In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars who have published in the field to share some insights on the dissertation-to-book process–what to do, what to avoid, to put it all together. For other posts in this series, see here.
“Let Me Entertain You!: Entertainment Value and the Scholarly Book”
by Leslie Smith, Avila University (Kansas City, MO, USA)
Many of us who produce scholarly literature inevitably realize that the people who read our books often expect to suffer in the process. Put differently, scholarly work has the (sometimes accurate) reputation of being boring and jargon-laden, rendering it, for some, a necessary evil that one must endure on the road to furthering knowledge or critical thought.
The good news, of course, is that those of us writing books have some control over this, but it requires some forethought. When I first started to shop around my book manuscript at the AAR several years ago, I was surprised that more than one acquisitions editor asked if the revisions I had done included things like adding a catchy story at the beginning of each chapter, having engaging examples, pinpointing a well-defined thesis statement per chapter, and other “basics” of good writing.
If I am being honest, I was taken aback by this line of questions. This is not because I thought these were ridiculous things to consider, but because I did not think that reader engagement would be so important that it would be among the first things I would be asked after I managed to blurt out my name. And if I am pushing the honesty envelope further still, I must also admit that I thought that I had already done those things (because it was interesting to me!). Only after closer inspection did I realize that, while my book manuscript was different than my dissertation (in that it was a heavily revised version of it), without some intentional action on my part it would not necessarily pique the interest of a wider group of people.
What I can very clearly see in retrospect, then, is that all of those acquisitions editors were asking questions to see what I thought “dissertation revision” meant, and as Aaron Hughes has suggested, this means much more than just taking out the literature review. It is a process of creating not just a technically excellent and intellectually stimulating piece, but also about creating audience engagement and relatability that signifies part of the transformation from dissertation-writer to author that Hughes discusses.
Before those of you who write about obscure and esoteric topics start sobbing into your hands, let me reassure you that not only is it possible to engage audiences on virtually any topic, but that focusing on audience engagement is an important part of your own intellectual development and that of the marketing of your book.
To accomplish this, the first thing that I would advise is to remember that your readership is larger than you might imagine. You will be read not just by other academics, but often by non-scholarly individuals and groups with many different reasons for arriving at the topic you have expounded. Frequently, those interactions with wide audiences can lead to a variety of interesting and fruitful interactions. In my case, I have been invited by a number of different organizations (scholarly and otherwise) to talk about my book because one of their members had randomly picked it up and liked it. Those speaking experiences (a.k.a. marketing moments, in some cases) have been incredibly rewarding and stimulating.
A second consideration is that your ability to speak to this wide audience means that you will have to speak differently. In the early stages of my transformation from dissertation-writer to author, I did not have the foresight to imagine an audience other than my scholarly peers, if in great part because I spent considerable time worrying about how I would be rejected by them. That was (quite obviously) my insecurity talking, but it did keep me from focusing on how word usage, explanations of technical information, attention to memorable examples, and – most of all – a focus on the pertinence of my work to some sort of wider cultural context would create an all-around better manuscript. To be clear, I am not advocating that you dumb things down. On the contrary, if you can’t explain to a diverse group why what you write about matters in some sort of context outside of your own narrow interests, then you are making a very poor case for the book’s publication. This is why I often asked educated non-scholar friends and scholars outside of my field to read a chapter here and there, just to make sure that my work was meaningful outside of narrow disciplinary constraints.
A final consideration in thinking through engagement is that your book is much more likely to be picked up as a course text by other scholars if you have some catchy content, for this makes it appealing to students. Don’t be afraid to use pop culture references, humor, and other relatable moments, so long as they are tasteful and have enough critical purchase that the audience will understand the reference. And when you make those references, keep in mind that they will age as the book ages, so providing explanatory context of any cultural events is important. My friend and colleague Craig Martin does this exceptionally well in his introductory textbook, A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (2012), wherein he relates all sorts of philosophical and sociological theory to everything from 80’s rock bands to children’s toys. My students consistently report that this is among the better textbooks they have ever read if, in part, because they feel like it was written for them.
Becoming an author who creates engaging work, then, is much like teaching in the sense that both involve engaging a diverse audience in a novel way on a particular topic within particular time constraints. Central to both exercises is relatability. In part, this starts with the assumption that “challenging” and “interesting” are not mutually exclusive adjectives when it comes to writing a scholarly book.
Leslie Dorrough Smith is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Avila University. Dr. Smith’s work is interdisciplinary, drawing from sociological, historical, critical, and feminist theoretical perspectives. Her primary research is concerned with the ways in which social groups use religious language to create avenues of social influence and political power, with particular focus on American evangelicals. More specifically, her interest in how language has shaped sex and gender-related public policy led to the publication of her first book, Righteous Rhetoric: Sex, Speech, and the Politics of Concerned Women for America (Oxford University Press, 2014), which provides a rhetorical critique of one of the nation’s largest conservative women’s movements.
Probably, the biggest failure of a writer is a failure to engage his audience. Many would say that surely writers won’t be able to catch the attention of all the people, but target audience should be pleased with what they read. Well, this is good point if you want to make money from your writing but if you are writing for pleasure this doesn’t matter. And I came to this conclusion after submitting my own thesis. What I thought was putting my soul into my writing and my ideas running through the whole piece matter, but it turned out not so. Of course they matter but to certain degree. Some will like my ideas, some won’t. But I didn’t expect the whole committee not to appreaciate all the efforts I put in it. What the head of the committee said was ‘You fail to convince us your research matters. Your ideas are good but not good enough for an A.’ Of course, I didn’t do my research for the grade or their praise but seing my work trampled did hurt. At that moment I recollected what I came through to finish my paper, my supervisor not being helpful at all, going to thesis workshops, reading blog entries from DW. And all that has been trampled simply because it didn’t satisfied professors’ points of view. And from that moment I started writing works that would be approved by the general public. But now I came to think why I need their approval. I’d rather write what I feel like writing than think too much what will the public like. And in the end even if you write what many would approve of, still there will be people who will love it. And the very first person who will love it is you.