Saturday, October 18, 2014

It's the Audience Stupid: why academics suck at writing

Picture the scene if you will. We focus in on the corner office in the hallowed halls of Ivory Tower University. There, in the wee hours, toils the idealistic academic. A pure soul, full of reverential love for [insert relevant division of the humanities here] who has spent decades polishing their writing skills, stripping the text of each extraneous word, honing the narrative, and crafting the critical message that will impress the editor of [insert your dream journal publication here]. Congratulations, you my learned colleague, have made it! You have achieved the pinnacle of success in your field, your every word impresses your colleagues, who, when they read your utterly brilliant piece on Some little known aspects of English Public School Ties: belonging and ritual among the elites of Upper Strata.. Well, something like that. At any rate you've made it. "OK you patronizing smart ass," -you might mutter if you have been paying attention -"what is the point?"  Well, my point is that while you are the Shizzle of Academia, you suck as a writer. Or rather, you suck as a writer of anything the general public will be interested in watching.

"Why Monty" you hiss, shocked to the core. "My sentences are so sharp they could give that chap with the razor a run for his money. My paragraphs so pointed they prick the very soul of meaning..." But, I would point out that you are not writing for your colleagues. You have decided to look beyond the ITU walls and engage a wider audience. Think back to your salad days of undergrad bliss. That idealistic era when you were struck with terror the first time had to write something longer than an essay. The first thing we were all taught was to "remember your audience." In many ways you are now at that terrifying point yet again.

Remember your audience. Remember that newspapers are written for an education level of about the 8th grade. I had a hell of a time with this. During the writing process (more on this in a future post) my friend and colleague Dan Bracken hammered me for using technical jargon and writing above my audience. Dan knows of what he speaks- he has 30+ years experience in TV and radio as well as spending time in the classroom -and he was right.  My writing for television was turgid and too academic. I had to change.

My co-writer Andrew Devenney and I set a goal of writing at a 10th grade level for the series. We failed. The best we could do was 12th grade.  In the field while filming, the crew was an invaluable asset to the writing process (sorry, more on that in a later post). I had asked them to stop me and or our interviewees anytime we veered off into jargon or academic speak. The reason the crew was so helpful was because they were an audience of non-specialists. Smart, resourceful and creative, but not experts. Just like your audience.

So I will leave it with that. Our audience is smart, creative and resourceful, but they are not the expert: we are. And we need to respect our audience. Obviously I was being annoying as hell with my patronizing tone earlier.We can't do that to our audience.  As a producer, a writer or a creator of content, we have to find a way to talk to them, not at them.

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