Monday, November 01, 2010

How to Write for Whom

"To know whom to write for is to know how to write."

I just noticed that Jonathan has added this sentence from Virginia Woolf's "The Patron and the Crocus" to his list of maxims. It is something that I've had the occasion to emphasize to the PhD students I work with many times. Some of them leave the question of what field (and often fields) they are making a contribution to open far too long. This no doubt stems from certain anxieties about the "originality" of their contribution, but it forgets that their research question didn't emerge in a vacuum. It arose from a set of problems that others are already working on. Those others are, provisionally, the "who" that you are writing for.

I usually say that the problem of writing, whether it is a paper or a dissertation, is defined by the one-sentence answers to two questions. What do you want to say? Who do you want to say it to? Much of what Robert Graves called "the huge impossibility of language", i.e., the difficulty of its use, stems from not knowing these answers.

"But how to choose rightly? How to write well? Those are the questions."

They are by no means easy to answer. Woolf's maxim is interesting because it suggests that once you know what you want to write, the "who" gives you your "how". Truly knowing who you are writing for, however, is not merely a matter of learning a few key references, naming the field, choosing a handful of journals, and attending a few annual conferences. You don't just have to know who your readers are, you have to know how they will read your work. To know how you will be read, we might say, is to know how to write. And you know how you will be read by familiarizing yourself with the sorts of readers you will have.

Unlike the public writer that Woolf's remark was addressed to, academic writers have a straightforward way of learning what their readers are like. Their readers, after all, are themselves writers, and they are exactly the kind of writer that the academic writer aspires to be. They are not all master stylists, and they are not all equally interesting to the writer, but their writings give us access to the expectations of readers, and understanding those expectations is the key to learning how you will be read. Your style develops as your understanding of your audience develops.

You don't have a paper to write if you have nothing to say, but you don't know how to write the paper if you don't know who you will say it to. The luxury of my job as a writing consultant (not a supervisor) is that I can demand answers to the questions of "what" and "who" before I can offer my services. I can't really help people who haven't settled those issues. (A supervisor's job, by contrast, is to help you settle them: to help you clarify what you want to say and help you understand what your readers expect of you.) All I can do is make it clear to writers that the reason they are struggling in their writing, the reason they feel they don't know how to write, is that they are unfamiliar with their reader.

A word of caution, however. One of the reasons that some people never get their dissertations written is that this problem of who the reader is remains the problem throughout the writing process. By equating the "how" and "who" so strongly, Woolf might mislead us into thinking that the only suitable response to not knowing how to write is to go off and read some more, i.e., to familiarize ourselves with our readers, i.e., to not write. This is a mistake for two reasons.

First, it too often sends us off into the reading of works by people who are not even possibly our readers: namely, the major (and often dead) figures of our field or, worse, of the Western canon. Telling yourself that you are developing your knowledge of how to write by reading people like Deleuze and Foucault, Kant or Leibniz, Weber or Marx, is, well, kidding yourself. What you should do is read current work in the journal literature. That's where your audience is to be found. Second, and more importantly, how do you know that you don't know how to write? The only way to know that is to be writing every day. It is by writing every day that you come to understand the difficulty of writing, and it is by reading published work in your field that you learn ways of facing this difficulty.

That is, Woolf's maxim works both ways. To know how to write is also to know whom to write for. You write yourself towards your reader, and you read yourself towards your writer.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I came across this phrase in a book written in Spanish about the Spanish essay. Juan Marichal in "La voluntad de estilo" was pointing out that writers in the 15th century in Spain had to define an audience before they could define a style, that the essay as a genre required a certain sense of "sociability." He quotes Virginia Woolf in English.

The style could not exist without the audience. I found that a striking thought. Were these essayists writing for courtiers, for monks? For women or for men? etc...