Writers and Readers

Most, perhaps all, of the readers of this blog are also writers. To be sure, some of them resent this fact a little, but, whether they are students or scholars, an important part of their “job” is to commit words to the page that express what they think. So is reading. Before they are my readers, my readers are readers of each other; they are peers to the people they write for. That in any case is what I imagine, what I presume.

My concern here is with so-called “academic” writing, i.e., the kind of writing that is done by students and scholars at universities. I don’t discriminate too much between them. Whether you are writing for examination or for publication, you are writing down what you know in order to discuss it with other knowledgeable people. You are opening your ideas to criticism. But you are not interested in just anyone’s criticism; you are interested in the criticism of your peers, i.e., people who are qualified to tell you that you are wrong. We sometimes mistakenly focus on the most proximal of these people — our teachers or reviewers — but it is important to keep our actual readers in mind. If you’re a student, these are your classmates. If you are a scholar, they are the members of your discipline.

Like yours, my readers are nice people, but I sometimes worry that we read each other in the wrong spirit. Students read each other’s papers on behalf of the teacher, ready to provide helpful to suggestions to their classmates about how to improve their grade. Scholars read each other’s papers on behalf of the reviewers, eager to help their colleagues satisfy the editorial standards of a journal. Once the paper is submitted, there’s nothing left to do but offer the appropriate congratulations or commiserations when the time comes. Reading a paper in its final form, simply for the purpose of discussing the ideas it presents, seems like an unnecessary inconvenience — not least to the author, who, as I’ve heard some of them declare openly, would prefer to put the often painful struggle of getting published behind them and move on to the next project. We have a tendency to respect their wishes; to be honest, we empathize with our comrades, kindred spirits in our “publish or perish” world. In a word, we’re kind.

But we should read each other’s finished work. And we should write it with the expectation of finding sincere readers who are interested in our ideas and ready to correct us where we are wrong. After all, getting a top grade, or getting published in a top journal, does not guarantee that everything you have written in paper is correct. Indeed, even your main thesis may be wrong. Your examiner or editor has only acknowledged that you have presented your ideas in a manner that opens them to qualified criticism. You have made your ideas available for discussion in an acceptable (even admirable) way; but it is now time to have that discussion. Your readers may love your paper but still disagree with you. In some cases, your readers may be compelled to try to replicate your results. Until they do, they can’t be sure you’re right. In an important sense, neither can you.

In our effort to be kind, in our eagerness to help nice people get on with their careers, we sometimes forget that good ideas take time, and, given time, ideas change. Not only do we need time to come up with them, and then to express them; our peers need to time to understand them, and test them against their own experiences, their own experiments. The greatest respect we show to an idea is to ponder it long enough to discover that it is wrong. Students who have earned good grades on their undergraduate papers will usually discover that they were completely wrong (often on some very important point) while writing their master’s thesis. (The better the paper, the more instructive this error will be.) Not to mention how wrong they find out they’ve always been while writing their doctoral dissertation!

Let’s remember that our peers took the time to write their ideas down. We need to take the time read them and engage with them. In academia, the best way to get to know your readers is to read them.

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