The Accessibility of a Tight Intellectual Style, Composing, 28/08/2013

When I posted a few weeks ago about the process of transitioning a dissertation manuscript into a book that an academic publisher (or even just a publisher of books for smart people in general), I discussed the differences in style that can cause a writer difficulties in that transition. A dissertation is often thought of as an exercise, a proof for your department that you can actually do the research that is demanded of a working professional academic in the field. As such, you’re really only writing for a few people, your committee. The book From Dissertation to Book was written to aid people in this transition from an audience of the committee to an audience of whoever would find it interesting. And sometimes, it helps people realize that their work can’t make that transition.

I think a key factor determining one’s style of writing a project is based on your actual goal for what it will do. This is related to the question of audience, but with a different emphasis. A committee is often only interested in your presentation of information, and your ability to synthesize it into an argument. So that’s the goal of a dissertation, considered only as a dissertation. 

The nice part about the book transition is that presentation of information and synthesis into an argument is part of the goal of a book too. But only part. The most important additional goal (and I think possibly the only additional goal) is that the style of writing also communicate why that synthesized information is relevant and interesting to people who are under absolutely no professional obligation to read your work.

Because my eye was on publication as a stand-alone book from the beginning, I considered the ecophilosophy project to be en route to this third goal already. But it certainly hadn’t arrived.

I was back to work on some edits to Ch. 4 yesterday, which is most conceptually important to the central argument of the entire work. However, in its current form, it’s also the most desperately in need of an edit of any chapter in the entire work. The goal of the chapter for the argument is to connect the book’s two halves: showing that the strongest (if definitely not the easiest) answer to the moral and political dilemmas of the contemporary ecological crisis (the focus of the first half) lies in understanding oneself in every physical, personal, and social aspect of one’s life, existence, and subjectivity to be ecological in nature (the focus of the second half). 

Let’s not get into how I managed this in the original dissertation version by saying it was good enough for my committee. Again, their goal was to see whether I could do the work and present it coherently. Whether I made it fun to read wasn’t their problem. But a publisher, and a public, will need me to do that. 

The chapter is, at heart, about connecting the cosmological with the personal and political. I have to demonstrate that a change in one’s self-conception only works when it comes as one element of a change in one’s conception of the entire universe and the human role in it. This kind of writing goes beyond simply mastering a philosophical sub-discipline to the degree that professionals will respect what you have to say. It involves connecting with people in reconsidering the fundamental aspects of their perspective on the human place in the universe. It is, as I described on twitter Tuesday afternoon, going the full Carl Sagan. 

But as my esteemed colleague JEM, mastermind of the Vaka Rangi Star Trek blog (link at right), replied, talking like that tends to make a guy sound like “a total prat.”

Wise words, brother. There can only be one Carl Sagan, after all.

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