Pleasures & Perils of Writing Non-Fiction, Post 10
We are continuing to consider Phase Four of the non-fiction writing process. For an overview of the four phases, see Post #2.
The fourth phase is, “Carry Out the Actual Writing of the Piece.” Let’s move on now to the step after initial drafting: sending your draft to colleagues and friends for their inputs.
My perspective on this step is conditioned by the fact that I’m an independent scholar, which means that I have scholarly credentials (a doctorate) but no affiliation with a university or institute. I also should add that for years I supported my family not as an independent scholar, but as managing partner of a business consultancy.
I share this because many of the scholarly books I read have an acknowledgment section in which the author thanks literally dozens of people who contributed their thoughts in one way or another, most of whom are other university-based scholars. If you’re a member of a university faculty, part of your job is to discuss the current issues and controversies with other scholars in your academic field at conferences and meetings, and to read each other’s drafts. This type of scholarly activity is only a minor part of my experience.
However, I don’t write books for fellow scholars. I write books for members of the general public in which I use accessible language to acquaint them with the research findings of anthropologists. Anthropologists make uniquely valuable contributions to our understanding of human behavior, but most people aren’t aware of their work. I am trying to change that.
By the way, “general public” in my case means, realistically, people who are at least high school graduates. The people most likely to read my books are those with a college degree. So when I finish a chapter, I’m primarily interested in its being read and reacted to by others who meet my expectations about “people most likely to read my books.”
It turns out that I have a half-dozen faithful friends, some of whom are former colleagues, who regularly serve as my “readers.” All these folks have at least a bachelor’s degree; only one has a doctorate. From time to time, each receives a chapter from me with a request to read and react. When I added a new “reader” recently, I formalized my request as follows:
“I ask my readers to simply read the draft and then share their observations and reactions with me. I am especially eager to discover whether they found the chapter to be readily understood. Was any part of it opaque? Did I over- or under-explain anything? Did I create boredom at any point? Should any sentence or paragraph be left out? Did I use a word or phrase that you had not encountered previously? In general, what suggestions do you have for improving the chapter? Don’t worry: I do not expect readers to serve as editors; I hire a professional editor to do that.”
Any “draft” that I send to others for comment is a highly readable document over which I have long fussed. I’m determined to NOT impose on them by sending them documents that I don’t consider “finished.” For example, no reader will find a parenthetical note in which I ask a question such as, “Can you think of a better way of making this point?”
By the way, for a recent draft chapter about the Quechua of Peru that I sent to my readers, I also was VERY fortunate to have it also read by Inge Bolin, the anthropologist on whose book — “Growing Up in a Culture of Respect” — I relied most heavily.