Sometimes I choose articles for my links posts because I have something particular that I want to add to the topic. This week, however, I just want to be sure that as many people as possible see this great piece by William Germano. Even the title is interesting: Do We Dare Write for Readers? Germano, as most of you will know, is a wonderful writer and an insightful analyst of developments in academic writing and publishing. In this piece, he discusses the role of the reader and the way that academic writing, as it is often practiced, fails to serve that reader well. His analysis is informed by recent technological shifts in the way we read, but I think his argument would work just as well without the historical specificity: academic writing that strives for complete self-sufficiency can end up excluding the reader to the detriment of its overall vitality.
To convey this point, Germano characterizes academic writing as a snow globe: a smooth impermeable shell over a carefully staged scene with limited action. What I love about the snow globe image is the way it conveys the sealed-off quality of so much academic prose. Have you ever gotten inside a snow globe? Me either, but you can imagine that the experience would be messy and toxic, rather than interactive or instructive. Germano wants to supplant this notion of academic writing as artifact with a more dynamic notion of academic writing as a tool. A tool, of course, is something the reader can use, something that, as he says, “has consequence”. Germano uses the image of a machine to convey the more dynamic sense of writing as a tool. In keeping with his souvenir motif, I immediately found myself thinking of it instead as a map, one of those ones with a route traced out with little stylized footprints. A map of this sort tells its audience the truth as the creator understands it and yet leaves room for the audience to use that truth as it sees fit.
Germano concludes his piece by describing his conception of academic writing as less polished and more engaging:
I’m advocating for a riskier, less tidy mode of scholarly production, but not for sloppiness. I’m convinced, though, that the scholarly book that keeps you awake at night thinking through ideas and possibilities unarticulated in the text itself is the book worth reading. It may be that the best form a book can take—even an academic book—is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry for which the reader’s own intelligence can alone provide the unwritten chapters.
It’s a challenging model, especially for novice academic writers who may be looking to replicate rather than challenge existing norms. But it’s also a compelling vision of writing as essentially open to what it does not itself contain. And however we choose to orient ourselves to this issue, we will be better writers for having reflected on Germano’s artful elaboration of the tensions within academic writing.
Recent links from @explorstyle on Twitter
From Lingua Franca, a very fun post on ‘slash’ as a written out form of punctuation.
From @literarychica, a great post on the dearth of options for writing support for doctoral writers.
From William Germano, a must-read on academic writing. Calling for writing that is engaging, open, and consequential.
From Dave Paradi’s PowerPoint blog, insightful advice on words that may betray a weakness in presentation slides.
From Lingua Franca, William Germano addresses the question of academic titles and rank.
A question about originality posed to Leiter Reports generates an interesting conversation in the comments.