Transcending academic book writing conventions and weaknesses

I’ve published three books with an academic press, and with each I strove to be accessible to general readers. The last, Hacking Life, was part of MIT Press’s <strong> ideas series where accessibility was an explicit goal – one for which I think I had some success.

For others wishing to reach a wider audience and transcend common academic conventions and weaknesses, I have three recommendations of increasing importance. I learned about the importance of balancing metadiscourse, pruning names, and sharpening theses by way of experience, purposeful study, useful resources and good advice – especially from David Weinberger.

Metadiscourse is the term used to describe the author’s gestures about what they are doing: the author’s structuring of the content and their relationship to the reader. For example, academic press books, by convention, have a “plan of the book” at the end of the introduction. This can be useful to the scholarly reader, who has no intention of reading the whole book, and it saves the author from having to ensure that the book (a) works as a coherent whole and (b) the reader is guided along that path by way of a unifying trope (e.g., a narrative or metaphor). Also, metadiscourse often appears at the start of each chapter, at the expense of an inviting provocation and strong thesis. And instead of a set of notable motifs, authors sometimes lean too heavily on forward and backward references to other chapters. In my last my book, I was advised to expunge all allusions to other chapters, though I managed to retain a few. Metadiscourse is useful, but it needs to be used with care and not to compensate for other weaknesses.

When a writer mentions a proper noun, they are placing a burden on readers. They ask if this a recurring character, such as an interviewee or historical subject? Or perhaps it is another voice, such as that of a fellow scholar or journalist? The readers ask if they have encountered this name before? Should they keep it in mind for the future? Academic writers tend to mention many names, without recurrence or context. I’ve learned, instead, to elide a name unless it recurs, and to always provide context. I also try to limit novel names to around one per paragraph and not to exceed three. Consequently, this means that instead of writing, “Tatanka Gwyn believed this was the beginning of the end,” and never mentioning Gwyn again, it’s better to write, “A journalist writing in the 1950s believed that this was the beginning of the end.” The interested reader can check the note if they want.

Finally, most importantly, academics handicap the strength of their contribution and writing with weak theses and verbs. Sometimes, the work lacks an overall thesis, and each chapter is an independent piece on what could only be described as a theme. Sometimes, writers arrive at a compelling conclusion at the end of a chapter or book and leave it there. I’m guilty of the latter and received good advice to backport theses earlier on in works and then support them as I progress – rather than hoping readers will persist on my (confusing) path in the hopes of finding clarity and insight at the end. The telltale sign of weak theses are weak verbs, including consider, explore, examine, elaborate, draw, and look. Instead, argue a novel point or explain a mystery. (And be wary of a weakness back door: “I argue we should consider…”)

When a book has a novel and compelling thesis, which is developed and supported by a similarly strong thesis in each chapter, unnecessary metadiscourse can fall away. And limiting the appearance of unnecessary names can help the reader appreciate this clarity all the more.

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