Monday, September 12, 2011

Writing for an Audience

Prefatory Note: Somehow I am loathe to leave my 9/11 post at the top of this page, so I scrambled to finish this one up. Hence the unusual frequency of posting. From here on out, normal service, as they say, has been resumed as soon as possible.

An article that I sent out to a fairly prestigious journal that I'll leave unnamed for the time being came back to me with a decision of "revise and resubmit" which means that the readers essentially liked the idea and the basics of the work that I had done to support the idea, but thought that the article itself still needed some additional research and restructuring before it reaches the level of being publishable in this particular journal. Given that this is my first article and I'm commensurately unfamiliar with the way this aspect of the profession works, an "R&R" was really all I was hoping for and is, I think, a good result. (The other possible outcomes were outright acceptance or outright rejection.) So now I'm busily revising, hoping to get it resubmitted before the semester really takes off. 

The most surprising aspect of this process for me has been the extent to which revising an article can, and for me in this instance has, become a exercise in writing for a curiously specific audience. The review process that leads to one of the decisions I mentioned above is meant to be double-blind. That is, the readers weren't supposed to know that I was the author of the article they were reading, and I'm not supposed to know their identities. I don't think that I'm well-enough established in the field that I could really give myself away inadvertently; but one of the reviews that I received had a number of "tells," like those of a bluffing poker player, that led me, without really trying at all, to deduce the identity of the reviewer. It's either the person I think it is or one of his students (or alternatively, he has an academic stalker). And so as I revise, even though it's a bit of a false construct, I am writing now as if I were writing to one person rather than to an abstract body of Hispano-medievalists. Dr. Reviewer (a pseudonym that shall be my concession to the ostensible integrity of the review process) has become my platonic ideal of an audience.

Writing to just one person was a practice into which I fell in grad school, where it really was a bad habit.  I tended to see my seminar papers as quasi-private conversations between me and the one person who would be reading each one. One of the biggest challenges for me in writing my dissertation, just in terms of the craft, was getting away from the idea that I was writing to my adviser. Making an original contribution to the field meant writer to a the broader scholarly community, which in turn meant assuming nothing — not basic knowledge, not sense of humor, not anything — and taking time and space to explain everything in long form, including the things I knew, the things my adviser knew, and the things that my adviser knew that I knew.

But here, in this case, it doesn't seem like a negative that I am re-writing with Dr. Reviewer in mind. Although I actually cited his work several times in my article, his academic background and approach to text are quite different to mine. And so it's forcing me to think about the audience in a different way. Rather than imagine a diffuse group of readers with all sorts of different interests, all of whom won't be satisfied by the entirety of anything that anyone does* and who, therefore, have no bearing on the specifics of my work,** I am addressing the specific interests of Dr. Reviewer. In doing so, I am pushing my research and writing farther than they had gone in that one specific direction in a way that I couldn't do if I imagined the critiques I might get from every one of the senior colleagues in my field whose opinions and work and methodologies I respect.

Saying it plainly makes it seems self-evident and axiomatic: Writing after peer review is necessarily writing more to an audience than writing before peer review is. But I hadn't thought about it in those terms before receiving my first peer reviews, and it has been an unexpected benefit — beyond the critique itself — of the process.

*How's that for a long-winded academic way of saying: "You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time"? 

** This is sort of like the abstract version of one of the problems I discussed with respect to crowdsourced journal article review: An excess of noise, however expert, will nearly always be a detriment.

(Edited to add: I've no idea what is wrong with the fonts and font sizes in this post.)

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