Writers: Love Your Ideas, But Love Your Readers, Too


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a philosopher who has written nonfiction for non-philosophers, as well as novels, is interviewed in The Chronicle of Higher Education about writing. Some of her insights about those kinds of writing seem just as relevant to—and helpful for—the kind of writing philosophers typically do.

Chronicle: Is there a way in which writing fiction helps you as a philosopher?

Goldstein: Both kinds of writing — fiction and nonfiction — require a vivid sense of other minds. You have to think about what you’ve written from the point of view of someone who isn’t you. You get used to this in writing fiction since you’re making it all up, and so you know that readers aren’t going to have a clue as to what’s going on in your head unless you lay it out for them.

You can’t lose sight of the reader in writing fiction, but it’s easy to do so in writing nonfiction, when you’re trying to convey knowledge. You have to vividly conjure up someone who doesn’t know what you know. That’s hard. It’s hard, once you’ve understood something, to remember what it’s like not to understand it. Your whole sense of what’s obvious shifts, and you come, over time, to forget that there ever was a shift, and you have difficulty recalling your pre-shift state of mind.

But that’s the state of mind of your readers, and you have to work to make it vivid to yourself. And then, of course, after the hard work of conjuring other minds, you give your writing to actual other minds — intelligent readers who happen not to know what you know and whom you can trust to be forthright about what they don’t understand.

Chronicle: You write serious books for a trade readership. Did you have to learn to write in a different register than you would for colleagues in your discipline?

Goldstein: I wrote two of my nonfiction books for editors who told me that not only were they ignorant of philosophy, they were downright hostile to it. Or rather: They respected it but they didn’t get it, and their not getting it made them feel uncomfortable, as if maybe they were stupid.

For me, this was tremendously helpful. I constantly had them in my mind as I wrote, trying to make them feel comfortable in my world, to make all my moves seem as natural as possible, as continuous with “regular” thinking as possible…

Chronicle: What advice do you have for academics who want to write?

Goldstein: The farther afield you can think yourself, the stronger the writing is. There was something about your subject that you loved even before you became the expert you now are. If something of that original motivating love remains alive in what you write — something that will make someone else catch the fire that brought you to your current state of expertise — that makes for stronger writing. That’s writing with a living soul in it.

Unfortunately, a lot of academic writing seems designed to discourage outsiders from entering. You read it and, if you weren’t already committed to the field, nothing about the writing would tempt you to enter. Signs that say “Insiders Only” are posted all over the premises (in both senses of the word).

Chronicle: What do you think goes wrong in academic prose?

Goldstein: When one is so concentrated on doing full justice to the ideas themselves, laying them out in their maximally logical order, one forgets about the reader, how to best lead her into the ideas and make her feel them as naturally as you do.

I think about this problem a great deal in trying to figure out the best structure of a piece, where to start, the entry point. The most elegant structure, from the point of view of the ideas, isn’t always the most effective one from the point of view of the reader. We love our ideas, or we wouldn’t dedicate so much of our lives to them. But we have to love our readers, too.

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