Writing a Book for Broader Audiences
Some thoughts on the Crossover Genre
When I was writing my dissertation, I don’t think I ever stopped to consider my voice or writing style, and I certainly didn’t intend for anyone other than my five committee members to read it. I am also not sure how far into the process of converting the dissertation into a book I actually began to consider my audience. My editor mentioned to me at one point that the press would like me to write it "accessibly" so that they could market it as a “crossover” academic book. To be honest, I had no idea what that actually meant.
Laura Portwod-Stacer notes that crossover books “are defined by their ability to cross over from one core audience to another,” and in the case of academic books, this “usually means crossing over from academic readers to a readership outside the academy” (p. 20). This also implies that the press will promote the book outside of libraries, attempting to generate sales through trade bookstores and popular media outlets.
In order to have any hope of “crossing over,” I needed to first conjure an audience. I began explicitly thinking of my audience as “scholars, activists, journalists, and fans of women’s sports” somewhere in the middle of writing the first draft of the book. I assumed I was writing for people who were already interested in the topic and supported women's sports in general, rather than chauvinistic naysayers. This allowed me to bypass the work of convincing them that women's sports are a viable business and instead focus on other topics that I was more interested in discussing.
In retrospect, I would wager that I did not give much thought to my writing style until I was nearing the end of the final draft. I revised the manuscript by imagining myself speaking to my upper-level undergraduates about my arguments and interventions. This exercise gave me the opportunity to delve into complex ideas while also ensuring that I explained them clearly and used examples. My goal was never to have a journalistic voice but rather a smart but vivid one.
Several colleagues in other fields told me that the book was "accessible," which I think meant that people outside my discipline could easily understand it. I was thrilled to hear this complement because I had worked hard to edit the manuscript with that goal in mind.
My extended family, on the other hand, likes to keep my feet on the ground. They were kind enough to buy the book but several commented that it was “dense” and “took a long time to read.” Accessibility is a relative term. Thus, the first lesson I learned is that books, like people, aren’t for everyone. Knowing exactly who your audience is is still paramount.
The second lesson I learned was that for the next book I write, I want to be clear about my audience, voice, and style early in the writing process. My first book was a hodgepodge of styles as a result of writing it for different audiences at different times. If I had known my readers and myself as a writer from the start, it might have been clearer out of the gate.
In this post, I will offer some style and structure tips for those looking to write a book that will be read outside of their discipline and possibly by non-academics. Some of these are strategies I used in my first book, but many are more aspired to in my second. Even if you are not a book writer, you might learn something useful here about the craft of writing smart and engaging prose.
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Storytelling is a powerful tool for engaging readers and making complex ideas more accessible. You can make your point more convincingly and strike a more personal chord with your audience if you use stories, anecdotes, and your own experiences in your writing.
Depending on your discipline and methodology, perhaps telling a story from your field research will help bring your prose alive for the audience. Here are the opening sentences of the second chapter of my book on women in mixed martial arts:
Joan Jett’s iconic voice belted over the loudspeakers as the corresponding drumbeat signaled the frenzied beginning of her punk anthem: “I don’t give a damn ’bout my bad reputation!” At the same time, the lights in the Rio de Janeiro Olympic arena dimmed to black as the crowd awaited Ronda Rousey’s imminent approach to the Octagon. I was sitting on an upper deck of the stadium, attending my first live UFC event and waiting to see how Rousey would be received as a U.S. fighter in front of the Brazilian crowd. The ferocity of Jett’s voice intermingled with a rush of exhilaration that bounded around the arena from all directions and surged through the bodies of the thousands of fans in attendance. (p. 57).
Many academic fields frown upon citing the researcher's first-hand experience of a topic, but I have found that sharing anecdotes from my own experience is a great way to keep readers interested. In addition, this sort of subjective introspection is permitted within some of my sub-fields, so I am not as likely to turn off those readers.
You can also tell stories about people you met while doing research. Let’s say you are an environmental scientist researching the effects of climate change. While narrating the effects of rising sea levels or extreme weather events, you could describe a community's attempts to adapt, the difficulties they face, and the effects on their way of life. This narrative approach connects readers with the human consequences of environmental issues and emphasizes the importance of taking action.
The use of vibrant examples and case studies is what I enjoy most about the book genre and what needs to be done well in crossover academic books.
Use Metaphors and Analogies
Metaphors and analogies are potent devices for making abstract concepts accessible, understandable, and persuasive. By drawing parallels between abstract ideas and concrete examples, you can not only make your content more accessible to a wider audience but also pique their interest and keep it.
I had the honor of supervising Dr. Kathy Cacace’s outstanding dissertation, Getting in the Way: New Approaches to Rape Joke Discourse and Women’s Comedy about Sexual Violence, which is a “crossover” dissertation. She purposefully wrote for a larger, public audience rather than just her committee. I admire her engaged writing style in many ways, but her use of metaphors brings her writing to life.
Her sentence-level metaphors are beautiful—a feat considering the subject matter—and passages like the following can be found scattered throughout the dissertation:
Trauma has temperamental wires. It sparks and smokes, tripped by a sudden smell or change in the weather, activated if you jiggle it the wrong way (p. 47).
But she also uses metaphors at the level of her dissertation through line and orients an entire chapter around another metaphor. In her introduction, she describes the ethics of care that she provides to the reader throughout:
It may also help to understand my ethical orientation to the stories contained in these pages and to the stories I cannot know, contained within the readers who will encounter what I have written. I envision the relationship between us as walking together, like my friend and I did so many years ago with the woman who approached us on the street. Walking together is an ethical framework drawn from an everyday act of care that takes many forms: the text message making sure you got home safe, the person who walks you to the train or out to your car, the friend who idles while you to unlock your front door before they drive away. It is a promise that I will try to offer a steady arm, assess the danger of our route, avoid detours down unlit streets, and see us safely where we need to go (p. 48-49).
This imagery of walking together is so compelling because it draws on the dissertation's central theme—the trauma of surviving in a sexually violent world—to offer the reader a feminist ethics of care.
Kathy also has an entire chapter dedicated to using the metaphor of shadowboxing as a new theory of feminist comedic response to living with the threat of sexual violence in our lives. The metaphor makes the analysis sing.
Metaphors and analogies provide readers with a mental image that can aid comprehension, but they can also inspire and evoke an intimacy that can draw the reader in, as Kathy so expertly does.
Use an Active Voice and Avoid Jargon
Using an active voice and avoiding jargon are the hallmarks of writing in an accessible manner. To be crystal clear, here are examples of active and passive voice:
Active: The researchers developed an algorithm to optimize data processing efficiency.
Passive: An algorithm was developed by the researchers to optimize data processing efficiency.
In the active sentence, the subject (the researchers) performs the action (developed an algorithm). This sentence structure emphasizes the agency of the researchers and highlights their role in creating the algorithm. In the passive sentence, the subject (an algorithm) receives the action (was developed). The emphasis shifts away from the researchers and toward the algorithm itself.
Academic writing is frequently chastised for overusing passive sentence structures, so if you are attempting to write a book that will be widely read, using an active voice will go a long way.
Consider this paragraph from Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism:
These human and machine errors are not without consequence, and there are several cases that demonstrate how racism and sexism are part of the architecture and language of technology, an issue that needs attention and remediation. In many ways, these cases that I present are specific to the lives and experiences of Black women and girls, people largely understudied by scholars, who remain ever precarious, despite our living in the age of Oprah and Beyoncé in Shondaland. The implications of such marginalization are profound. The insights about sexist or racist biases that I convey here are important because information organizations, from libraries to schools and universities to governmental agencies, are increasingly reliant on or being displaced by a variety of web-based “tools” as if there are no political, social, or economic consequences of doing so. We need to imagine new possibilities in the area of information access and knowledge generation, particularly as headlines about “racist algorithms” continue to surface in the media with limited discussion and analysis beyond the superficial (p. 9).
Noble's use of the active voice here gives her prose a sense of immediacy and energy, making it easier for readers to follow her arguments and stay engaged. She also avoids overly complex or jargon-filled sentences, which may turn off non-specialists. She instead prioritizes simplicity, directness, and clarity.
You may have also picked up on the fact that she has thrown in one passive sentence in the mix. We should not just get rid of passively constructed sentences because we can. The passive voice has its place, but I believe it is most effective when used sparingly and only when necessary, rather than out of habit.
Noble's book is an excellent example of public scholarship because she takes a subject that most people do not understand, algorithms, and explains both their functionality and politics to non-specialists. Her Google Scholar metrics also show that academics have taken up her work and found it useful, indicating that she has not lost any scholarly credibility by writing in this manner. Her writing succeeds in many other ways, too, such as storytelling, but what really keeps readers coming back for more is her crystal-clear prose.
Integrate Academic Literature Organically
When writing for a wider audience, it is essential to incorporate citations and references more naturally than is typical in academic books. Few readers outside your field care to read a comprehensive summary of what others have said about the subject. They are more interested in hearing what you have to say and are open to the occasional use of secondary scholarly sources. Citations should be used sparingly and strategically to back up your claims and give readers more information, rather than becoming the stars of your book.
One of the many helpful pieces of advice Laura Portwood-Stacer gave me as a developmental editor was to work other scholars into my book’s story rather than have the large sections of literature review that are typical of dissertations. (You can read more about developmental editing and my experience with it in this post.) My introduction was lacking in two places before she offered her advice: the first was a straightforward literature review of the visibility of women's sports; the second was a discussion of the history of women in the sport. Laura smartly suggested I combine the two.
When I did, I told the history of women in MMA while highlighting how other scholars had talked about challenges women had faced in sports more broadly. The literature served as background information for this section, improving readability and grounding the significance of the sport's history.
Crossover academic books should be grounded in a body of scholarly work but shouldn’t drown your readers with pages and pages of what others have said about your topic.
Book writing does not have to be dry or devoid of passion or intrigue in order to be academic and readable beyond your discipline. It should be written with a particular audience in mind, in a tone and style that will appeal to that audience. Using stories, metaphors, and an active voice improves readability, as does placing other scholarly works in the background as supporting actors on the page to allow your voice to sing the loudest.