The Reader

“To know whom to write for is to know how to write.” (Virginia Woolf)

Your scholarly writing depends on the existence of about two-dozen readers whose minds you want to change and who are qualified to change yours. You should know who they are and what they’re thinking about. The more accurately you know this, the more effective your writing will be.

In academia, please remember, there is no mystery about who your readers are. They are your peers. They know more or less what you know you and live lives more or less like yours. If you are a scholar you are writing for other scholars in the same field. They have read the same work that you have read, including yours and theirs. You are, in principle, familiar with each other’s work. You share the experience of collecting and analyzing similar kinds of data, of framing these analyses with a similar sets of concepts, and, importantly, of regularly teaching what you know to similar kinds of students–namely, university students.

If you are such a student, there is also no mystery. Your peers are your fellow students, the brightest and most diligent among them. You are writing for someone who has read the required course materials with interest and curiosity. They have participated in a highly engaged way in the classroom discussions that you, too, have attended. They have struggled as you have with difficult concepts and exotic facts. Like you, they have sometimes failed in that struggle and, like you, they have sometimes succeeded. They are familiar with some of your views and have taken a position on them, not always your position but at least one that is familiar to you. You can engage them in conversation and the conversation can be interesting.

You are free to construct your reader in a, let’s say, “aspirational” manner every now and then. If you are a student, you can try to imagine your teacher’s peers, other professional scholars, as your peers and attempt to write for them. But remember that this will require you to read more than an ordinary student. You should not construct an image of the reader as vastly more erudite or intelligent than you. Don’t imagine your actual teacher as your reader, that is. Don’t imagine someone who understands your theories better than you and is much more familiar with the literature than you. But do try, every now and then, to become as familiar as your teacher with some small corner of the literature. This is actually possible and very much worth the effort.

As a student or scholar, never write for a reader who knows much more or much less than you about your subject. This confuses the issues. Have an awareness of where you know more and where you may know less. Don’t make too much depend on your reader making up for your ignorance. Make sure you yourself know whatever you expect your reader to know. If there is something you need your reader to learn, make sure to provide all the information they will need. The most common case of this has to do with your presentation of the data, of which the reader is understandably ignorant until you present it. Remember that they know as much as you about methodology, however. You are pitching your claims to someone who shares your research practices and quality standards. After reading you, the reader should know what you know about the relevant data points.

Don’t overthink this. Don’t make it harder than it is. From your first day at university, make a list of your peers and what you think is on their minds. This list will change and grow. The contents of your reader’s mind will change and grow. Don’t try to keep up as much as keep track of where you are. Don’t think that there is some ideal peer group that you must win the good graces of. Your intellectual peers are simply people with minds like yours. Address them in your writing from the center of your strength. Seek them out, too, and listen to what they have to say.

All along the way you are simply trying to open your mind to the input of minds that are, at the moment, similarly engaged in similar intellectual puzzles. If you keep at it, you will naturally find your place in the discourse. Some people find this place so familiar and enjoyable that they choose a life of scholarship. They find it satisfying to be “like-minded” in this way. Others don’t enjoy the company of their academic peers as much and long to get out into the “real world” and tackle life’s “real” problems. There’s no shame in either position.

The important thing is to realize that scholarly writing is not about “the loneliness that is the truth of things.” We owe that beautiful image to Virginia Woolf and it is, arguably, a description of what her novels were about. Fortunately, she was less poetic about the domain of non-fiction. Knowing how to write, she told us there, is simply knowing who you’re writing for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *