Monday, December 25, 2017

For whom are you writing?

This blog is intended to be aimed at academic writers, especially those who are struggling.  A lot of the time, however, the subjects that I most want to write about are more political topics.  These considerations are in tension.  This post grew out of that tension. What’s on my mind is politics, and particularly a subject of constant concern to me — the frequent GOP-led attacks on institutions that do research, a group that include not only colleges and universities, but the journalistic media, and U.S. intelligence agencies, and non-partisan governmental offices. But as I was starting on possible essays, I was wondering whether that interest suits my intended audience. And I was thinking about negotiating the gap between what I want to talk about and what I want to say for my audience. 

This moves, I suppose, into the realm of rhetoric—a subject for which I have a great deal of respect, but on which I have never done much formal study. How does one motivate your audience to get the result that you desire?  One place to start, obviously, is with talking about something that your audience wants to hear.  In a way, that’s the only place you can start. If your audience doesn’t find your first sentence interesting, they may not go on to your second. And  if the second is not interesting, they may not go on to the third, etc.  Or if they do go on, moving from one sentence that doesn’t interest them to another, they hardly are likely to respond to the work in a positive fashion.

But trying to talk about what someone else wants is a cop-out, a rejection of the principle of telling the truth. Or is it? The answer is that it can be but isn’t necessarily. It depends on how you approach it. If you say to yourself: “I’ll say anything just to get the work approved; I’ll lie; I’ll ignore my own beliefs,” then, yes, that’s a cop-out. If you say to yourself: “I really want to talk about X, but my reader wants Y, so I’ll start with Y and see if I can bring the topic around to X,” that’s not a cop-out. That’s a rhetorical strategy.

Part of the job of the author is to convince the reader that the work is well reasoned, carefully thought out, carefully developed. If you think that X is important but other people think that Y is important, then your job as a writer is to show your readers why X deserves mention. And if you can only convince your readers by talking about Y, then that’s the place to start.

Many writers get stuck because they want to talk about X and they know their audience wants to talk about Y.  If you’re facing such a situation, you might ask yourself whether there is any way to start the discussion with Y and move to X.  This cannot always be done, of course, but if you can’t do find a connection between X and Y, you should ask yourself whether you have the right audience.  There are some barriers that cannot be overcome, but it can be easy to hold too tightly to your chosen point, and thereby miss good opportunities for sharing your ideas.

The gap between what you want and want the audience wants may shape the discourse, but it doesn’t necessitate a corruption of the crucial ideas.  The fact that discourses can be adjusted to suit audiences does not mean that all discourses are distorted by the desire to reach an audience. 

So for whom are you writing? What do they want to hear? And what do you want them to hear? How can you bridge that gap?

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