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.