Monday, May 19, 2014

Guest Blogger Seth Masket on Writing in Your Academic Discipline

Thanks to Seth Masket for today's helpful post with tips on writing in your academic discipline while considering your audience. You might be writing for other academics or, as I call myself when I read my husband's papers, civilians. 

Seth Masket is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Denver. He writes about political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009), as well as a forthcoming book on anti-party reform movements with Oxford University Press. Masket is a founding member of the Mischiefs of Faction blog and contributes weekly at Pacific Standard and occasionally for The Monkey Cage. He also tweets a lot.

Writing in Your Discipline

Many academic disciplines have been accused in recent decades of receding further into the Ivory Tower, writing in increasingly arcane and technical language, prioritizing quantitative analysis over intellectual insight, and just generally making themselves less relevant to and understandable by the world they seek to describe. Political science (my field) seems particularly susceptible to these charges. However, over the past decade, a number of political scientists have pushed back against this trend by writing for broader audiences in the news media and in blogs.

This is certainly an encouraging trend, but it presents a new challenge for academics. Social scientists are not really taught in graduate school how to write for a mass audience. If anything, the training is on how to write technically. This is to be expected; graduate students are learning advanced research techniques and new material at a dizzying pace, and the only audience for their writing is a few experienced faculty members and, to some extent, each other. 

One might think that technical writing is difficult. In my own experience, it’s incredibly easy. Learning a new statistical method or making a new discovery is terribly exciting, and it's tempting to spend a large percentage of a paper or dissertation just describing the contours of what was just learned. And, to be sure, there's a proper place for that in academic texts -- scholars should be able to state in detail what they've done so that others can investigate those findings and build upon them. (Hans Noel has a great post on this topic.)

Once out of graduate school, however, political scientists are increasingly expected to also be able to write for a broader audience of journalists, activists, practitioners, and other interested individuals. This is much harder than writing technically. You need to be able to communicate a new finding in a way that non-academics can not only understand but care about. 

A few years ago, I looked back on some of my papers from my first and second years of graduate school. They were hopelessly technical, buried in obscure jargon and detailed descriptions of statistical methods. Learning how to describe my work in a way that people other than my dissertation advisor would care about took many years to figure out, and it's something I still work on.

My advice to those academics interested in reaching out beyond academe in their writings is really pretty basic. In general, good writing comes from good reading. Read outside your discipline. Read blogs on topics you care about, particularly those written by reporters, rather than other academics (although read those too). Figure out how people are talking about other scholarly work in your area and what makes it interesting to them. 

I’d also encourage practicing terse writing. Don't just try to write for Twitter, although that can be fun. (If you can summarize an academic paper in 140 characters, that's a great skill.) Learn to sum up a paper or a book in a paragraph. This is usually not the same thing as an academic abstract, which typically focuses on process and situation in the literature. Rather, find the one thing that makes a study interesting and relevant to the world outside your discipline, and develop that.

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