Free Advice for Academic Authors

Your books should be structured like this: >.  Everything in your book should narrow down and focus your reader on the brilliant argument you’re trying to make.  You start out with all the information your reader needs in order to understand what you’re talking about and narrow in on your point from there like a fabulous tour guide who must point out interesting things and keep the tourists moving along to the seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Tour guides do not share all the information they know with their tour-takers, but they embody that knowledge in such a way that the tourists trust that they have it.

Each chapter though, should be shaped like this: <>.  Or like a lemon, if you prefer organic metaphors.  You should start out by laying the groundwork for why the points in this chapter are so crucial, then balloon out into a meaningful and brilliant argument of your points, and then narrow in on how these points help prove your larger argument.

Many of you do the whole “Tell you what I’m going to say, say it, tell you what I said” thing in such a way that I begin to suspect that you have some inherent, fuzzy understanding of the proper shape of a chapter, but you have the wrong idea about what elements make up that lemony shape.

Also, let’s talk about outside sources.  Here is the unbreakable rule about outside sources (Don’t even start with the “But my discipline is different” bullshit.  If your discipline is different, they are forcing you to write unreadable books and therefore, they deserve to be relegated to the trash heap of history–meaning “the past” not the discipline.  I don’t know where History departments keep their trash heaps.): Either they prove you right or you prove them wrong or they don’t get to be in your book.

No!  I don’t want to hear it.  Either they prove you right or you prove them wrong or they don’t get to be in your book.

Don’t waste time–no, worse than that, don’t do their work for them–by proving how all your hard work just proves that so and so already had the right idea.  You aren’t their publicist.  If they’re so right and brilliant, that’s their business.  Your business is how right and brilliant you are.  Don’t waste space or lose focus by cheerleading for other scholars.

Use concrete examples.  Don’t be afraid to amply integrate your primary source materials.  Don’t be afraid of helpful illustrations.

Also, don’t write for the four people who know more about your subject than you do.  They aren’t going to buy your book.  Write for the five thousand people who are smart and curious but don’t know as much about your subject as they should.

It doesn’t take that much time, effort, or space to bring those five thousand up to speed.  Granted, your book might not sell to five thousand people.  But believe me, you’re going to sell a lot more books aiming for an audience of 5,000 than you will aiming for an audience of four.

So, explain your terms.  Explain why the stuff you’re doing is relevant.  Make sure we understand what the stakes are.  No jargon.  Use precise words everyone can understand, or easily understand once you’ve given them a brief definition, and remove “problematize” from your vocabulary.

Now, get out there and do some good writing!

10 thoughts on “Free Advice for Academic Authors

  1. May I distribute this post more widely? Or better yet, are you going to do so? Perhaps at a conference such as the AHA in Atlanta this January? As a Chronicle of Higher Ed piece? (Honest. They are always looking for stuff along these lines.)Oh please please please!!!! (I have broken my own rule about excessive exclamation, I’m so serious.)Really. Honest. Terrific advice and very much needed for a certain someone we both know who is currently transforming her interesting but unwieldy dissertation into a brilliant, accessible, and widely read book aimed at intelligent readers everywhere. My mother cannot buy 5000 copies and I don’t have 5000 friends, so I have to do as Aunt B says.

  2. "Now, get out there and do some good writing!"But weren’t you talking to ACADEMIC Authors???One of my profs (the one who always had a hard-on in our 7:00 Comparative Communism class) told me that any writing I did for him was "too straight-forward". In his mind, academic writing was supposed to be intentionally obfuscatory. Based on all the academic writing I’ve read, I think perhaps he was not alone in his opinions.

  3. Shoot, Bridgett, I even added a little "email article to friend" thing so that you can do just that.Distribute away.KF has, in her response, some good points about footnotes. I should have said, as well, that you should be sure you aren’t burying important, juicy stuff in your footnotes. Get the good stuff into your main text!Coble, you crack me up.

  4. For fun or for real? Drop me a line and tell me what you’re up to. KF can attest that I don’t suck too bad.

  5. Oh, only in the Platonic sense: in the World of Ideals I have an Ideal Book to be shaped. Obviously an editor who can say, "nm, your chapter is too much like an orange, or maybe even a dust bunny, so get out the Lemon Pledge and shape it up" is an Ideal Editor. Unfortunately, I live in the World of Forms and have nothing to edit.But I am aware that even as an editor in the World of Forms you Do Not Suck.

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