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Why Do We Write?
January 12, 2011 - 8:45pm

This is the first in a series of posts from our archives. We will be sharing posts that we published prior to partnering with Inside Higher Ed in July 2010. Why Do We Write? was originally published at on 4.12.2010.

I met one of my fellow writers from University of Venus for coffee yesterday. She has a book release party later this month (yay!) and we started talking about writing and the differences between writing for a narrow academic group within your discipline and writing for the readership of this blog. We talked about how writing for University of Venus has really forced us to think about accessibility to a broader audience of faculty, administration, students, and those outside of academia.

This is a common theme in my conversations lately – why do we write?

We all know that the world of publishing is changing – more rapidly than most of us can comprehend (see IPad frenzy). We also know that tenure requires that we publish one or even two books with an academic press. We also know that our books will most likely be too expensive to use in our classes. Additionally, they are often too specialized to warrant requiring our students to read the entire book. So, we xerox sections and create hacker-like course packets – basically the academic’s version of a ‘zine. If we are lucky, we have a librarian who will help us load these hacked pieces onto our Blackboard sites where our students can read and download them for free.

So, why do we write? Yesterday’s conversation links into two other conversations I have had in the past two weeks:

  • A couple of weeks ago, I shared the blog with my academic mentor – Michael Brown – who is the most brilliant man I have ever met. I have read more books with Mike than with any other person in my life (even more than with my 5-year-old and the effort required to read 1 Deleuze and Guattari must equal that of at least 100 Harry Potters). Mike looked at the blog and the numbers of readers, turned to me and said –more people have read your blog than will ever read your book – even if it goes mainstream. He is absolutely correct. So, why do we write?
  • In a discussion last week with my executive coach/career mentor (who is outside of academia), we started talking about my book and whether or not I should skip the academic press route and go for a trade market. The book focuses on the process of reading comic books and could easily appeal (sell) to a larger readership. I would have to re-write it and make it more accessible but I could keep the main ideas. She believes I am crazy to pursue an elite readership via an academic press. I tried to explain the whole concept of academic legitimacy and the old guard that still believes in elite, academic monographs as proof of legitimacy – kind of like academic hazing. I went on to say that it really isn’t about reaching a broad readership but rather an elite, narrow slice of academia – the 100 or so people who also write on your topic. I could tell that I was getting nowhere with her and she was absolutely correct – outside of academia, it doesn’t make sense. Her question – why do you write?

Why do we write? I assume that we write because we want to communicate the findings from our research, contribute to a body of knowledge, and push the boundaries of thinking. Ultimately, I have to believe that we want people to read what we have written. We write because we feel we have something to share, something that can make a difference in people’s lives.

An academic monograph does not reach a large audience. This type of writing is necessary for tenure and promotion, for legitimacy within an elite group. It takes years to publish our work in the form of a book. We are often required to eliminate the most ground-breaking parts of our work and what we do write is often outdated by the time it is published. More and more, it seems that our books are written for tenure and promotion rather than for making a difference and/or changing the way people think.

We all know that printed books (even journals, newspapers, magazines, etc) are nearing some kind of end and that the world of readers is not waiting for the world of publishers. (see rise in free digital book downloads, self-publishing, blogs, print on demand, etc.)

Do we write to be read or do we write to be published?

Do we write to make a difference or do we write to secure a job?

I would like to believe that we write because we have something to say not because we are supposed to say something.

Mary Churchill

Relevant articles:

Hilton III, John and David Wiley. The Short-Term Influence of Free Digital Versions of Books on Print Sales.” The Journal of Electronic Publishing. 13 (1) (link here)

Le, Macala. 2010. “How Publishers Plan to Monetize Content.” Mashable: The Social Media Guide. April 9, 2010. (link here)

Poyner, Richard. 2009. “Open Humanities Press to publish OA books.” Open and Shut?Blog. Wednesday, September 16, 2009. (link here)

Rich, Motoko. 2010. “Textbooks That Professors Can Rewrite Digitally.” New York Times(online). February 21, 2010. (link here)

Rich, Motoko and Brad Stone. 2010. “Amazon Threatens Publishers as Apple Looms.” New York Times (online). March 17, 2010. (link here)

Rowe, David and Kylie Brass. 2008. “The uses of academic knowledge: the university in the media.” Media, Culture & Society. 30 (5): 677-698. (you must pay $25 to access this article for one day (!!), link to details here).

(This post was included in Hacking the Academy, a project at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University)



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