This piece originally appeared on the Birmingham Research Institute for History & Cultures blog on 14/08/2017. It was commissioned by Chloë Lund who was the BRIHC Development Officer at that time.
Josh Allen discusses writing and editing for different audiences.
For slightly over a year now, I’ve been working for the history journal Past & Present as their Digital Engagement Assistant. It’s one of those fabled jobs we hear much about and tell students they have to prepare for, a position that would have barely existed five years ago, and been inconceivable going back ten. In practice it means that I spend the equivalent of roughly an afternoon a week, maintaining the journal’s website, managing their social media accounts and editing their blog.
I was appointed thanks to my own blogging, so it is probably unsurprising that the latter of these-in practice- that occupies most of my time and is generally mostly satisfying. Upon my appointment one of the journal’s editors told me that I “have a nice journalistic turn of phrase… and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense”. A “pejorative sense”, I thought? How could writing crisply, informatively and with a desire to entertain ever be considered a bad thing? Perhaps they were referring to the general culture of the newsroom? All the old negative tropes: yellow journalism, chequebook journalism, rifling through bins… And the new ones: lines of unpaid interns churning out endless reams of clickbait listicles, sidebars of shame, hacked voicemails…
It should hardly have come as a surprise that I write like a journalist, after all; I used to work as one, and still dabble from time-to-time. But, a year on from joining Past & Present I think I now know exactly what the editor meant, and I tend to agree. There is in fact a big difference between academic writing and writing for other audiences, something that creates a challenge for academics seeking to communicate with a wider public, and for the professionals that work to support them doing so.
What I have learnt, and I probably was incredibly slow to cotton on here or perhaps just blinkered, is that whilst humanities scholarship like journalism, or copywriting; hinges upon written communication, the purpose it is seeking to achieve is rather different. As a professional writer I have always prided myself upon my ability to churn out interesting copy quickly. At the publication I worked for in the year after I graduated from my bachelor’s degree I would sit at my workstation and churn out up to ten articles a day, whilst editing perhaps half a dozen other pieces. Whereas an academic historian could easily spend ten years honing a single twenty page article, and at the end of the publication process still be dissatisfied with it and consider their effort imperfect and “provisional”.
Academic writing: “…the most personal kind of writing”?
Commercial writers know that what they are writing is probably imperfect and almost certainly emperheal and neither especially concerns them. As Joshua Rothman wrote in the New Yorker a while back: “If a journalist sounds friendly, it is is because they are writing for strangers”, whilst academic writing because it is “aimed at a small circle of mutually acquainted specialists… is amongst the most personal writing there is”. These feelings of personal exposure in front of one’s peers, doubtless lie at the heart of why graduate students fear their first experiences of-the supposedly bruising-peer review process
The difference between writing for a mass audience and a close circle is apparent in other aspects of the creative process. Academic writing has an inherently heuristic quality to it. Historian’s articles, chapters and monographs are meticulously designed to make an incremental intervention in a field and push our understanding of the past forward somewhat. Commercial writing lacks this reflexivity and awareness. Novelty is key, with journalists especially, facing an imperative to innovate in terms of subject matter and format and to be ahead of the trend. For most publications if a news story or a feature is not written and published as soon as it is relevant it almost immediately become irrelevant, not so much chip paper, as not worth committing to paper. This could not be more different from the leisurely deliberative process of drafting, redrafting, peer view and page setting that academic publications go through. So to, with innovations in format; note the alacrity, with which journalism took to podcasts, social media streaming and vlogging, not to mention new written formats such as listicles. By contrast it is only quite recently that pictures have begun appearing with any regularity in humanities journals. Tradition in terms of presentation and deliberation in terms of production are inherent aspects of how academics organise and approach their work, just as novelty in terms of formatting and easy impactful sensation serve as the cornerstones of the commercial writer’s art.
These differing attitudes towards the fruits of their labours and the means of production are also apparent in how academics and commercial writers differently engage with the editorial process. Whilst there exist stories of primadonna star columnists getting irate with sub and section editors because someone changed a coma to a semi-colon; in general commercial writers do not get overly hung up about what the editorial process does to their work. On a personal note, much like any other buyer-seller transaction, I have always taken the view that once my invoice has been raised the copy is the publication’s to do with as it wishes. When approaching a commission I instinctively hone the contours and texture of my work to meet the house style, and after submission, am perfectly content for the editors to make further changes, choose pictures, videos, pull-quotes and a headline.
Historians, and doubtless other scholars on the other hand, continue to feel a much deeper connection with their work. Shortly after starting work at Past & Present I managed to really upset a postdoc by rearranging their paragraph structure to make it punchier and easier to read online. I have also been pulled up before over my choice of headline or pictures, even on occasion where I have placed a picture in relation to the text: things which I have always considered to be an editor’s prerogative! These reflections are hardly complaints, more an illustration of the learning curve I have been on. Far more common is the academic who e-mails me multiple drafts in rapid succession because a detail here or there is niggling them, or who DMs me through Twitter after publication seeking to “just adjust a couple of things”, or, and this happens a lot; who promises to write something and then goes quiet for months, before sending in a thousand word (inevitably excellent) piece that they’ve been agonising over for weeks.
Towards a personal turn in academic blogging
These anecdotes are not intended to reinforce hoary old tropes of academics as monomaniacal neurotics and commercial writers as slapdash hacks, but rather serve to illustrate the challenge of conveying academic ideas through the concise and relatively informal register of a blog post. Like all discourses, academic history writing flows from a series of tropes, is planted in a whole field of conventions, and is supported by an entire forest of rhetorical pit-props. Initiates, whether they are undergraduates or emeritus professors; may well find it an uncomfortable experience to try and produce work that sits outside the logographic landscape they find familiar. I completely sympathise, one of the reasons why I am not an academic, is that I have never felt entirely comfortable (or indeed capable) of producing work that sits nicely within the shady grove of academy: I lack the patience.
Over the course of the past year, at Past & Present I have developed a number of approaches to try and mitigate these feelings of discomfort and support our contributors to produce great posts that really illuminate their work. At heart blogging is a tabloid medium in that it is intensely personal and people focused. To try and tease this out I am always keen for contributors to “include a lot of themselves” in what they write. I encourage this by encouraging contributors to tell the story of how they became interested in the research topic that sparked their article, reflect upon what it signifies for them personally, tell the story of how their article came about, or to tease out the wider cultural or political significance of what they have written. All of these topics sit far outside the perimeters of what historians have traditionally considered in their publications, even in a “generalist” journal like Past & Present. Indeed I take a lot of delight in shepherding consideration of the personal and subjective factors that fire our contributor’s scholarship out into the daylight.
I have been gratified to see over the course of the year, as the readership of the Past & Present blog has soared; that the visitors to our website appreciate the personal touch our contributors bring to their posts. There is a clear appetite for there to be forums for exploring the personal factors that influence the scholarly process and it is one way for academia to comfortably express itself and communicate through a medium that some scholars find it a challenge to engage with. In this way the scholarly process is rendered on the screen as engaging whilst also retaining the deep sense of personal engagement and commitment to the past that animates academic history. As a research communications and outreach professional, I feel that bringing my expertises in this area to bear by identifying strong hooks and angles is part of the value that I bring to the process as a non-academic. Which is not to say that scholars cannot do it for themselves, every once in awhile I get to publish something that gratifies my sense of the absurd.
‘One weird trick to help you reach a wider audience’
The challenges of editing an academic blog, as I’ve outlined them; throw into sharp relief a number of wider issues surrounding communicating scholarship to the public and involving non-academics in research as partners and co-creators. It is increasingly common for humanities researchers to work in teams on funded projects, and the analysis of images, material culture and the use of digital tools are moving to the heart of historical practice, however, the archetypal figure of the historian remains a solitary one. Fundamentally though, interactions through teaching, at conferences or via Twitter and listserves aside, for much of the time humanities scholars labour alone. Many are incredibly content with this arrangement.
Which is not in of itself unsurprising, because it is a pattern that has long structured scholarly life, and forms much of its continuing attraction. Today, though, there are increasingly imperatives for academics to reach out and work with wider publics, something that can cause tensions akin to the ones that have surfaced in my experience with the Past & Present blog. There are a lot of idealistic reasons for academics to work with the wider public, chief amongst them the democratisation of knowledge and and access to the tools that enable intellectual and critical enquiry and which enable social change, not to mention the potential benefits in terms of feedback and connections that help develop a researcher’s work. Yet, there are also an increasing number of pragmatic reasons for doing so. Here in the UK this most obviously takes the form of the REF’s impact section and the ways in which other funding bodies increasing incentivise outreach when making grant decisions. Whilst more widely around the world traditional hierarchies and assumptions about knowledge and expertise are being upturned and eroded, while political and economic instability, chafe away at the foundations of the academy. Taken together both sets of imperatives provide powerful incentives for academics in all disciplines to work with the wider public and to communicate with audiences beyond their peers.
Academic prestige, however, continues to come largely from peer validation and is assigned by the close knit networks of scholars that cluster around particular research topics. I recently heard a visiting speaker from the University of Oxford-who had authored a best selling popular book about historical geopolitics-sum this up succinctly, by stating that whilst he had spent weeks at the top of the Sunday Times Bestseller List “what really matters to me, is not all this, but the validation and respect of my peers”. Just like certain genres of music, and unlike in almost every other field of written endeavour, this is where academics learn early on in their careers that prestige lies, not amongst the general public.
Given the rank imperative of engaging with wider audiences I think that some of my work at Past & Present provides some pointers as to how academics can comfortably work outside the academy. My focus upon foregrounding the researcher and the creative process by encouraging personal reflective pieces stemmed from my journalistic experience: everybody knows that readers love human interest. Further, once the dazzling feat of “magic” has been accomplished, everybody loves it when the magician reveals how the trick was performed. Illuminating the interesting, touching, highly relatable, deeply human reasons why historians study what they do, and how this makes them feel, demystifies the scholarly process and brings academic history into dialogue with non-academics, whilst preserving and in no way compromising the the fundamentally contemplative, deliberative approaches that are the source of its strength.
As you’ve seen being a journalist amongst academics has its challenges. I still sometimes feel like I am speaking Mandarin when everybody else is talking Persian, but whilst my accent remains strong, my pronunciation is improving by the day. I have even learnt not to rearrange contributor’s paragraph structures. So, despite the occasional misunderstanding, I feel that my approach to outreach and engage has been substantially enhanced by my experience as a commercial writer. One day, though; the temptation will become overwhelming and I will find an excuse to smuggle in a little listicle…