As odd as it may seem, one of the reasons I got into anthropology is because I wanted to write books and articles for a general audience. Now, of course, anthropology classes don't teach this, but I felt like they would give me a solid base of knowledge to feel confident about the issues that I would like to write about. I've always been told that I'm a good writer - though modesty keeps me from believing it fully - but I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to write for a general audience as opposed to an academic one. A couple of recent posts on Savage Minds spurred my thinking along and provided some interesting ideas, but I have a few thoughts of my own.
Academics often complain that most readers don't want to navigate all of the subtle nuances of an issue. This is often blamed on either laziness or a lack of intelligence in the general population. To me it's neither, it's more about efficient use of time and energy. Think about the last time you read a book that wasn't about a topic that you research - what was it about the book that kept you reading? Why did you take time out of your busy schedule to finish it? Everyone's busy. Everyone has a lot on their minds. An author shouldn't expect too much from the reader - say what you have to say, make it engaging and let them do with it what they will. Academics, particularly anthropologists, expect the reader to follow every twist and turn, every complexity, every odd detail of the topic. It's not that they can't, but that they don't have the time and energy to spend following our trail after working, taking care of a family, being social, etc. Popular writing should accept that. It should serve as an entryway, drawing people in with inviting architecture and then allow them to wander the many paths as they see fit.
When I have time I would like to survey popular science books and popular social sciences books and see why some work and others don't. Until then, here are a few preliminary thoughts on how to write a good popular piece.
Tell a story - People like stories. They're interesting, engaging and help us remember the information better. The whole book doesn't have to be a story, but if you frame the information in a narrative the reader will hold on longer than if you just start presenting information. All of the most memorable popular science books use this little trick, and it really does work.
Avoid jargon - This should be obvious. Jargon serves only to distance those who understand it from those who don't. Popular writing is meant to bring the reader closer to the discipline, not push them away. Jargon may have its place in academic writing (I'm not completely convinced of this, but I'll grant it for now), but it's best kept out of popular writing.
Make it concise - Like I said before, people don't have the time and energy to follow you down every single trail. Popular writing should provide the information as clearly and concisely as possible. That means that some people will misunderstand it - they'll lose track of the complexities and the details. But some people will be drawn in to follow the trails, and it's those people we're after.
Be Persistent - Write often, keep trying to get published, and correct people when they misinterpret you. It's not easy writing for a general audience. It takes a lot of work; if you don't have the time or energy to put into it then don't expect readers to have the time and energy for you. Readers will misunderstand and misinterpret you. You have to own that, and understand that it's your responsibility to keep working to make it right.
That's it for now, but I'll revisit the topic later.