Have you heard?! The audience for academic writing is being held captive! It’s true! Various factors – such as the need to “stay current” in one’s chosen field or a syllabus that dictates what we read for a seasonal cycle – function to capture a readership through the fetters of “requirements.”
The danger in all this, it seems to me (for there are plenty of positives as well), is that the rhetorical styles of academic writing are attenuated in the process. We read lots of dull writing. Seriously. It goes without saying that dull writing doesn’t equal, or even indicate for that matter, solid and serious scholarship. And it SHOULD go without saying that scholarship can benefit from exposure to a range of rhetorical styles that vary in philosophy and execution; but perhaps it goes better with it being said.
If you had to fight for your readership – that is, if the person wasn’t required (in some way or another) to read your writing – how does that change your delivery of content? How do you cultivate the skill of keeping an audience glued to the subtleties of your argument? How might one learn to make their writing engaging to the degree that a close reading is both desirable and necessary?
Write for Harlot.
Slightly longer answer?
When one must capture and sustain a reader’s attention – when an assignment, an upcoming tenure review, or a grade doesn’t create it for you – one’s assessment of what it is precisely that needs to be communicated is tested. Obviously, this is not to imply that in purely academic writing one doesn’t do such a review on their ideas. The point, rather, is to stress that when we seek an audience that isn’t beholden to us, we strengthen and enrich our rhetorical tools. I come to this idea, admittedly and respectfully, by way of Michael Bérubé and his book, Rhetorical Occasions.
Bérubé suggests that writing for nonacademic venues not only involves a careful examination of audience, but a reassessment of time as well. He writes,
“We are not accustomed to thinking about public writing in terms of public time … [these] rhetorical occasions are not simply a matter of intervening in such-and-such a space in response to this or that debate; they are also a matter of recalibrating work time, especially when one’s public writing is required to be timely” (3 author’s emphasis).
One’s writing is, unsurprisingly, improved by accepting such a challenge. Bérubé notes, “as it happens, some of the features of ‘popular’ writing are actually conducive to better, sharper writing than one ordinarily does in the course of one’s academic work [and leads to] intellectual stimulation, a matter of learning new modes of address and strategies for revision” (3).
Hell yeah; that bears repeating: “learning new modes of address and strategies for revision.” For those reading who may have nodded their head (even if slightly) at any of Bérubé’s comments, Harlot is the place for you. Join us.
Although I’m tempted to, I hesitate to get caught up here on “popular,” and its implied opposite of “private” (which, sadly, is understood as “academic”), and wish instead to end on a note of encouragement: Let’s go fight for our audience. Doing so, broadly speaking, will invigorate our communicative ability. Furthermore, by publishing authors whose ideas and style compel one to keep reading, viewing, or listening, Harlot will, in turn, create a savvy and substantial audience.