Publication Date

November 1, 1995

Several years ago, my dissertation adviser, Nancy Cott, called me with an intriguing offer. Oxford University Press had asked her to edit a series of U.S. women’s history books for the young adult market—would I be interested in contributing one of the volumes? The other contributors would include established historians such as William Chafe, Elaine Tyler May, John Demos, and Sarah Deutsch, as well as junior scholars fresh out of graduate school such as myself. The series would present the latest in women’s historiography in a readable, visually engaging style. Since I was working as a freelance writer at the time while searching for a permanent academic position-and since I was nearly broke—I was particularly interested in the advance being offered. Further, I envisioned a new market for my freelance writing skills if the book was successful.

Looking back on the experience, I now understand that my rewards for writing the book, Breaking New Ground: American Women, 1800-1848, went far beyond mere monetary concerns. Oh, I appreciated the advance, and I hope to appreciate the royalties in the future. But the experience has left me with a strong commitment to writing scholarly books fora targeted, popular audience. Such projects can improve one’s academic writing while helping to create a wider audience for compelling, theoretically sophisticated history. Further, these projects may be one way to reestablish public support for the work of historians.

Writing for a nonacademic audience forced me back to the creative process of writing itself. I had to ask myself, what makes a book compelling? What makes a reader want to move beyond the first few paragraphs, particularly a reader who is neither familiar with nor previously enraptured with the material? These questions brought me to a more fundamental concern that academics rarely address—who was my audience? I knew that Oxford intended the series for “young adults"—junior and senior high school students, ages 12-18. A great many of my readers would encounter my book because their teacher had assigned it to them. This meant I had a large, captive audience, but also an often resentful one (particularly, I supposed, among the boys).

My Oxford editor, Nancy Toff, was a veteran of many young adult publications and gave me some initial guidelines about my audience. Perhaps the best advice was, "Don't talk down to your readers.” Nobody likes to be preached at and condescended to, and since teenagers get both all the time, they are particularly sensitive to these common adult afflictions. At the same time, Nancy Toff warned me not to assume any advance knowledge of U.S. history or familiarity with any particular concept. I had to explain events such as the Industrial Revolution and concepts like "equal wages for equal work" by integrating the information into the story I was telling. And while vocabulary words could be challenging, they need not be unnecessarily difficult or obscure.

These sage words gave me a better idea of the boundaries of what was unacceptable, but left me wondering about what would actually work. Without a really clear idea of where I was heading, I wrote an outline setting out my basic arguments within the chapters and across the span of the book. Based on this rather rough road map, I drafted my first chapter. It was awful. My wife, who fortunately was the only one to read it, was kinder in her assessment. She made it clear, however, that I was heading in the wrong direction. What, she asked, was the story that I wanted to tell? Was it a story that my audience wanted to hear?

What story did I want to tell? The chapter was to be about courtship and marriage in four cultures, and the changes that the Industrial Revolution had made regarding attitudes toward heterosexual relationships in those cultures. I then laid out the different analytical arguments I would build in comparing and contrasting tile different cultures. Was that the story I wanted to tell? My wife looked dubious as I described my intentions.

Suddenly I realized that yes, that was the Analytical "story" I wanted to tell, but it was only one part of the story. I was missing what historians often call the "narrative.” Oh, it was there, but off in the background, playing a supporting role. I needed to bring individuals, actions and interactions, choices and obstacles, into the story. What I would have to do was integrate the "what” with the "why" into a master narrative. Whenever possible, the two would woven together, but at times one or the other would take the lead. When I wrote the second draft, I began with sketches of three composite characters.

I had always wanted to use composite sketches in my past academic work, but had shied away from them because they seemed to skirt the edges of academic respectability. It seemed somehow dishonest to claim a "representative person" and flesh him or her out in ways that no single piece of historica1 evidence would allow. As I began my sketches, however, I realized that social historians often create composites of sorts—they weave together quotes from different sources and various bits of information to come up with a representative portrayal of a certain class or group. They do this, however, without enjoying any of the stylistic advantages that a true composite sketch would bring. The composites “worked"—at least in the eyes of my editors—which led me to the second lesson I learned writing for a targeted general audience: take risks.

Following my next revision, I asked the class I was teaching at the Andover Summer Session to critique my chapter. The Andover Summer Session draws its students from a wide array of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and thus provided me with a demographically representative sample. More important, I had been critiquing their writing for the past month, and they were eager to return the favor. I also asked them to grade my effort—an assignment they relished and which I used as a rough assessment of my effectiveness.

I am proud to say that I averaged an 85 (out of 100), but most helpful were their comments. A number of students complained of losing the argument along the way. Apparently, I had strayed too far toward the "what" and away from the "why.” A related comment was that I sometimes condensed a complex analytical point by referring to a concept of which they were not aware. Others found the sentences too long, too "academic," too convoluted.

When I asked a few academic readers to critique the chapter, I received a very different set of comments. The academic readers rarely mentioned any of the criticisms raised by my students. Instead, the academic readers requested that I make particular analytical points more sophisticated or include points that they believed were historiographically important. The two different responses made me realize that academic historians were far more accepting of fundamental writing problems, and far less forgiving of analytical shortcomings. As a graduate student, I had been trained to address problems of analysis—correcting those problems was easy. Fixing the writing problems required more time and thought.

In my subsequent drafts and revisions, I tried to concentrate on certain fundamentals that my Andover students had criticized. My student readers alerted me to the fact that the length and structure of sentences found in academic writing would not cut it in young adult prose. In my later revisions, I wrote shorter, more direct sentences, I was less concerned with cramming my complete complex thought into one sentence than I was with readability? William Zinsser's On Writing Well provided me with some of the best advice regarding ruthless self-editing. “Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds,” Zinsser warned, “The writer is always slightly behind.” Zinsser suggested placing brackets around any component in a piece of writing that “wasn’t doing useful work.” This editing device worked wonders for me, as did his terse command, “simplify, simplify.”

In response to my student readers' complaint about the disappearing argument, I made sure to "signpost" my analytical intentions using transition -sentences and paragraphs. Often this meant integrating a narrative transitional sentence with an analytical one. In other words, I was simultaneously trying to move forward the action and the argument. This proved a tricky balance, and required that I spend significant amounts of time improving a single sentence.

The students' criticisms also encouraged me to rethink my use of the chapter as a stylistic tool. Not simply a convenient place to divide the narrative or analysis, each new chapter became an opportunity to reconnect with the reader. I tried to present the analytical direction of the chapter in a way that made the reader excited about continuing to present a riddle of sorts that needed answering. I spent more time on the opening pages of a chapter than on any other section, trying to provide each introduction with a "hook" to grab the reader's attention. My next greatest effort was devoted to the chapter's conclusion—I wanted to make the reader stop and think, or smile, or perhaps be saddened—to elicit something besides the reaction, "Thank God,only three chapters to go.” My ideal-however often achieved—was for my reader to finish the chapter, and eventually the book, satisfied yet sorry that the experience was over. Too much to ask of a women’s history survey on the early 19th century? Perhaps. But I was less concerned with fulfilling the ideal than with providing myself with the motivation to go beyond standard academic writing.

I also discovered that in communicating many of my analytical points, I resorted to a kind of academic shorthand. While other academics might understand my point—or at least assume they understood it—my young adult audience would not. To my surprise, I often found that once I had unpacked the different components of a point I was making, I wasn't quite as clear about it as I had thought. By explaining my point more clearly to my reader, I had explained it more clearly to myself.

Like all the lessons I learned during this project, this one is applicable to academic writers as well. Most academics write for a narrow audience of specialists in a particular field. We write knowing that our readers have read most of the same books and discussed the same ideas. An academic writer often substitutes a reference to a particular author or mentions a particular theory without really explaining her exact intentions. As learned, one can use this “shorthand" approach as a way to avoid communicating difficult ideas. While not every academic writer is unclear about the meaning of her "shorthand," any writer who uses this strategy risks alienating both nonspecialist scholars as well as a wider general audience.

My experience in writing Breaking New Ground has convinced me that academics would be well served writing for a general audience. As David Thelan, editor of the Journal of American History, commented recently “No one entered this profession … to books that would be read by a couple of dozen readers.” Although many of us might have fantasies of writing the next historical best-seller, a more likely option would be to investigate the many opportunities for writing for a targeted audience such as “young adults.”

An excellent way to explore these opportunities is to investigate a bookstore with a comprehensive children's and young adults' section. Here one can discover which topics readers are interested in and publishers are publishing, and which publishers are active in the field. Another excellent source of information is Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market This handy book provides lists of publishers and their areas of interest (history is one subfield), as well as essays on how to write a query letter and other useful topics. From my experience as a freelance writer, mastering the art of getting the editor’s attention is a crucial skill to learn. While it’s nice to have a project fall into one’s lap, as happened with me, most academics will probably need to do a little fishing.

An obvious benefit of writing for a targeted general audience is the promise of making a little money, something unlikely with most current academic monographs. Most publishers offer one of two arrangements—either a "work-far-hire" flat fee, or royalties, often with an advance. Most writer's handbooks strongly favor royalty arrangements. Most work-far-hire arrangements require the author to give up all future rights to her material. This allows publishers to reuse the author's work without further remuneration. Some publishers offer royalties without an advance. My own feeling is that this indicates (1) the publisher doesn't have sufficient confidence in you or your project, or (2) the publisher is very cheap. Neither of these suggests that the project would be sufficiently remunerative.

Writing for a general audience offers nonmonetary benefits as well, although these too might eventually lead to financial gains. After completing Breaking New Ground, I returned in earnest to the task of revising my dissertation. I found that the lessons I learned in writing for young adults greatly improved the effectiveness of my writing. While still constrained by the monograph’s (real or imagined) scholarly requirements, my writing was livelier, clearer, and generally more fun to read than it had been before.

My monograph, An Army ofWomen: Gender and Politics in Gilded Age Kansas, has the potential to reach a number of audiences outside academia. (Kansans love reading about Kansas, for example.) Of course, the book may never make significant inroads beyond the halls of academe. But I do hope my efforts will enable interested nonacademics to read and enjoy my book. I see the book as a hand held out to a public largely abandoned by scholars. Whether few or many take that hand is less important to me than the fact that I made the effort. One has to start somewhere.

Currently, most academic historians seem caught up in a vicious cycle. The public is not interested in the books we write, and most promotion and tenure committees give academics little credit for good writing. Where, then, is the incentive for writing well? The answer lies in breaking the cycle. If academic historians were to concentrate on lively, understandable yet scholarly writing, some in the general public might begin to take notice. If editors believed these books would sell more than 1,200 copies, they might have their copyeditors spend more time on improving the effectiveness of the author's writing, as my Oxford copyeditor spent on mine. Because readability increases sales, Oxford was willing to spend the money on careful line editing. Most academic presses cannot afford to spend much on a book with a limited run. Oxford's editors also spent a lot of time and money on the layout, design, and illustrations for the book—again, because they knew it would add to sales.

Unfortunately, most academics will not be willing to spend the necessary time needed to write well simply to make a little extra money. Universities put enormous pressure on junior faculty to produce scholarship. Why should junior faculty take the time to write a graceful, compelling article when they could write a plodding but equally sophisticated piece in half the time? Why should they spend an extra year revising their first book when they could be spending their time on their "next project"? Clearly, the road to academic success lies with those who take the latter options.

The same quandary faces those who write for a general audience. I am fortunate to be in a department whose promotion and tenure committee has acknowledged my Oxford book as a form of scholarship. Most academics, I suspect, are not so lucky. Most books written for a general targeted audience are not "original scholarship." That is, most of the ideas are not new. Most, in fact, synthesize and translate the work of other historians. An effective, scholarly book that reaches the public is like an excellent teacher. Of course, most promotion and tenure committees give only slightly more credit for good teaching than for good writing. And therein lies the problem. Academics rarely get rewarded for communicating to anyone outside of academia.

It is in the profession's interest that more historians write for a general audience, and that more of the public read—and enjoy—good history. We are currently in a period where public support for the humanities is waning-the National Endowment for the Humanities is threatened with extinction and state legislators are slashing the budgets of many community colleges and state universities. While we can blame the ideological agendas of conservative politicians or the fiscal imperatives of recessionary times, academic historians—and humanities scholars in general—would do well to reconsider their half of the democratic bargain. Is it enough to produce scholarship that circulates only among an elite few and then (possibly) trickles down to the masses? Don't we have both a responsibility and an interest in reconnecting with the American public? Shouldn't we be providing nonacademic with scholarship that is both analytically challenging and a good read? By so doing we not only affirm the worth of our scholarship to the public, we affirm the worth our profession to the nation.

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