I had a question from a client a couple of weeks ago that I suspect resonates with many academic writers. In The Scholarly Writing Process, I talk about the importance of identifying the audience for the article or book you are writing. You don’t need to do this right at the beginning, but knowing who your reader is helps you make decisions about things like the level of detail you need in various sections, how to frame the argument in relation to the debate you’re contributing to, and so on.
However, sometimes the audience you are imagining is not helpful. My client realised that she was imagining those scholars in her field who think the very question driving her work is not worth investigating. They have a particular view of the topic and a particular line of inquiry they are committed to, and they think my client’s work is a distraction (at best) or politically dangerous. I wrote “You aren’t trying to win an argument” for those who imagine an audience they must convert to a new way of thinking. This particular problem highlighted a variation: Not only are you not trying to win an argument with your publication, you cannot force anyone to engage in the conversation.
The first step to solving a problem is noticing. Once you’ve noticed that you are writing for your worst critics, and accepted that you aren’t required to win them over, what do you do?
Evicting your worst critics from your head
It would be lovely if your imagination was like the TV and you could just turn it off, or change the channel. This particular client has a meditation practice and even that doesn’t evict nasty gremlins. She was talking to me so we could work it out together and find a way for her to move forward on this book and enjoy her writing more.
The strategy we came up with involves not only kicking out the audience you don’t want but putting someone else in their seats so your worst critics have a harder time coming back in. Imagine the readers who are already interested in this conversation, the readers who don’t think your questions are stupid or dangerous but who find them intriguing.
Start with people you know personally:
- your academic friends
- colleagues who have expressed interest
- people who have said nice things about related conference papers
Then think about the things you have read that are taking a similar approach. Add the authors of those papers to your list of friendly readers.
If the negative voices are particularly strong, you might even imagine the scholars (established and emerging) who are struggling with the same problem. Imagine that by publishing your book or article, they will know to add you to their friendly audience as they write.
This is the audience I meant when I encouraged you to consider your audience while you write. It doesn’t need to be big. It needs to be receptive. When you are writing, think of these people (individually and/ collectively).
It’s still going to be hard to kick out the meanies, especially if they publicly attack work like yours (or have even publicly attacked your work). You can do extra things to help you focus on the receptive auciences.
- Write out your list on paper and pin it to the wall.
- Create a note in your Notes app (whichever one you use), or a page in your paper notebook, for all the positive and encouraging comments you’ve had. Add tweets, copies of email messages, transcriptions of oral conversations, etc to that note.
- Find photos of the people on your list (e.g. profile photos from social media or their university website) and make a collage you can look at.
- Make a collage of the positive and encouraging comments.
When your worst critics sneak back into your head while you are writing, notice, go to your visual aid, remind yourself of the people who will be genuinely interested in what you have to say, keep writing.
There may come a point where you have got a lot written and your gremlins start telling you that your worst critics are incredibly powerful and you will never be able to publish. They will write scathing reviews. They will desk reject your manuscript. If this happens, you might need to write some new lists.
- Where have you already presented this work?
- Where have colleagues writing on similar topics (or topics equally derided by these critics) published?
- Who is on the editorial board of the journal or series you planned to submit to?
Although it can seem like your worst critics are remarkably powerful, they are unlikely to be omnipotent. In extreme cases, if you have had an experience that suggests that one or more of them would not give a fair review of your manuscript, you can indicate this to the editor when you submit.
Kick your critics out of the reader chair (and out of the room). Your friendly readers need the space.
Enjoy your writing!
You might also find a Gremlin colouring page helpful.
Other Minds Thomas Basbøll clearly explains the concept of writing for peers. His primary example is about student writing but as he points out in an early paragraph the problem applies to academics at all levels.
An earlier version of this post appeared in the Academic Writing Studio newsletter 16 March 2018.