Like Minds

In my last post, on writing for peers, I focused on student assignments. But I also said that the image of the reader that students form in their minds risks becoming a habit that stays with them as scholars even after they earn their tenure. I want to say a little more about that in this post.

Good students who have written with their teachers in mind and who have received good grades for their efforts often go on to graduate school and careers in academia. Even while they are getting their PhDs they are likely writing “upwards”, trying to demonstrate their ability to their supervisors and, as the deadline approaches, their committees. During this time, they may also be writing papers for journals and conferences, and here they have the natural authority of reviewers, editors and program committees to relate to. In all cases, just as it was back when they were undergraduates, they are writing in order to be judged. By the time they get their first tenure-track job, they can easily have spent ten or more years in this mood. It’s a deeply entrenched habit of mind.

There is another habit, one that I’m personally more familiar with, and which is just as bad. This is the habit of writing for posterity, for some future reader, not yet born, who will recognize that I am ahead of my time. In practice, it is probably more like writing for the past, namely, the tradition of “great” writers who came before us and who offer us the only real glimpse into what great minds are like. There is certainly a kind of judgment implicit in this way of writing but it is explicitly deferred to a time after the writer’s own death, so it’s a bit, let’s say, abstract. Whether or not you get appreciated for writing this way, or even published, is of little matter. Your aim is mainly to be on the right side of history.

I hope it’s obvious that I recommend against these two images of the reader, which suggest a crushing humility (and threaten humiliation) and are therefore no mood in which to write clear, coherent prose. I’m not alone. There are many who suggest simply turning this around: imagine a reader who is in no position to judge you and is eager to learn what you have to say. Write engaging, informative essays about your expertise with the aim of helping people to understand the things you have worked so hard to learn. This kind of writing can indeed be fun to take on every now and then, but it is what I would consider popular writing. Or it’s the sort of writing you might do for a textbook. You are imagining a reader whose mind is not as formed as yours is on the issues you are addressing; you are imagining a less informed reader. You’ve turned the tables on your reader and made yourself the authority.

None of theses images of your reader should become a habit. They should not shape your writing “posture” — looking up at your reader or looking down on your reader. In your scholarly writing, you should be writing for an intellectual peer. Your purpose is neither to educate nor to edify, nor is everything you write essentially a job application. You are telling someone who is qualified to tell you are wrong what you think. You sincerely want to know if you are wrong. You respect your reader’s opinion of your thinking because you have chosen your reader carefully: someone who understands your theories and your methods and is interested in the questions you have tried to answer. Like a fellow student, your reader has read the same body of literature and participated in the same sorts of conversations (now in seminars and at conferences). Your reader, in short, is much like you. You expect to be read the same way that you read them.  Don’t look up at your reader, friend, and don’t look down on your reader. Find a reader your own size and look them straight in the eye.

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