You’re Never Writing for Your Academic Doppelgängers

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I often say that as an editor, I try to inhabit the perspective of an intelligent nonexpert. Yes, by training I’m a specialist in the field of religion, but even when I’m editing books and articles in religious studies, I’m never an expert in the specific subject matter being analyzed.

That’s because my religion PhD is the product of a lot of choices that aren’t written in fancy display type on my degree. There’s some breadth to the degree, certainly, but within religion, I focused my studies on scriptures. Within scriptures, I focused on the Bible, and the New Testament, and the letters of Paul, and his Letter to the Romans in particular. And of course I don’t just approach that material from any old perspective: I employ a signifying-on-scriptures hermeneutic, identify myself as a feminist interpreter, and draw on ideological criticism. My religion PhD is not your neighbor’s religion PhD.

So virtually all the manuscripts I edit are not really in my precise area of research expertise. Sure, some projects overlap with my training more than others, but for an editor that matters less than a commitment to adopting the role of intelligent, interested nonexpert. Only in that mindset can I effectively advocate for the proverbial reader, which, when you get right down to it, may be the most meaningful aspect of my work. Alas, even though audience advocacy is a significant part of editing, nobody hires me expressly to be a readership stand-in. And presumably my clients care more about my PhD and postgraduate editing training than they do my ability to be a generalist.

But thinking like a generalist is exactly what authors must do in order to reach any reading markets, even scholarly markets.

If you have ever pitched a manuscript to a university press, you know well that you have to envision an audience beyond your circle of likeminded, like-interested scholars. And you have to make the case, both in the proposal and in the book itself, that your research has significance outside a narrow subfield. To break even, a university press has to sell several hundred copies of your book—even more if you have a commercial publisher. Even journal articles have to demonstrate an awareness of the world outside a specialty, and even the most technical reference volume will be couched in an understanding of what it has to offer a relatively broad audience.

With these real publishing demands in mind, we should all be hungry for real-world feedback that elucidates or underscores this need for scholarly writing to appeal to the nonspecialist reading public.

So I sat up and took notice when I came across David Carr’s recent New York Times review of a new Yale University Press book. If you saw the Page One documentary film, which I highly recommend, then you’re familiar with Carr, the film’s de facto star, and his entertaining way of being candid, critical, and big hearted all at once. True to form, the review that caught my eye is layered—highly readable, pretty incisive, and very instructive.

Besides managing all that in the space of less than 1,200 words, Carr also presents us with some clear directives for writing scholarship—specifically historical analyses—that meets the high standards of the discerning nonspecialist reader. (Oh yes, writing research for an audience wider than one’s own tranche of the academy means meeting more demanding, not more lax, standards.)

The book under review, St. Andrews professor Andrew Pettegree’s The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know about Itself, is no doubt really excellent research on a wonderful topic—the history of the news industry itself.

In academic book reviews, we’re used to seeing critiques that amount to paroxysms of “but what about my pet interest?” We might expect that Carr, a print-news stalwart, would have specific expectations of a history of the information business. Carr does take categorical issue with some of the phenomena that Pettegree presents as precursors to the information industry (pamphleteering, students’ letters home from residential schools, Roman Catholic indulgences).

Setting historical content aside, though, Carr has lessons for history writers of all stripes, and I suggest humanists take note:

  • “As a professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, [Pettegree] evokes the past with real gravitas. That’s the good part. It’s also the bad part.”
  • “History may be written by the victors, but it is rarely written well by completists. The best accounts know what to leave out to keep the narrative bouncing along.”
  • “The amount of trumpet heralding before signal events can be tiresome—I wanted him to get on with it more than once.”
  • “To-ing and fro-ing—this tendency to stop in time even as the book moves forward—may be good scholarship, but it can be mighty tough on the reader.”
  • “Strict chronology is a false hierarchy, but there has to be some respect for the passage of time, to give the reader a sense that events are building toward a meaningful end.”

Recounting events, Carr reminds us, is only the lowest common denominator of history writing. The best historians are set apart by how well they decide what material stays in and what doesn’t warrant inclusion. Beyond that, ordering the historical substance to achieve some measure of narrative artistry and readability is paramount. Imagining readers unlike ourselves helps us manage the implicit demands that they will place on our writing.

To be sure, the feedback that Carr gives Pettegree, a first-rate scholar and a well-published author, is not faultfinding for the sake of contrarianism. This review is not controversy inspiring or anything juicy enough to singlehandedly goose NYT sales. These little pearls of wisdom that I’ve excerpted amount to generalizable, applicable advice for the rest of us who are involved in the production of knowledge.

I think we’d all do well to ask ourselves whether the manuscripts we’re working on are running afoul of any of the best practices that Carr implies. In academic work, we should be on a mission to minimize all of these tendencies:

  • including anything and everything pertinent to the topic—but not necessarily relevant to the concept of the manuscript or its thesis
  • writing without attention to best practices pertaining to narrative and plot
  • expanding on something’s significance without first explaining the evidence for that something
  • defaulting to a chronological structure without having at least explored other presentation options

Remember, it’s totally possible that the people reviewing your work won’t have quite the unquestioning reverence for scholarly writing crutches (er, conventions) that academic insiders do. So let’s invoke the spirit of those outsiders early and often in the writing process.

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