In 2011 I was looking for new ways to play with ideas. I had just finished my first semester in graduate school and while class assignments kept me busy and the conversations I had with my fellow graduate students were deeply rewarding I wanted something else. Something a little more public and a lot more focused on writing. I was surprised that, at least in my program, there was very little attention paid to the craft of writing. How to convey a complicated idea in an elegant way, or how to identify your audience, were absent from even the most pragmatic training. (This is not true in all programs and less true for that particular department now, than it was five years ago.) In college I frequently read and shared Sociological Images articles and one day, while procrastinating on my very first round of graduate school finals I noticed that The Society Pages had multiple blogs. Instead of writing my finals I wrote a short thing about drones and video editing suites and before I knew it I was regularly contributing to this blog. In a few short years I was submitting things to bigger publications, and now I’m an editor here with Jenny and wow what a wild ride.
Last month I read Kelly Conaboy’s Blog, You Idiots and it got me thinking about the process, style, and frequency of my own writing. I’ve been editing more and writing less, and I’d like to change that. Jenny and I have been editing guest posts but the editing that has taken up most of my time is editing my own stuff. There’s probably half a dozen would-be essays in my Cyborgology folder that end right about here, in the second paragraph, where the hook or thesis should go. I think this means I need to get back to writing what Conaboy called for: “just a little thing that you read and enjoy.”
I will be writing more, soon, but before I rearrange the pace of my work schedule to accommodate that promise I thought I would put down into words a workshop I have run twice now on helping academics write for more public audiences. The intention here is to identify some of the common problems academics have in writing engaging, thoughtful, and relatively short essays. Much of it comes down to pacing and working with others.
Digesting an Idea
As an editor one of the more frustrating things you have to do is say no to a great idea poorly constructed. You can see what the author wants to get across and it is smart, good, and important but it is in an indigestible form. I like gastronomic metaphors for writing and reading because it highlights the destructive process of reading and writing. When all goes well, eating involves lots of destruction. You take something that was outside of you, prepared by yourself or someone else, and literally make it apart of you by destroying it. If all goes well, it leaves you in all the right ways and your body is nourished. If something is indigestible it gets regurgitated or quickly passes from one side to the other. As a writer you want your ideas to nourish, not unceremoniously come and go.
To do that you need to give the reader ample opportunities to make your idea their own. The easiest way to do that is through examples. Any complex, abstract idea needs an example. Similarly, depictions of very specific or obscure processes or events need to be rendered relatable or generalized. I like to think of my writing as instrumental. I constantly ask myself “What will this essay do for others?” “How will it give clarity to a confusing concept?” “What new considerations am I sensitizing my audience to?” “What stance or position am I making easier or more difficult to hold?” Most importantly though, your ideas must survive your readers’ mental digestion. If a reader doesn’t totally understand one element of your argument does the whole thing fall apart? Your idea should be robust enough to withstand mild misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Very delicate and intricate arguments are crucial to every discipline but the public essay is not necessarily the appropriate venue.
The Three Essays You Will Meet
The essay (or blog post) lets you convey one idea really well, and leaves little room for anything else. The approach to writing in this genre I am about to describe is, admittedly, reductive and formulaic. (For this reason I’ll limit my examples to my own writing.) Nowhere else in my professional or personal life do I like to put such a wide range of things into such large categories (case in point: all of my degrees have “studies” at the end) but this rubric is so useful for beginning writing that I cannot not share it. The approach is the following: every academic that has ever written an essay under 3000 words for a more general audience has really only written one of three different kinds of essays. You must pick one of these three kinds in order to write a compelling essay that has a definitive argument and structure. Those three kinds are the following:
- Theory or concept X will help you understand Y event.
- Obscure debate about X, between A and B, should be important to Y.
- Summary of original research X.
That last one is fairly straightforward. One of my most-read essays on Cyborgology, “A Brief Summary of Actor Network Theory” is of this kind. The utility of such essays is obvious: huge theories are by their nature, complicated, and if you can strike the right balance between length and depth (going relatively deep into the research while keeping the length of the essay relatively short) you’re golden.
The second kind is probably the most complicated but reaps the biggest rewards. Disagreements about the form and function of fascism is important to American voters in 2016. The way Sherry Turkle deploys her own argument, and the critiques that have been levied against it are important for workers in the companies that take her ideas to heart. To pull this one off you generally have to do a few things in just the right order:
- Introduce a problem that Y is experiencing, in the terms that it is popularly understood.
- Slowly incorporate X, showing how they are structurally similar or somehow related.
- Give solid summaries of both A and B’s positions, followed by important disagreements and overlaps.
- Bring Y back in and demonstrate how something is easier to understand or predict with the new information presented by X, A, and B.
- Rearticulate Y’s problem in X’s terms. Perhaps you take a side and say B is better than A or A is probably a better fit for Y’s specific problem.
- Conclude with some suggestions as to how we might use X productively in the future or avoid Y.
The first kind is by far the easiest and most straightforward. Sometimes I call this “playing the exorcist.” In cinematic depictions of exorcisms, the priest typically has to “name the demon” to cast it out, and will frequently invoke another name (e.g. Jesus Christ) to work against the demon. Academics serve many functions but one of their biggest public services is giving a name to a particular phenomenon that was once difficult to articulate. Microaggressions, and intersectionality are good examples. By giving names to things we might cast them out or simply do work on them. Casting Y event as an instance of X concept or theory can seem simplistic but this is precisely what makes for a good essay. The argument is clear and there is a good chance most people just do not see what you do. The general outline for this kind of essay is the following:
- Introduce X
- Telegraph that X might be better understood in terms (or as) Y
- Summarize the coverage or popular understanding of X
- Explain what is missing from the coverage or popular understanding.
- Introduce Y
- Apply Y to X.
- Offer prescriptions and/or conclusions
The most straightforward applications of this kind of essay usually have a question for a title. For example: “What does Debord’s Society of the Spectacle say about political conventions?” Something more subtle may take a declarative tone: “Why We Can Wait for Amazon’s Drones.” The Society Pages’ There’s Research on That! Is nothing but this kind of writing, which demonstrates just how powerful, useful, and flexible this approach can be.
Learn the World of Editors
The world of short form nonfiction writing has a lot of rejection and even when you do get something accepted, there can be heavy-handed editing. Learn to love this. I always try to remember that it is a great honor that someone has taken my ideas into their hands and wants to polish it and make it better according to their own terms. You can disagree with their terms, but if you want to push back on a particular edit, you must first make sure you understand and are willing to meet the editor on their terms. The editor knows the audience you’re writing for.
Secondly, break the habit of trying to explain what you’re explaining in the essay in emails to the editor, unless explicitly asked. If you feel like you have to summarize or explain what you are trying to do in the essay, then chances are you have not written the best version of your essay. I always try to keep conversations about essay content and ideas in the comments of the document and keep email to more logistical issues of publishing schedules, accompanying image selection, and of course payment.
Finally, and this is where I’m probably least helpful because I’m still learning this art, academics have to learn how to pitch. A pitch is not an abstract. A pitch is not just about the content of the essay because it should also contain an explanation of your intended audience and a little bit about yourself and why you’re the one to write it. Try to put yourself in the editor’s shoes and think about all the considerations they need to make: does this fit into the publication? Who wants to read this? How does your essay contribute to an ongoing conversation or how does it start a new one? Above all though, what goes into a pitch varies according to publication, the nature of what you intend to submit, and your relationship with that publication or individual editor.
The glacial pace of academia is generally a good thing. There is a great deal of danger in getting it wrong, so careful evaluation and reflection is important. Writing for public audiences should be carefully done, no doubt, but relevancy also matters. If you have something to say about the VMAs, a presidential debate, or the new iPhone you have a fuzzy but certain deadline. That means knowing when to let go of your text.
When I go over this content in workshops, this is where I get the greatest pushback and concern. As academics we are trained to not only workshop and rewrite something multiple times, we then subject our writing to review that frequently asks for more revisions. Nothing is fast about our writing process and things should be just right before we hit send. Certainly your work should be polished when you send it to your editor but remember that the editor is not a reviewer. Their priorities are different because they are crafting the authorial voice of a publication, not gatekeeping a discipline or field. You work, generally, does get a second set of eyes to make the words flow. Make sure your writing is compelling and understandable but also learn to trust others with your work. Can’t emphasize this enough: trust.