Writing for General Audiences as an Academic

I’ve just finished attending the 2019 International Virginia Woolf Conference, a marvelous event focused this year on questions of Woolf and social justice. Most (but not all) of the attendees were affiliated in some way with academia, and one of the questions that recurred through the conference was: How do we combat negative stereotypes of the humanities and show the valuable work people are doing in our fields? Woolf’s concept of the “common reader” is one that haunted many attendees, since most of their work is not aimed at such readers, and, indeed, Virginia Woolf herself would likely be repulsed by the ways academic writing has become so insular — she didn’t much care for the academic writing of her own day, and ours is often, if anything, only more abstruse.

One attendee pointed out that it is only in universities that the humanities have been put into crisis — in the world beyond the university, there is a clear hunger for art, theatre, history, philosophy, literature, etc. Another attendee pointed to Kevin Birmingham’s award-winning, bestselling The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses as a model of a serious work of scholarship that does not cut out a general readership. There are challenges to such work for academic careers, however. Not just the challenges of trying to avoid writing about, say, the imbrication of hermeneutical hierarchies troping the dis/embodied humanimalian metropole, but the challenges of hiring, promotion, and tenure. For many committees, impenetrable writing published in inaccessible journals is the greatest scholarly achievement. Read Kevin Birmingham’s acceptance speech when he won the Capote Prize: “Publishing with Penguin or Random House should be a wonderful opportunity for a young scholar. Yet for most hiring committees, a trade book is merely one that did not undergo peer review. It’s extracurricular. My book exists because I was willing to give up a tenure-track job to write it.”

In some places, this is changing. In my own tenure-track job, for instance, I am supremely lucky to work with people who actually value open, public writing and research more than they value traditional, closed-access academic writing and research. Such places and people seem scarce in the academic humanities. But we’re also a regional state university where teaching and service are more important than research; if I were at an R1, I’m sure I would be under pressure to make my work more obscure and inaccessible.

But for the sake of the ideas and information I’m about to share, let’s pretend that you, dear reader, are in a position to write less obscurely for more accessible venues. Then the problem becomes one multiple people expressed at the Woolf conference: We’re not trained for that and don’t know how to even begin.

I do actually know something about such writing, however, because before I fell into the groves of academe, I wrote and published for general audiences, and still try to do so whenever I can. I’ve never had the discipline or tolerance for risk to make a living as a freelance writer, so there are many things I don’t know about the best practices for landing writing gigs, but I know how to get started and I know where to turn for more info. Here, what I will do is offer some resources, tips, and then a quick case study of a piece that I first wrote for a conference presentation, submitted to an academic journal, and once it was eventually rejected, turned into an essay that the Los Angeles Review of Books published.

Writing for a general audience as an academic

The first thing you need to do when writing for an audience that is more than 5 people (each of whom with a PhD in your field) is to think about that audience, to imagine it. What do they know and not know? How do you envision them? This is just an exercise, but it’s an important one, because there’s actually no such thing as “a general audience”. Your writing will both include and exclude, no matter what — it will, for instance, likely exclude kindergartners who are just learning to read. Think about who you want to include and exclude, because that will help you think about your diction and style as well as what material is appropriate, how focused you can be, what you can assume the audience already knows, what will need careful explaining, etc.

Here’s an example from my own recent experience: I have a book coming out from Bloomsbury at the beginning of next year. (It’s an academic book, submitted before I knew I would get my current job and not necessarily need to publish a rather academic book to have any hope of a career.) The original draft assumed an audience familar, to some extent at least, with all three of the writers I write about in that book: Virginia Woolf, Samuel R. Delany, and J.M. Coetzee. The problem, peer reviewers and the editor pointed out, is that such people are few. I might be the only one. I was thrilled that my editor recognized this, because then we were able to pinpoint exactly who we thought the book’s audience might be: people strongly interested in one of the writers, who may not know anything about the other two. That shifted how the book needed to be written. What I focused on in revision was making sure each chapter was meaty enough to be interesting to a specialist but also contained enough introduction and explanation to help someone who knew little about a particular writer understand why I thought that writer was important to the overall argument, and how the writer’s work fit into that argument. It felt like a tightrope walk, but it was also a lot of fun, because I kept that idea of an audience in mind and tried to think like a teacher.

Once you’ve got a sense of audience, then you have to work on your writing style. This is related to audience. Whether writing is good or bad usually depends on who it’s trying to communicate with. Good writing for one audience is bad writing for another. Jargon-heavy writing with multiple footnotes for every sentence may be just fine for a highly specialized audience familiar with the vocabulary and seeking to see how an argument fits within a critical history, but it’s awful for anybody else.

Here, I’m going to offer two books to help you untangle the academese from your prose. There are others, definitely, and if this is a topic of serious interest to you, you’ll find them, but if you just want to know how to write more clearly, then these are the books to start with:

Read Widely

Once you’ve clarified who you want to write for and have practiced writing clearly, then you need to make sure you’ve done some good reading. This should go without saying, but in my experience, a lot of people need a reminder: You can’t write what you don’t read.

Reading will also help you find markets for your work. This is why you need not only to read, but to read widely. Expand your knowledge of what kinds of things are being published. Check out some recent volumes of The Best American Essays and The Pushcart Prize. Read Literary Hub and subscribe to the LitHub Daily newsletter; also Arts & Letters Daily; also Bookforum.

Read exemplary writers of nonfiction: Of course, for folks at the Woolf conference that means Woolf, but Susan Sontag and Tressie McMillan Cottom were also mentioned, and I would add Guy Davenport and lots of others — but you can, I’m sure, make your own list.

Pitching and Publishing

If you’ve read widely, you’ll have found numerous possible places for publication. Not just highly prominent venues like The New Yorker, but, if you’ve done your homework, some smaller places as well, places more likely hospitable to someone without a long resume of publications. (But don’t rule out the big publishers. I once had a good exchange with an editor at The Atlantic about whether a piece I was working on would be a good fit for them. All I did was email a query to the Culture & Books email address on their contact page. I suspected it wouldn’t be a good fit for them because of length, and I was right, but we had a good exchange and I learned more about the kinds of things they are looking for, and they encouraged me to submit. I should probably do that sometime. Got a bit sidetracked with other stuff…)

Once you’ve found some places you’d like to send your work, you need to investigate how they want to receive submissions. Most places want a pitch for a nonfiction article: A brief email explaining what you want to write and why you’re the person to write it. I’m not especially good at pitching, so I’m wary of offering advice here, but you can find lots of articles online about the do’s and don’ts of pitching nonfiction. Think critically about such pieces — there’s a lot of junk on the internet aimed at aspiring writers, so do your due diligence.

How do you find how and whom to submit your writing to? That depends on the publication. Smaller places tend to put a submissions link right on their website, larger publications (not wanting to be deluged) often hide it. Look for the small print. Use your search engine skills. Try the databases at Poets & Writers, New Pages, or Duotrope. The information is out there. You’re an academic; you know how to do research!

Then send your pitch or, if they want a full manuscript, your writing. You might not hear back — ghosting is common. Be prepared for that: set a deadline for yourself where if you haven’t heard back, you’ll submit elsewhere. (Or submit to multiple places simultaneously, if you’re willing to risk having to tell an editor that the thing you pitched is no longer available because somebody else scooped it up.) Gird yourself for rejection. And be pleasantly surprised when they respond positively.

For books, you really will probably need an agent. Don’t let that be a scary thing. Agents are looking for good, authoritative writers. The hard part is not so much finding an agent as it is finding an agent who’s good for you and your project. You need your agent to be excited by your project. There’s plenty of information out there on finding agents — Poets & Writers has a database, for instance — but one technique you should add to your repertoire is to look up the agents who represented work that you think is somehow similar to your own. Read the acknowledgments of books (where authors usually thank their agent) or query a search engine with “Who is the agent for _________”. If they were passionate about a book you are passionate about, then that might be a good agent for you. Seek out their submission guidelines. Find at least 5 and preferably 10 agents to first submit to. Then, once they all say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” submit to another set of 5 to 10. And another set. And…

(Also note: Don’t ever pay an agent. That’s not how agents work. If an agent asks you for money, that’s not an agent, that’s a scam.)

For more information on writing and publishing, check out Nick Mamatas’s book Starve Better. For writing book proposals, there are tons of websites and books out there. Look for one written by somebody who knows what they’re talking about: check out their record. It’s not an esoteric task, but you do want to make sure you have a sense of the basic format and purpose.

If you’re thinking about making your work accessible, then you might also want to think about open access publishers like Punctum Books. Certainly, it’s nice to dream of a big book deal with a major publisher, but access is something we really should be thinking about as scholars. The ideals of a publisher like Punctum (not that there are, yet, many publishers like Punctum) may mesh better with your own ideals than the ideals of a multinational corporation.

Twitter may be a useful tool

Let me suggest that you learn (if you haven’t already) to use Twitter, not for self-promotion (though it might be useful for that), but for information gathering.

Yes, Twitter can be a vile cesspool, or it can be full of irrelevant idiocies, or it can be a vile cesspool of irrelevant idiocies … but if you think through who you are following and why, it can be useful. Follow the Twitter accounts of publishers you’re interested in, find editors’ accounts to follow, seek out other writers. One way to do this is to look at who it is that people you are interested in follow. Click on the list of whom they follow and use that to build your own list. You don’t even ever need to make a Tweet of your own if you don’t want; you can use Twitter simply to receive the information and ideas from other people. You might, though, discover new opportunities by engaging with people and building a network, because by being a good and thoughtful member of a Twitter community, other people might find you and ask you to write for them. Just remember, though, as my colleague Robin DeRosa likes to say: A personal network isn’t something you get but something you grow. It takes time and repeated engagement. For growing a network, 10 minutes on Twitter 5 days a week is probably more effective than 50 minutes on Twitter 1 day a week.

Case Study: “On Samuel R. Delany’s Dark Reflections

In 2016, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay I wrote on Samuel R. Delany’s novel Dark Reflections.

That essay began as a presentation for the 2014 Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Soon after the conference, I expanded it into a journal article and submitted it to a journal that I thought it had a relatively good shot at getting into. That journal took about a year to reject it, sending it out to various peer reviewers, all of whom recommended publishing it, but then the editor, with no explanation, said, “Nope.” I was so angry at it taking this long, and the result, that I vowed not to publish the piece with an academic publisher, because I was, at that moment, going through one of my periodic bouts of thinking all academic publishing is a hideous torture chamber of sadists seeking masochists.

I didn’t have to do too much to adjust the paper for a nonacademic audience. I cut some footnotes; the ones I didn’t think I could cut, I incorporated into the text. I adjusted the citations so they would be useful and clear to a general audience but not require a reference list. From the moment I decided to aim the piece at a not-necessarily-academic audience, I had thought of the Los Angeles Review of Books as the ideal publisher. I had published one review with them before, and they had published other pieces about Delany. I went to their contact page and followed the instructions, sending a description of the essay. An editor got back to me quite quickly asking for the manuscript, he liked the piece a lot, we did a couple edits for clarity, and then a month or so later the essay was published.

I’m now grateful to the academic journal for rejecting it, because the essay has received a significantly larger audience than it would have otherwise, and it still says exactly what I wanted to say about Delany and the novel.

If this story seems strangely easy … well, yes. If you’re used to the rigmarole of academic publishing, general publishing will often feel like liberation. There are all sorts of absurdities and pitfalls with general publishing, but in my experience the worst of that publishing is not as soul-destroyingly painful (and slow!) as the worst of academic publishing.

Conclusion

Not every subject is a good fit for non-academic publishing. We need both worlds. My 2018 article in Woolf Studies Annual needed to be an academic publication, and it needed, really, to be an article for people interested in the minutiae of Woolf criticism. There are a few parts of that article that a more general audience might be interested in, but most of what the article is about is really only of concern for a highly specialized audience. Which is fine. I like addressing a highly specialized audience now and then. I just don’t want it to be the only audience I have.

Image: Photo by JF Martin on Unsplash

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