June 13th, 2004

Fishy Circumstances

What is academic writing?

(The following are some of the musings which came out of a brainstorming session on aspects of this topic earlier today. What I have written up is strongly prejudiced towards the things that I was thinking at the time, however wonderful, useful, and varied the contributions by my fellow workshop attendees were.)

For most my life, I have been writing for a very focused audience - the instructor of the course I was taking at the time, be it in elementary school or graduate school. Now that I am no longer in classes, now that I am doing my own research in areas previously unstudied, my audience needs to be broader. My dissertation's primary audience is my committee. That is still a small audience. If I want my peers and colleagues to know of my conclusions, my work, and my stories, then I need to write for the subscribers of my academic journal of choice.

Academic journals are often fairly specialized, but the most prestigous ones usually serve a broader audience. Part of a journal's prestige comes from its numbers of subscribers, and so the journals belonging to the largest academic societies are usually the journals which are not only the most prestigious to be published in but also the hardest to be accepted into, in part because of the competition. The subscribers to each journal have their own range of interests; generally speaking, the larger the circulation of a journal, the broader the interests of its audience and the less likely that a large percentage of that audience will be interested in my topic for the sake of whatever my keywords are. An article usually needs a great deal more than good keywords to be a success.

An article needs a story. Even as a novel does, it needs a plot. Unlike a novel, however, a plot, however well-written, is not sufficient. It needs an impact, a point, as well. It needs a reason why the audience should care about it.

Academic articles labor under other complicating burdens as well. They rely on the strength and the quantity of their evidence, but too many facts and not enough story will make any article into a list, not a discussion. Additionally, articles are the stepping stones to an academic career. They give the author a reputation for working on a particular set of keywords. They increase the odds that someone else in my field will have heard of me. They are the evidence necessary to prove competence to be hired for an academic job - or, later on, to help negotiate the complications of tenure. Articles need to calling cards of competence, clarity, and creativity.

To those of us who have never written for a broad academic audience before, the challenge is intimidating. Yet part of that challenge is ignorance, and if I don't start trying for publication, then I will always be ignorant of the details of the process of editing an article into academic acceptability. This workshop has given me a real incentive to learn, to ask, and to make the road towards publication a little less obscure.