Academic Writing – How Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds taught me to focus on the audience
What’s the real value of an academic paper?
New research shows that while authors care most about what their readers think about their work, they also believe that their peers are actually more motivated by other considerations like journal prestige and impact factor when publishing.
I’m a huge Nick Cave fan. Doesn’t matter. He’s a ‘singer-songwriter’, performs with a band called ‘The Bad Seeds’. Nick also runs a very interesting blog where he takes and answers questions from his global following. Someone asked him recently (and I paraphrase): ‘Nick, which of your songs do you like better? The ones you wrote when you were leading a more hedonistic lifestyle in the 1990s, or the ones you wrote more recently now you are famously clean and a living the vegetarian life?’ Very rock ‘n’ roll.
Nick replied (again, I paraphrase): ‘Here’s the thing: It doesn’t actually matter what I think about my songs, what matters is how others experience them. I’ve had people write to me saying that one of my songs is the soundtrack to their life and that they recently got married to it, while other people (still fans) write that the same song is my worst, worst work and that they totally hate it’.
There is a very important point here: it’s not about you, the author of a particular piece of work, an academic paper. It doesn’t matter what you think about your work. What’s actually important is how your readers, your colleagues and peers in your field perceive your paper. Do they like it? Do they agree with the conclusions? Did they enjoy reading it? Will it inspire their future work? Will they cite it? I’ve written lots of papers myself and it’s always a surprise which ones end up getting cited and used most often by other researchers: it’s very often not the papers that I’m most happy with as an author.
The psychology of academic publishing is fascinating: recent survey work actually shows that authors feel that the most important thing to them when writing a research paper is who will read it and their reaction. At the same time, however, academic authors are also plagued by feelings that they are ‘somehow different’ to others and that their peers and colleagues tend to have different motivations when writing up and publishing their work. Academic authors tend to think that others actually care more than they do about the impact of their papers and the prestige of target journals. In fact it’s all about readers. How your papers are perceived by your readers influences everything: citations, usefulness, impact, and your reputation in your field. This is very interesting and brings us back to Nick Cave’s point on his fan blog: what matters is how the people who read your work feel about it, not how good you think your paper is!
What you’re aiming for as an author is that people will read your papers and think: ‘that was really easy to read and very interesting. I agree with this paper’. Writing is a creative experience and so one of the best feelings is when someone says ‘I really liked reading your recent work’. Being memorable as a writer is also one of the best ways to advance your career, make sure senior colleagues remember you, and ensure you get that next position, postdoc, or job. One of the most effective and engaging academic writers in my own research field used to be a sports journalist, working on the baseball pages of the Chicago Tribune. Effective writing is a skill we can teach you; we know that it’s hard in English, your non-native language.
If you have questions about academic writing in general or your own creative writing in English, then Charlesworth can help. Our training courses (which can be booked via institutions), online materials, and blog articles contain numerous tips and tricks to help you be effective as an academic writer and maximise your potential as a researcher. Our world-class English language editing services are designed to support your wider research and writing; why not get your next academic article edited and polished by one of our PhD-level specialists working in the same research field as you?
Find out more at www.cwauthors.com.
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