The Fourth Difficulty

Writing is hard so that reading may be easy. I’ve written about the three main difficulties (one, two, three) that good scholarly writing helps the reader overcome, but there is a fourth one that is worth considering. It’s sort of “off the books” because I don’t think an academic writer should take it on very often. The issue should arise very rarely when writing about your research for your peers, and it should almost never be the focus of an entire article. But it is an interesting rhetorical problem that you do well to learn how to solve quickly and efficiently when it does come up. The fourth difficulty is boredom.

Sometimes the reader finds what you’re saying neither hard to believe nor hard to understand nor hard to agree with. You’re telling them something they already know. Why, then, as one scholar speaking to another, are you insisting on saying it? Precisely because this fact or event or theory, one that bores your reader to tears, is of great interest to you and your work. It is important in a way that the reader presumably does not see. So you have given yourself the task of asserting it and getting the reader interested in it again. You are not hoping to make it more credible or comprehensible or less contentious. It is in no need of evidence, explication or critical engagement. It’s just that your reader has forgotten why it matters or how exciting its backstory actually is. You’re here to remind them.

Like I say, you don’t want this to be the problem in every paragraph you write. Scholars should for the most part assume that their readers are interested in what they have to say. They are, after all, members of the same community, built around the same intellectual puzzles, studying similar materials, using methods they all understand and respect. If your reader isn’t interested they’re most likely not the right reader. You don’t want to have to use every paragraph to pique the reader’s interest or get their attention; the whole point of academia, of scholarship, is to establish and maintain a group of people who are predisposed, indeed, precommitted, to discussing a certain set of topics. This saves us a lot of time and rhetorical effort, and also, of course, explains why “the general public” finds “academic writing” a bit of slog to read. It presumes interest, or what we sometimes, albeit to my mind a bit too easily and a bit too cynically, call a “captive audience”.

But, because this audience is familiar to you, you are familiar with the way your reader’s eyes begin to glaze over at the mere mention of certain subjects. You understand why this happens because you understand how the information is usually presented, and to what rhetorical end. But you, who are just a little more knowledgeable about it, have seen something in it that your audience, if only they knew, would get just as excited about as you. So you tell the story, provide the statistic, or recount the history that revivifies the facts for others as they already have been for you. An important part of your competence to do this work lies in your understanding of why your reader is provisionally bored. Indeed, the more empathy you have with your reader on this point, the better able you will be to help them overcome the difficulty.

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