reflections on EasterCon 3: how we write for our audiences

One of the general themes that underlay a lot of the discussions of which I was a part at EasterCon was the difference between academic writing and non-academic writing, of either fiction or non-fiction.  Some academic writing has the reputation of being impenetratable, seemingly sometimes for the purpose of being impenetrable.  This is mocked beautifully in an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon.

I don’t think that this reputation acquired by academic writing is entirely deserved.  One thing of which I am aware in my own writing is that academic writing sometimes requires of us a degree of precision, in definition and in the use of terms, that not all writing requires.  Splitting hairs is difficult and splitting hairs requires that we have a clear idea of the difference between one part of the hair and another part.   There is of course the question of whether splitting hairs as we do is something we need to do, and I believe that it is.  To understand something, we need to understand it in its fine detail, and that’s part of what we do.  But it does lead to another way in which the fundamental notion of fractalness enters into our discussions, and so I can see that talking about fractals is not something that I can ignore any longer.

But back to the topic at hand.  As a pure mathematician, precision of definition is a fundamental part of what I do when I’m doing mathematics and when I’m writing mathematics, but I have noticed something interesting in my ponderations.  When I am writing mathematics, my primary goal is to be precise in my statements and to be precise in my arguments.  I take for granted that my target audience, in this case other mathematicians, is also interested in this precision, and so I don’t worry about people beyond that intended audience.

This isn’t to say that the mathematics I write is deliberately obtuse, because I don’t think this is the case.  I spend a lot of effort in my mathematical writing, because I want my audience to be able to read what I’m writing.  This is by and large true of my colleagues as well.  I don’t write for me, but I write for the people who might read.

But the way I approach writing a story is very different from how I write mathematics.  And I think part of the reason is that I think I have a much clearer idea of the nature and composition of my mathematical audience, as opposed to my fiction audience.  My mathematical audience and I share a clear vision of the structure of a good mathematics paper, and it isn’t a form that allows for a great deal of variation.

Fiction, on the other hand, is much more wide open in terms of allowable and reasonable forms, and this is one of the things that I took away from the panels and discussions at EasterCon.  This freedom of form is one of the things that I enjoy about trying to create stories, and it is also one of the things I find most daunting.  I am sure that there is a lot of work that’s been done on forms of stories, and this structure of stories is one of the things that I want to dig into at some indeterminate point in the future.

~ by Jim Anderson on 17 April 2017.

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