I'm blessed to have Alice Pawley on my PhD committee. Among many other things, Alice is an excellent writer and an excellent giver-of-feedback on writing. Since I'm still working to find my academic writing "voice," I met with Alice this summer and asked for advice. This blog post consists of my synthesized recollections from that conversation. Three main topics stuck with me:

  1. What is good writing?
  2. What differentiates good journalistic writing from good scholarly writing?
  3. Where can I find examples of good scholarly writing, including writing in nontraditional formats and writing for lay audiences?

What is good writing?

According to Alice: good writing, academic or not, consists of:

  1. Coherent arguments in the form of structured and supported points...
  2. that are grounded in data...
  3. and have a so-what that tells the reader why they should care about what you're saying.

What differentiates good journalistic writing from good scholarly writing?

Although it seems obvious now, this point was the one that surprised me the most: not all good nonfiction writing about science is scholarly writing. Scholarly writing -- research -- needs to introduce new knowledge to the world while still connecting to existing scientific literature. In contrast, journalistic writing is about ideas that matter and topics that people care (or ought to care) about. The two categories can overlap, but they don't have to. Instead of being research, journalistic writing might be about research; it may present ideas that have already been introduced to the world.

I had been mixing up scholarly and journalistic writing, assuming that if it was about research, it was research. Nope, said Alice. By that standard, any book by Malcolm Gladwell qualified as scholarly writing. (I immediately grimaced, saw my logical hole, and retracted that statement.) By the updated criteria of "must introduce new knowledge," many of my favorite "scholarly" writing books get recategorized from scholarly writing to "good journalism about science." These include everything by Michael Pollan (of Omnivore's Dilemna fame), Dan Coyle's The Talent Code and Andrew Solomon's Far From The Tree -- easy concessions for me to make, because Pollan, Coyle and Solomon are journalists by trade. But even when the book is written by a researcher, it may not be research -- for instance, Steven Levitt is an economics researcher, but his popular book Freakonomics is a journalistic synthesis of existing economics work.

These are tools for thinking, not perfect definitions. For instance, I find it difficult to categorize books in which researchers synthesize and re-present their own original research for a lay audience, such as Deci and Ryan's Why We Do What We Do (still my go-to refresher on intrinsic motivation and self-determinism theory) and Wenger's Cultivating Communities of Practice (a mercifully navigable business-audience rendition of his theoretically dense book Communities of Practice). A common pattern seems to be co-authorship between the original researcher, who presumably understands the ideas in the book better than anyone else, and a journalist, who presumably makes them understandable to everyone else.

Where can I find examples of good scholarly writing, including writing in nontraditional formats and writing for lay audiences?

Okay, I said. Then what would qualify as scholarly writing? We came up with a few examples: Belenky et. al.'s Women's Ways of Knowing and Bateson's Composing a Life were already on my list of favorites, as are practically all of Csikszentmihalyi's books (the most famous being Flow.) Alice also recommended Bowker and Star's Sorting Things Out, Cowan's More Work for Mother, and Gieryn's Cultural Boundaries of Science -- along with Reading Places and Reading on the Middle Borders by her mother, Christine Pawley. On the "nontraditional format" front, Alice recommended reading academic bloggers and most things published by MIT Press, including their mediawork pamphlet series. (Laurel's Utopian Entrepreneur is an example of a pamphlet in that series.)

I'm primarily interested in nontraditional formats because I want to reach a lay audience, but Alice pointed out that the "lay audience" step usually comes last in writing -- Wenger couldn't have written Cultivating Communities of Practice for a lay audience without having written Communities of Practice before that. Even books like Women's Ways of Knowing and Flow and anything by Brene Brown draw on material that their authors originally wrote for an audience that shared their specialty. It helps to wrestle with ideas alongside people who understand our "shop talk," just like it helps to have fellow programmers review your code even (or especially!) if your end product is an application for non-programmers.

That's a long way of saying that my dissertation will probably not be (pleasurably) readable for a lay audience. I do want to edit it into something that will be fun for non-reseachers to read, but I need to write the research version first and graduate, then write the book for everybody else. And I think I am okay with that, although it has taken a while.