On passing the General Reader Test

Once a week I stay away from home with two very good (and perhaps long-suffering) friends. They have looked after me this way for over three years; and over that sort of time it is hard to avoid the topic of one’s research in general conversation. And so, in a moment of weakness late at night, one of my friends expressed an interest in reading a draft article that we had talked about a little. It helped that the paper is about the recent history of a part of British Christianity of which both they and I have lived experience. And so, after some hesitation, I sent them a copy.

Slightly to my surprise, not just one but both took time to read it. And the best part is that, when we later fell to talking about it, they had understood it. Granted, much of the detail passed them by. But the argument they repeated back to me over a glass of wine was the one I hoped I had written. They had also been struck by some of the broader parallels with more recent events, which were implicit in it. It made my day.

Should this have been a surprise ? After all, writing is meant to be read, is it not ? But I wouldn’t be the first to note that not all academic writing is easy to read, even for specialists, let along the ‘general reader’. Indeed, some have suggested that there are perverse incentives for academics to be intentionally opaque.

I don’t tell this story in order to suggest that my writing is particularly clear; I’ve turned out my fair share of clunky writing built on muddled thinking. But it does suggest that a ‘General Reader Test’ might be one worth applying to more of our writing, particularly if you expect any non-specialist readers to stumble across it once it is released into the wild. I shall be doing so; although I might spare these particular friends too much of it, as I want them to keep them as friends.