Lately I’ve been thinking about the reader. It seems to me that both scholars and students often have a needlessly abstract of image of who they’re talking to. The short, right answer, of course, is that your reader is always a peer, and the longer, richer answer really tells you everything you need to know about how to write your papers. The key is to think of your reader as an intellectual equal, a member of your own knowledge community.
Much of the anxiety of academic writing comes from the students’ habit of imagining they are writing for their teachers and the literally sophomoric illusion that they have something to contribute there. This habit persists even among tenured faculty, who continue to write for a superior intellect. A sufficiently superior reader is, of course, indistinguishable from a god, and I would argue that the putative humility of writing with such a being in mind is immediately belied by the audacity of even doing so. Always remember that you have something to say, if you do, to your peers, not to some higher authority. Keep it real.
To write for your peers is to have “the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc.” to your reader more or less as easily as you attribute these things to yourself. In short, it is to have a “theory of mind”. A theory of mind is not, like I say, a theology of the reader. You are not to attribute omnipotence, omniscience or omnibenevolence to your reader. (Nor are you, in your despair, to imagine some malevolent demon as your reader, no matter how often such a figure appears to turn up among your reviewers.) Rather, based on your reading and on your conversations with your flesh and blood peers, you should imagine a mind much like yours, knowledgeable within specifiable limits, intelligent within reason — reasons that you understand. Do not make a monster of your reader, nor an ignoramus. The reader knows more or less what you know, neither much more nor much less, and it is to this mind that you are to make a contribution.
Perhaps this will be easier to understand by imagining the situation of the first-year business school student reading, say, Chester Barnard’s Function of the Executive for the first time. Let us imagine a “serious” student, of course–one who reads the chapter with real curiosity before attending the lecture, one who then in fact attends the lecture and perhaps asks an intelligent question and, most important, one who discusses the chapter with her fellow students outside of class, puzzling over the meaning of Barnard’s words. Now, suppose we give this student the following assignment.
What does Barnard mean by the “neutral or zero point” of the “willingness to serve”? Why is this important for executive decision-making? Write your answer as a five-paragraph essay.
This instruction will seem formal and abstract to some, but let me suggest that this is a misunderstanding that arises from ignoring the concrete circumstances under which it has been issued. To say, “write a five-paragraph essay” is simply to say, “Imagine that your reader is an intellectual equal (that’s what essays are classically for) and that you have five minutes of their full attention.” The task is to provide five one-minute reading experiences (paragraphs) that answer two questions. Importantly, since this is an “academic” writing tasks (a “school” assignment) the reader can also be imagined to have read the relevant chapter from Barnard’s book. Indeed, the reader can be imagined to have attended the same lecture and participated in the same discussions. There need not be any mystery about this communicative situation.
The writer will, of course, have to make up her mind about what Barnard’s “zero point” is and why it is important for executives to consider it. But the writer will also have to make up her mind about what the reader has in mind on the very same subject. Given the reader’s state of mind, then, is the main problem, in each paragraph, to get the reader to believe something, to understand something, or to agree with something? Or is it, perhaps, to get the reader as interested in this issue as the writer is? The writer may have 24 or 72 hours, or a week, to complete the task. Or perhaps a mere hour in class. No matter. The sooner the writer decides who the reader is, and what is on their mind, the better the writing will go. As Virginia Woolf put it, “To know whom to write for is to know how to write.” She also talked somewhere about the “loneliness that is the truth of things,” but let’s leave that for another time. In academic writing, it’s neither here nor there.