Academia should take this into consideration, and Academics who are not CAPABLE of doing the job of communicating their work should be required to hire assistants or team with co-writers who ARE willing and able to utilize those skills, or who *prioritize* honing those skills, at the least (as a student working on a group project, we never left the paper writing part to someone who clearly sucked at writing — we’d get dinged in the grade!). But I suspect that approach is only going to result in further isolating those Academics (and by association their research and discoveries), resulting again in a lack of accessibility. So maybe the easier change is, as you pointed out, making the editorial process (not just the peer-review process) more rigorous, and thereby forcing academics to do the work that all other writers are required to do — communicate clearly.

    Because when it comes to clear communication “I don’t have time,” in a field where publishing one’s findings and communicating and teaching those findings to others is a significant part of the job, is a really weak excuse, and I’m honestly not sure what other field would overlook this. A lawyer, if they said they didn’t have time to learn the legalese required to write the brief correctly and clearly, would be laughed out of court. (Or law school before that.) So why should an Academic, whose research and effective communication of wisdom, ideas, and concepts buoys pretty much our entire civilization, be able to use that as an excuse?

    The only explanation I can think of is that they’ve completely disconnected from the idea that their clear communication of research, learning, and ideas to the public is maybe the most NECESSARY and CRITICAL for all of us.

    Reply

    1. “If Academics cannot effectively communicate their ideas and discoveries to the public, it could be argued that they are failing at a critical component of their job.”

      This hits the nail on the head. The consequences are also obvious. If the general public doesn’t understand what you’re doing, than why should academic research be funded, to a significant degree, from public money? The Humanities are increasingly under fire, and the reason for this is that the general audience doesn’t get what academics are doing because (1) academics write mainly for fellow academics and (2) publish either in journals that the average lay person doesn’t read or in academic books that are too expensive to purchase and difficult to find outside of academic libraries.

      Reply

      1. Why is it that biologists and mathematicians are not held to the same standard? We would never dream of saying something like this about a work on physics, “If the general public doesn’t understand what you’re doing, than why should academic research be funded, to a significant degree, from public money?”

  2. Part of the graduate student socialization process is learning to write for one’s audience. Grad students receive direct feedback from professors, they mimic the writing style of experts in their field, and they read articles in journals–each with its own rules of the road for presenting information. I think this is part of the learning experience. Perhaps a modernist view of socialization, but the rigor of succeeding in writing something useful for one’s peers is its own skill.

    While I understand the desire to have academic writers who can communicate clearly with a non-academic audience, I don’t think it is a reasonable expectation. First, it asks academic writers to do ‘one more thing’ for their students, or the curious community interested in their work. Second, successful academic writers are successful not because they all speak to non-academic audiences, but because they communicate clearly, using appropriate terminology from their field, and referencing appropriate material to connect their work to that of others. If this means someone else has to interpret their work for a non-academic audience, so be it.

    Reply

  3. Danielle Mead Skjelver, two things regarding your retort, to which I somehow cannot reply directly.

    Firstly, the same thing should obviously apply to the natural sciences, and generally it does. Indeed, at least here in the Netherlands, academics engaged in natural sciences generally are better at explaining to a general audience what it is that they do on a level that anyone can understand than their colleagues in the humanities/social sciences. It doesn’t always work: I draw your attention to people who think that space travel and the like is essentially a big waste of money. But in general, they do a better job.

    Secondly, the natural sciences have acquired an aura that makes them more robust in public opinion than the humanities or social sciences. Few people question that physics or biology are important, since the applications of those sciences tended to be practical and tangible (computers, engineering/building projects, medicines, etc.). Not so for the humanities/social sciences, which makes it all the more important for academics engaged in the latter fields to do a better job at explaining why and how they do what they do and why the general public has to finance them.

    Witness, for example, recent news from Japan where universities are now downsizing humanities faculties or even getting rid of them entirely because politicians feel people should focus on areas that yield more obvious, practical results. Stuff like that has been going on for decades, eroding the prestige that the humanities once had and making it ever more urgent that academics properly explain just what they do.

    Reply

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