Academic and Accessible?

I have re-learned an important lesson this week: it is very difficult to write for "general" or non-specialist readers, especially if you want to say something that is true. Scholars in every field develop specialized vocabulary because it lets them communicate complex ideas in a single word or phrase. (This may be the singular genius of German scholarship, by the way.) These special terms then stand in for a larger world of ideas and debate. These words are sometimes made up and sometimes they take the form of common words re-defined and re-purposed.

One example is the word "mythic." When a biblical scholar uses that term, it has a very specific meaning that is not obvious to a reader who has not studied the concept of "myth" in ancient literature. The same goes for terms ranging from "gender" to "hermeneutical" to "cosmogony."

So, when a scholar wants to write something accurate for a reader who does not know this specialized terminology, it becomes a challenge to decide what ideas absolutely need to be included in the piece, and how best to explain them. Academic short-hand teminology makes it easy to pack a paragraph with nuance and qualifications, and if every concept has to be fully explained, the piece quickly grows out of control. Eventually, the whole thing can collapse under its own weight.

That is why I appreciate so much my colleagues who are good at writing for public audiences. What it means is that they 1) understand their subject perfectly, 2) they know how to identify what is more or less important in a given topic, and put focus where it belongs, and 3) they care about their readers enough to subordinate their own academic ego in their writing.

Matthew Skinner is a master at this, as seen in his piece this morning about the Bible and gender roles, "The Careless Biblical Interpretation Behind Justin Lookadoo's Views on Gender." He is also an editor of the great series at the Huffington Post, On Scripture, which featured an excellent post recently by another of my friends, David Garber, writing on Job, "Hearing Job: Vindicating the Traumatized (Job 19:23-27a)."

Last week I wrote a piece for On Scripture connected to the first week of Advent, December 1st. My text is Isaiah 2:1-5, and I try to explain the difference between pessimistic and optimistic views of the future, and how they impact our engagement with the world.

The first version I wrote is good, but not clear enough. Read the Skinner and Garber pieces above, and then read my first draft, and you'll see the problem. I like the piece and think that it is correct, but it probably does not explain the issues clearly enough for a non-specialist. I wrote a second version that will appear at On Scripture in the next week or two, and I will link to it then so you can compare the two. Only about 3 sentences at the end survived in tact, and 90% of it is completely different.

My plan is to discuss the thinking behind my second version, and why I had to write the first one before I could write the second one. It is amazing how often I get mediocre papers from students that have a really good final paragraph. That is usually a sign that they need to take their final thought and start over from there. That was certainly the case here.