March 6

Readers are not scavengers

When academics begin with a research project, we tend to throw ourselves into the literature review and the data collection. We become immersed in finding “the gap in the literature,” lining out our methods, running the analysis, and getting significant results. When we finally come up with results worth sharing, we are tired. We think, “Well, at least my project is 80 to 85% done, now I just have to write it up.”

I remember hearing that phrase a lot in graduate school.

You've done the work, just write it up.

Stenographer Working
How terribly we undervalue the writing process. Academics and non-fiction writers are not court room reporters. Too often we are satisfied with necessities: identifying the “key players” in the literature, stating the necessary details of our methods, putting tables of results in, with text that says exactly what the table conveys, and then stating a short sum-up of the take-home points at the end.

In fact, some people would say that if a scholarly article manages to actually do all that, then it's a job well-done!

I'm here to challenge you to do more.

You are not a court-room reporter with a stenograph, writing down exactly what you see. You are a persuasive writer, whether you like it or not. You must persuade the (potential) reader that your work is worth reading, that you have something important to say, and that your study could change some part of the world… or, you know, sub-field.

And don't assume that your reader is a scavenger.

Don't assume that your reader is going to just pick through your article like a scavenger through rotting carrion. (Not saying your writing is carrion…but we've all seen carrion writing…) Don't assume that you can just put out your methods and results and your reader will do the work of finding what they're looking for in your article.

Readers do develop scavenging behaviors, but I believe that is in response to rotten writing.

If you write in an appetizing, your reader will stay and stroll through your article, enjoying the fruity taste and lingering tannins of your writing. (Okay, yes, I am drinking wine right now. We all have our muses, right?) Invite the reader in with a tantalizing title, an engaging introduction, and ask them to stay a while so that you can more fully explain why what you have been research for the last _____ months/years is truly worthwhile.

Begin with the premise that your research is important and that your reader will want to hear all of it, if you will only persuade them to stay and listen.

Happy writing, everyone, happy writing.

P.S. I do think it's a little funny that a raven is a carrion bird.


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