On Writing Accessibly (thoughts from book reviewing)

At the moment I am in the process of reading two books as part of writing a review for them. I’m reviewing the anthology ‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ by Lexington Books, and ‘The Mythology of Evolution’ by by Zer0 Books (written by Noumenal Realm favourite blogger Chris Bateman). One of the things I usually think about when writing a book review is a thing that is the complete opposite of how I write in my blog: accessibility to your audience. One book succeeds at this consistently, while the other is problematic about this.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been asked to do some freelance proofreading and editing work lately, and this varies a bit to when undergraduates ask me to look over their essays. Sometimes the comments and criticisms I have a deeply technical affairs (like ‘the meaning of is’), while others are very general and come up time and again when I do book reviews.

The cardinal rule is to know your audience and write to their level of understanding. I am a massive hypocrite when I say this because on this blog many of my posts presume that my readership has read such-and-such an essay or such-and-such an historical text. I find the freedom of moderating my own blog is that I want to talk at my level, because I spend my real life emphasising how to be accessible and how to write and speak accessibly, when what’s going on in my head presumes a background in music, or philosophy, or comic books, or whatever. I personally don’t write usually for an audience all the time. Sometimes I write to make notes of my thinking. I am however very honoured at how many people around the world have come to visit and read Noumenal Realm posts, and I’m surprised at how often my posts are translated!

Let me give two different examples of writing accessibly about a technical issue. Firstly, in reading Chris Bateman’s ‘Mythology of Evolution’, which I have yet to complete, and secondly, a book that I am currently reviewing: ‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ (ed. P. Costello).

Bateman disseminating science

When reading through Bateman’s Mythology, I have found that he draws from a large array of sources, from technical issues in scientific journals, to generalist perspectives on biology, to the philosophy of science and philosophy of biology! In particular, Bateman explains a thesis in the issue of levels of selection in a way that was so clear, that the philosopher who he’s citing (who also happened to be a former lecturer of mine) couldn’t explain it clearer and simpler terms than Bateman. In fairness, the philosopher in question was very keen on using a lot of logic and game theoretic notations (preserving anonymity fail).

Bateman writes as if taking his thesis as a train journey and the simplicity and accessibility of his language is sure to keep an audience on the rails. Good writing tries to put a discussion in as simple terms as possible. Of course if one is writing for a more specialist audience this is not so much an issue. But there are some instances where technically oriented writing is not desirable, such as if we are bringing together areas of specialism where the experts don’t read each other and may be fluent in one set of terminology but not others. It’s one thing to talk biology (microbiology and pathology papers are the worst when it comes to readability!), and its’ another to talk philosophy, but communicating the two for a general audience is a masochistic task of accessibility.  

Continental philosophy jargon and children’s literature – a marriage made in the 7th layer of hell

I’ve finished a book that I am trying to develop an opinion about, for a book review. My overall opinion is that many of the articles are a genuine contribution to philosophy, while others are a very poor attempt at accessible writing. I’m sure many of you may be familiar with the genre of philosophy titles like ‘Philosophy and Metallica’ or ‘Philosophy and Twilight’ that have come out from the editorial mind of William Irwin. I think that there is a potential for connecting everyday cultural artefacts with philosophy, but if you do so, one must realise that there would be a targeted audience. I’m sure that less philosophers will read ‘Philosophy and Metallica’ than say Metallica fans.

‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ reflects a trend of philosophical literature that addresses issues in aesthetics, as well as ethics and critical theory in relation to children’s literature. I imagine that if there was such a thing as literary criticism for children’s books, it would surely welcome this kind of thinking. The anthology made me realise how exceptionally wide the scope of thinking is for philosophy in children’s literature.

When thinking of a wide scope, there is more of an onus to write accessibly for the printed word. There are some articles which do very well at this in the book. Some articles such as Court Lewis’ The Cricket in Time’s Square examines the philosophical ideas underpinning the story and then the story. Then there are obscurantist, inaccessible and horrid-to-read articles like The Giving Tree, Women and the Great Society (Milena Radeva), and Lovingly Impolite (Lindsay Lerman) which do no favours for accessibility. Although part of this I maintain is because of the impenetrable and ugly writing styles of the philosophers whom they cite, such as Derrida and Agamben, who make philosophy sound like word games and apply puzzlingly pretentious equivocations. If you are going to reference a ‘continental’ philosopher, it would do one favours to try and re-pack what they say in accessible English.

Writing in a difficult way alienates one’s audience. Although sometimes this is seen as a purposeful thing such as the case of Nietzsche, or maybe even Schopenhauer, who force people to know their intellectual background in order to understand them. There were a few good articles in the anthology and it is good to emphasise this with the bad. The idea of philosophising about Children’s literature is very appealing. It was unfortunate for me that the piece on Frog and Toad was a bit difficult to read, because I love Frog and Toad.

The exception to accessible writing

I do believe that there is an exception to the desideratum of accessible writing, and that is when one is deep in terminology that it is impossible to explain in lay terms. Or where the intended audience is definitely not the lay-person. One thing that I’ve noticed lately are certain people who shall remain nameless who consider themselves experts about certain issues only to find that they haven’t read very much literature on an issue and suddenly find themselves that using accessible language is imprecise, irrelevant and unhelpful to the advances of how an issue is in the present state of the art. This is what I call the ‘out of Kansas amateur’.  

I think that the intricacies of 20th Century music involving very fancy methods and technical terms would be an example of something that is a challenge to explain explicitly with accessibility. The philosophy of Kant often uses a certain syntactical structure which involves long sentences, and lots of lists and details as part of a system. This systematic thinking also leads to a very dry sort of language being employed. Sometimes accessibility is over-rated. But then again in these situations, it is being written for an audience.

There are many instances where a writer has to write for their audience, but for a select number of things. The content is important enough to challenge a reader to take a journey and grow in order to be able to understand the text.

Michael (following conversations with Sinistre)


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