Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Who are you writing to?

Today, the internets coughed up something called "Kurt Vonnegut's Eight Rules for Writing Fiction." I have no idea whether or not these are apocryphal or real, but here's one that stuck out to me:

"Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."

Which quote brings up a question that I think we might all think about as we write: Who are we writing to? It's an important question: though we may want to reach a broad audience (Who among us says, "I'm aiming to write something that only six people will appreciate"? No one, that's who), in reality, we have a primary target audience, and who that audience is will determine how we write.

If you're a dissertator, the answer is fairly straightforward: you're writing for your dissertation committee, and especially for your primary adviser. So you're going to write to demonstrate all the skills you learned in the program: research, writing, argument.

If you're writing your first book, you're likely writing to specialists in the corner of the field you've staked out: You're likely going to be writing primarily to prove your bona fides as a grown-up scholar. With any luck, your book is going to be a clearly argued piece of scholarship, but with a narrow-ish appeal. Every so often, a first book is a smash hit that gets picked up and read by a broad swath of scholars, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule.

But what about the second book, and any books beyond? You've proven yourself to first a dissertation committee (who have a vested interest in seeing you do a good job) and to a small field of specialists (who reserve judgment until they read the final product). But now, here you are, unshackled not only from the research that you probably began as a dissertator but by the particular expectations of why you needed to write in the first place. Now what?

Anyone who's embarked on a second book project knows that it can be a very daunting process. You're not only cut loose from the ties of what you're writing about; you now have to decide who you're writing for. Will this be another specialist book? A book that attempts to talk to a broader group of scholars by addressing a Big Question (with the implicit understanding that you may be sacrificing the comforting precision of your first book)? Are you going to try to write something that might be good for use by advanced undergraduates? Or -- hey! -- what about a popular history? Something that the general public might read and find intriguing?

That's a lot of questions for one little book that isn't even written yet. In my case, I think this time my imaginary audience right now is the upper-division undergraduate. At least, that's who I'd like this book to speak to. And yet I keep finding myself writing highly technical passages (like today's 700+ words on the evolution of a particular code of maritime law... seriously) that can't be in a book like that. So I guess we'll see.

But what about you? Who are you writing to?


Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Great question! There are two scholars (one man, one woman) who I revere like saints, and they are my ideal audience. When I've been writing lately (last couple of years), I have them in my mind.

Oddly enough, the man might have just refereed the article that just got picked up (the one I wrote about yesterday). I met him at SAA, and he said that he recognized my (sort of weird) name. I have no idea how else he'd have recognized it, but he insisted he knew something that I'd written. So that was cool. The book that I want to write would be directed at these two scholars, for sure. It's not that they are the only ones who would benefit from reading it, but they are the ones who inspired me to write it.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

Maritime law == yaaaaahr!

Susan said...

I have used my mother as an ideal audience: smart, informed, but not interested in the weeds. (Her comment on my first book was"Once I got past the first chapter[historiography] it was fun to read").

The thing about audience is that it helps in revision - so when you go back to those 700 words you wrote on maritime law, you think about how - now that you figured out the technical stuff- you present it to them and what's important.

I think it's really important to have your reader in mind...

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Erik: I had to delete your post because, as you say, it reads like spam. You're welcome as a visitor and commenter, but I don't allow people to post unsolicited links to their own content -- especially content completely unrelated to the post in question -- on my blog.