Friday, August 12, 2005

Writing for the Common Man and Woman part I

Dr. Camicao asked me to blog on this subject. I am currently writing a book aimed at a popular audience on the history of Russian-Germans in the USSR. So I am in the middle of this experience. I am going to try and illuminate what I think the differences are between this type of writing and the academic writing I have done in the past. I am going to have to do it in parts I decided since it is a rather large task. In many ways it is easier than writing academic work. You do not need to include lots of transliterated footnotes for one thing which really makes a difference in the speed you can write. I average over 1000 such footnotes in a book length academic text so this alone is a relief. In other ways, however, you have to think differently. You are not writing for specialists and alot of what you assume is common knowledge is not and has to be explained clearly. More importantly, the interests of the lay reader and the Ph.D. are often quite different. This is the core issue I will be addressing below.

The first and probably most important thing in writing for a popular audience rather than academic specialists is picking a topic that is of general interest. The extremely narrow subject matter of most academic writing has no real appeal beyond the Ivory Tower. A history of Soviet administrative law in Uzbekistan is not going to attract many general readers. A history of the Soviet GULag might very well as Anne Applebaum's Pulitzer Prize winning Gulag: A History demonstrates. An important part of picking a viable topic is to relate to the common reader. This ties into what I have written about putting the human back into humanities. The writer needs to relate the humanity of the reader with the humanity of the subject and bridge their cultural differences. This means dealing with what is important to the average reader. People are interested in such things as family life, work, education, religious practices and sports because these are important things in their own lives. I think alot of American academics really discount the role religion has continued to play in peoples lives even in the "secular" twentieth century. Because they themselves are not believers they do not properly respect and address the fact that billions of other people both now and in the past have been sincerely religious. The other aspects of everyday life are easier to deal with for most academics.

My own topic is the history of an ethnic minority group in Eurasia, the Russian-Germans, during the twentieth century. Among the topics I have dealt with have been how they lived both during relatively prosperous times and during times of extreme persecution. I have focused on what happened to them and how they reacted rather then on why the Soviet government acted as it did or how it implemented its policies. For a general work, theory is almost worthless, what is important is creating a coherent narrative based upon empirical facts. It is also important to show the subjective experience of these people to their circumstances. They rather than the Soviet government or the NKVD or GULag camp structure are the focus of the history. Hence, I find this type of writing fits my recent inclinations regarding scholarship well.

I will continue writing on this subject later. In the next post on this topic I intend to address the challenges of reducing such academic encumberances as excess statistical data, acronyms and other jargon and explicitely engaging with other scholars. Later posts will deal with structuring content, style and other aspects of writing for a non-academic book.


Camicao said...

Very interesting. I like what you have to say about picking a topic. It is important to pick a topic that will find a readership.

I do wonder however about whether or not there is a "general reader" in the singular sense of the word. Popular non-fiction seems to be ghettoized by topics-- you've got your U.S. western history buffs, your civil war buffs, your Roman Empire buffs, etc. etc. Each niche reader seems to have his/her own profile, and certain expectations with regards to content. It is a rare book indeed that bucks those expectations and still becomes popular.

I don't know, it's something your post made me think of. I haven't thought it through carefully.

J. Otto Pohl said...

You are absolutely right about the general readership being divided into niches. This is something I have thought about. It is in fact one of the things that inspired me to pick my particular topic.

I have given three talks to various chapters of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia. These people are generally not academics, but do have an active interest in the subject. I noticed that there really has been nothing written for decades with these people in mind as an audience. Rather it had been academics writing for other academics.

For other topics I think the field is alot less open. There are alot of popular non-fiction works on the Civil War and Amercian West. I have noticed recently some good works in this style on various parts of the Middle East. One good way I think to pick a topic is to find a literature gap. That is a subject with lots of recent academic publications, but few popular works for the last decade or more.

I would be pleased if my book did moderately well among its primary niche target. I do not expect it to make the NYT best seller list. So yes the popular market is divided by niches. But, the writer needs to pitch his work to a niche large enough to give him a readership.