Reader and Writer Relationships in Academic Writing

I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite novels while on break between the end of one PhD course and the start of the next. It’s been glorious. I’ve been neglecting my fiction reading as of late in favour of academic articles, partially out of necessity and time but partially because I’ve been finding it harder and harder to connect with novels and get into them — it is hit or miss if I’ll find the writing compelling. I have also found it to be more of a regular occurrence to read a novel and have most of it be good and then the author ruins it with a cheap plot cheat that comes out of nowhere, like an act of God, and solves all the protagonist’s problems. I walk away from books like that feeling ripped off. Once upon a time, I used to insist on reading books from start to finish, even if I didn’t like them. My time is too valuable for that now.

And yes, I am a literature snob. I like a strong voice and strong voices are hard to find.

I also like strong voices in academic writing, and those are even harder to find.

But my Twitter feed keeps filling up with reminders of how important creative writing is to the mind and soul. They say that voracious readers are also good writers. Whether this is scientifically backed up is debatable, but reading, at the very least, gives you the skills to recognize good writing. What you read, says a lot about you as a person. Your ability to articulate your passion for what you’re reading also says a lot too. Because reading is relationship building, and having a passion for what you’ve read means that the relationship was successful. Here’s an untested hypothesis for you: It is possible that writers who are voracious readers, are best able to understand the needs of readers when they write.

In my academic reading, I’ve been examining the social construction of writing and one of the components of writing as a social construction is the relationship that a writer forms with a reader. This is a complicated relationship because intertwined  within it is the identities of both characters, and they never (or rarely) come face to face. The writer has to envision a reader as they write which means they have to guess what that reader knows and understands already, and what they will need to know to understand the argument. They have to guess what emotions that reader may be having. They have to accept the consequences that the reader may interpret what is written in a way that was never intended.

Having an intimate knowledge of your reader is one of the greatest challenges of writing. We see our undergraduate students fail at this time and time again.  I’m convinced this is one aspect of student writing that we mistakenly identify as poor grammar. Undergraduate students believe they have no knowledge or authority and, thus, that everything they do know must be common knowledge. This leads to them writing statements out of their head without citation. This issue also contributes to a lot of lack of clarity in their writing and the giant holes present in their description of their arguments.  Their teachers, to them, are all knowing beings. Why should they have to define that term or make that connection overtly for the teacher when the teacher is already the expert? I have had students come back to question a grade and when they provide their explanation as to why they deserve more marks, they fill in those holes they failed to explain in their original paper. Explaining what you meant after the fact doesn’t change the lack of clarity in the orignal.

Stephen King in On Writing talks about having an ideal reader in your head as you write. For him, it is his wife Tabatha. For an academic writer, it may be a teacher, or a editor, or anonymous reviewers. For a PhD student it may be an advisor or other opinionated committee member. When you are an undergraduate student only writing one paper for a particular teacher, sensing what a teacher defines as good writing can seem a daunting and impossible task. What pleased one teacher in the past may be lambasted by another. When writing for peer reviewed journals, it isn’t much different. What pleases one reviewer, another reviewer will tell you to cut as being a waste of space, or too editorial in nature. These issues can prey on your writing self-efficacy. And influencing writing self-efficacy runs as deep as preying on your identity  (or lack thereof) as a writer.

On the side of the reader, you are continually trying to imagine the person behind the writing. I have read academic papers that have sent me to google to search more about the author and their work or sent me back into the library databases to find other articles they’ve written. This is extremely rare. Yet, in the creative field, we all have favourite authors where we devour everything they’ve written. If a writer has done their job, you will demand to know more about what drove the work. When I was a teenager and in transition from Sweet Valley High to Stephen King novels, one of the things I liked best was his afterwords to his books which told the stories behind the stories of writing his novels. It was his way of inserting himself into his work and connecting with readers — until he got to the end of The Gunslinger series and he LITERALLY inserted himself in his novel, which really didn’t work for me…… but I digress.

The other component of relationship building on the side of the reader is the act of reading and interpreting what is being said. This is the risk that a writer faces when they send their work out into the world to be devoured, critiqued, or even ignored. Good writing will inspire the next idea. It should instil critical thinking. The reader will be making constant connections between what they have read and their own identities, and things going on in their lives.

In academic writing this means that when a writer cites another author, it could mean many things. It could be a direct paraphrase, a misinterpretation, it could be an inspiration, or it could be a leap in thinking to the next great discovery. All of us who have published, have experienced seeing our work cited and thought, “that’s not what I said.” And this is OK, in my opinion. It just means the writer as reader was inspired in some way by what you wrote. Argument building depends upon that inspiration. I’ve often said that citation in academic writing is like a sophisticated game of telephone — a game I remember playing as a kid, sitting in a circle and whispering a sentence from one to the next and seeing how it changes by the time it reaches the last person in the loop. The game itself is a lesson against gossip, but in academic writing, the cycle of reading, writing, and interpreting, and coming to the end of the loop with a new idea, is how knowledge is made. We don’t learn what we know prior to sitting down to write, we learn what we know as we write, and this is where the magic happens.

When I say, all writing is creative writing, I, in part, am talking about this reader/writer relationship building and the writing-reading interpretation loop. Connecting with a reader requires imagination and ideas that inspire, so that a reader takes those words into their world, imbeds them into their own identity and makes meaning.

 

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