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Making the Academic-Public Audience Transition

Over the past few weeks a group of historians whom I respect deeply have been debating and discussing the advantages and drawbacks of writing for academic and popular audiences (the key posts are listed at the bottom of this post). For me, these pieces have come at a crucial and, perhaps, vulnerable time in my writing, as I transition from a book-length project of academic writing (turning my dissertation into a book manuscript) to a book-length project of popular history writing (a book on the U.S. Post Office). I want to wade into the conversation from a slightly different perspective than most of the other participants and bring in the voice of someone who has not yet published a book.

Over the past six years I’ve done my share of academic writing and a significant amount of writing for public audiences, both in shorter forms, and I feel comfortable in each of those genres. For me, there has been little struggle in shifting my voice among academic articles and book chapters on the one hand and op-ed essays and blog posts on the other. In fact, I believe that publishing in the latter form has improved my academic writing, as Megan Kate Nelson suggests. But I’ve been struggling with how to move between those two worlds with the larger projects.

The good news is that I submitted my first book manuscript to the publisher in January. It is in form a very traditional academic study, based on my dissertation and many years of deep archival research on a specific topic—in this case, the business practices of the printing trade during the American Revolution. I’ve been working on it in one way or another since I began graduate school in 2004. In the book, I work to engage with a series of academic debates about the American Revolution, the role of media in politics, and the interrelationship of business and politics. Because I submitted the book to an academic press, I do not (for the most part) connect those discussions to the present, which is part of why I took up blogging and other forms of public writing in the first place. I like to think that my contribution will have an impact (somewhere out there, a reviewer is judging that as we speak!), but the audience is decisively based in the academic community. And as John Fea noted about his first book, for all of the broad claims I make, I also spend a fair amount of time discussing the public sphere and using theoretical frameworks for understanding eighteenth-century media.

That brings me to the challenge of the second project, a general history of the U.S. Post Office. The thinking for the book comes out of some of the same broad questions I have in the first book, but otherwise it is different in nearly every respect. This brings me to the challenge.

Unlike the first book, Project #2 has a tight deadline in book terms. That means I’m trying to write a book more quickly and without the expanses of time one has during dissertation research. Second, it’s aimed at a general audience, which requires a different writing voice, a different way of thinking about notes and citations, and so on. I had thought that wouldn’t be as much of an issue because I have some experience with public writing, but the scale of the project has made that a bigger challenge. Third,t he project has a much longer time span—I’m writing a general history of the Post Office in America from its beginnings in the seventeenth century up to whatever’s going on in Congress when I finish the final draft of the epilogue. That means a new set of sources, including some with which I am less than comfortable. Who knew that reading typewritten primary sources could be so discomfiting?

The largest challenge by far, however, has been trying to write a synthetic work. Unlike the first project, which involved years of archival research, my post office project needs to be completed relatively quickly and stay at a relatively broad level. I don’t have time to spend five years reading pamphlets on postage reform or studying newspaper accounts of the postal workers’ strikes in Chicago or New York in the 1960s and 1970s. I need to rely on other scholarship. That goes against my instincts as a historian, which tell me to go to the archives, to pull sources, to read deeply, to wrap my arms fully around a topic before I commit my thoughts to writing.

I’m not completely abandoning archival work, both because it’s in my blood and because the book needs some archival sources to be credible. But I am working on crafting a narrative that relies on other historians for the background and bringing my voice to the fore for the narrative. It’s something I do every week in the classroom when I write lectures or lead discussions. Putting it into a book manuscript has been more difficult.

For now, then, I see the value in writing in both voices at various times. And perhaps acknowledging the struggle will be the first step towards breaking through my internal resistance to synthetic narrative (on the other hand, I’m writing this in an archive). I’ll let you know how it goes.

The Discussion on Audiences:

Karin Wulf, “The Importance of Academic (History) Writing,” Scholarly Kitchen, Jan. 27, 2016

John Fea, “Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing ‘Academic History’ and Writing History for Public Audiences,” The Way of Improvement, Jan. 28, 2016

Ben Carp, response to John FeaThe Way of Improvement, Jan. 30, 2016

Megan Kate Nelson, “Is There a Future for Creative Academic Writing in Academia?” Feb. 11, 2016

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4 Comments

  1. Historiann says:

    As they say at weddings: congratulations and best wishes! Congratulations on the first book being out the door, and best wishes on transitioning to popular history.

    I admire your determination to succeed as a writer in different non-fiction genres, and I think it’s important for professionally-trained, archivally-experienced scholars to write popular/creative non-fiction as well as academic histories. I don’t know if you ever worked for a school or university paper (I did), or if you ever wrote on any kind of a daily or weekly deadline, but it’s good experience.

    I think we professionals tend to fetishize expertise, and that makes us reluctant to use our training on anything outside of our fairly narrow fields. But I’m over that. In fact, my most recent blog post takes on the entire historical era! (Only 7,000 years, give or take a century or two.)

    Bon courage.

    • Thanks Ann, I appreciate it. I edited a very small-stakes newspaper in high school, but never worked on one in college, so I only have secondhand appreciation for that sort of deadline work. I’ve tried to impose some of that discipline on myself, though, in blogging and other short-form work.

  2. Karin Wulf says:

    Indeed congrats, Joe! I agree that better writing comes from lots of writing (and editing, and being edited, etc etc). Certainly one thing I appreciate about social media is the opportunity to write relatively quick/ short pieces. I’m no talent, that’s for sure, but my skills are better for it. Plus, writing is the most fun hard work ever– except for parenting. : )

  3. […] a post a few weeks ago, I half-promised that I might write more frequent updates about my current research […]

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