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22 February 2010

Writing for a Popular Audience

As odd as it may seem, one of the reasons I got into anthropology is because I wanted to write books and articles for a general audience. Now, of course, anthropology classes don't teach this, but I felt like they would give me a solid base of knowledge to feel confident about the issues that I would like to write about. I've always been told that I'm a good writer - though modesty keeps me from believing it fully - but I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to write for a general audience as opposed to an academic one. A couple of recent posts on Savage Minds spurred my thinking along and provided some interesting ideas, but I have a few thoughts of my own.

Academics often complain that most readers don't want to navigate all of the subtle nuances of an issue. This is often blamed on either laziness or a lack of intelligence in the general population. To me it's neither, it's more about efficient use of time and energy. Think about the last time you read a book that wasn't about a topic that you research - what was it about the book that kept you reading? Why did you take time out of your busy schedule to finish it? Everyone's busy. Everyone has a lot on their minds. An author shouldn't expect too much from the reader - say what you have to say, make it engaging and let them do with it what they will. Academics, particularly anthropologists, expect the reader to follow every twist and turn, every complexity, every odd detail of the topic. It's not that they can't, but that they don't have the time and energy to spend following our trail after working, taking care of a family, being social, etc. Popular writing should accept that. It should serve as an entryway, drawing people in with inviting architecture and then allow them to wander the many paths as they see fit.
When I have time I would like to survey popular science books and popular social sciences books and see why some work and others don't. Until then, here are a few preliminary thoughts on how to write a good popular piece.

Tell a story - People like stories. They're interesting, engaging and help us remember the information better. The whole book doesn't have to be a story, but if you frame the information in a narrative the reader will hold on longer than if you just start presenting information. All of the most memorable popular science books use this little trick, and it really does work.

Avoid jargon - This should be obvious. Jargon serves only to distance those who understand it from those who don't. Popular writing is meant to bring the reader closer to the discipline, not push them away. Jargon may have its place in academic writing (I'm not completely convinced of this, but I'll grant it for now), but it's best kept out of popular writing.

Make it concise - Like I said before, people don't have the time and energy to follow you down every single trail. Popular writing should provide the information as clearly and concisely as possible. That means that some people will misunderstand it - they'll lose track of the complexities and the details. But some people will be drawn in to follow the trails, and it's those people we're after.

Be Persistent - Write often, keep trying to get published, and correct people when they misinterpret you. It's not easy writing for a general audience. It takes a lot of work; if you don't have the time or energy to put into it then don't expect readers to have the time and energy for you. Readers will misunderstand and misinterpret you. You have to own that, and understand that it's your responsibility to keep working to make it right.

That's it for now, but I'll revisit the topic later.


btmc said...

I like this a lot. I am in favor of communication that breaks barriers rather than creating them.
Popular almost doesn't exist though. There is a pop culture but it has developed very specific and separate subsets. If you want to reach a certain audience, you'll want to adjust vocabulary, narrative style, cultural/spiritual/social themes.
I agree with all of what you said, but I think going further, to ask yourself "who do I want to reach" might be another step to reaching a wider audience. It's never been a step I've taken, but there it is!
I think one of the reasons this occurs to me is a recent conversation with my accordion teacher. He was asking me to choose to be taught to play more in the celtic style or more in the zydeco/blues style. These two styles require different accordion setups, different skills, different geographies, assuming I want to make money by playing this music anyway. I don't really want to choose between them, but if I want to be a popular musician, I must.

Jeremy Trombley said...

I'm glad you like it, Brendan. I think you're right that there is no single "popular audience." I suppose, in this case, the point is to write something that is accessible, and interesting to people outside of academia across a variety of those specific subsets.

It's interesting to me that for you, becoming a Popular musician means narrowing down - at least at this stage of your education. While, for me, it entails an opening outward. It seems there's something meaningful in that, though I can't quite say what it is yet.
In any case, Good Luck with your accordion playing!

me said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
me said...

I would agree (somewhat) with Brendan here: there is no 'popular audience' - YET. Even the people who read 'non-fiction' written by PhDs are social and cultural “elites”, in terms of education and access, and in the minority. The so-called popular book industry is more about affluent knowledge-technocrats pandering to affluent, leisured consumers, than it is about an effort towards public education or authentic civic debate.

Your points about writing for those outside the halls of the universities are good ones (and important), but what I would like to see, rather, is the construction of ‘new objects’ of knowledge – besides books and outside the dominant publishing industry - which bridge the several different gaps between specialist knowledge (of various strains) and public discourse.

Documentary filmmaking has been somewhat effective in this, and some musicians embody a certain trans-conceptual intellectualism, but I’d like to see academics and intellectuals (and political radicals) develop more diverse expressive tactics which ‘speak’ to workers, immigrants, youth, people with disabilities, etc., in more meaningful and accessible ways. [Perhaps things like: street performance, random acts of discourse, video games featuring the work of people like Foucault, Darwin, Emma Goldman, and others, or other as yet unthought projects of outreach?] I would like to see intellectuals expand outwards from book-culture and digital media to create projects and objects that interject into daily life – unmediated by television or film – and more fully engage the imaginations of various people and populations, and all aspects of public life.

This, of course, would be tough enough considering how popular culture often aims at, and taps into, our most primal and vulnerable motivations – but the opportunities created by intellectual engagements (and new objects of knowledge) can assist us towards evolving more enriching forms of social participation.

Innovative and critical expressive engagement might just be our only defense for avoiding the mind-numbing effects of the glut of irrelevant and superfluous information swirling through so much contemporary media. Such is the cultural ecology inherent to the hyper-perspectivist, surplus and consumer reality of modern urban living…

Jeremy Trombley said...

Agreed. I guess the reason I'm more focused on writing and books is because that's what I do (or hope to do). I would love to branch out into different media, but I haven't found one that I'm very good at yet besides writing. One thing I've been thinking about lately, though, is the lecture/presentation. The style would have to be modified, of course, from the typical school-hall format - more open, more egalitarian, etc. But the idea being to popularize the presentation. I'm also fascinated by Zines - photocopied or printed out essays or articles. Those appeal to a very specific audience as well, though, and perhaps not the audience you are referring to.

Interesting thoughts, though. I know there are some folks who read this blog who are far more creative than me - maybe they'll be inspired to get something going! (hint hint)

michael~ said...

Fair enough Jeremy.

I think, above all, it is important that you find your own 'voice' - and then express yourself using whatever media that appeals most to you and the audience you hope to reach.

I wish you all the best regardless...

Maximilian C. Forte said...

Great post Jeremy, much appreciated. This really is becoming one of the discussions that is of critical importance to anthropology, its social position, its future, etc. I like the debate here over who "the audience" for books may really be, quite interesting.

One thing that we can all be certain about now: no publishers, and virtually no academic ones either, want to publish dense theoretical texts any more. A book has to be descriptive, but not so fastidiously descriptive that readers can derive no sense at all of a big picture. In other words, you have to tell a story, and hope that your intended theory comes out in the way you piece the story together.

michael~ said...


Max, seeing as your own project, at least from what I can tell, is a kind of negation anthropological knowledge claims - at least in terms of the tradition's more colonizing discourses - and continues the introspective/reflexive tendency in the discipline, do you think that a 'public' anthropology is even something worth pursuing at this point?

Does Anthro have anything important enough to offer, or 'say', to the multitude anymore (if it ever did)?

Just curious about your thoughts...

mallory510 said...

Hi Jeremy, I'm an anthropology student who has been thinking about these exact things as well. I know it's been a while since you posted this, but did you ever get back to a survey of popular science writing and why it works or doesn't? This was something I had had a notion to do as well, and just wondered if you'd ever come up with anything. Thanks!


Jeremy Trombley said...

Thanks for allowing me to revisit this post. I often write things and then they slip into the back of my memory (or out of it all together!). This is still something I'm concerned about- how to write for non-academics. I never have gotten around to the survey- if you do come up with something, please send it along, I would love to read it! I think blogging has been a good way to start - I've definitely learned to address people who aren't familiar with anthropology or philosophy, though a lot of family and some friends still tell me that they don't understand most of it. It's a difficult balance to achieve, since I also want to engage an academic audience as well. I think the principles in the post hold, though I would probably expand and modify them a bit. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts - where have you been going with this? How would you like to pursue writing more generally?

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