Introducing the hard stuff

My class this quarter has gotten used to us talking about the “topography” of any piece of writing. It seems to be a helpful word in many situations, but now I want to discuss the varying levels (or altitudes) of difficulty as one moves through the landscape of the text. Sometimes the writing is hard, and sometimes it’s got to be easy (or the reader will give up). This variation is mandatory in public science writing, but you might be kind enough to give your readers a break in your academic writing, too.

In his (public-focused but pretty difficult) 2017 book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert Sapolksy writes these two paragraphs as part of the introduction to an early chapter:

This chapter is one of the book’s anchors. The brain is the final common pathway, the conduit that mediates the influences of all the distal factors to be covered in the chapters to come. What happened an hour, a decade, a million years earlier? What happened were factors that impacted the brain and the behavior it produced.

This chapter has two major challenges. The first is its god-awful length. Apologies; I’ve tried to be succinct and nontechnical, but this is foundational material that needs to be covered. Second, regardless of how nontechnical I’ve tried to be, the material can overwhelm someone with no background in neuroscience. To help with that, please wade through appendix 1 around now.

(pp. 21-2)

Notice several things here:

1. He offers “metacommentary” that communicates these messages: “What I’m about to say is important.” “This is complicated, but I’m doing my best to make it as easy and clear as possible.” “If you have not taken neuroscience, then go read Appendix 1.”

2. He offers motivating questions for this section: “how does the brain work?” and “how did the brain get the way it is?”

3. That last question is attached to the book’s overall argument in that first paragraph above: he is trying to explain all the factors that go into our behavior, factors that are immediately present and factors that happened long ago. If you’re going to make readers work hard at something, they need to know that there’s a really important reason for them to do so!

4. He uses numbers. Imagine that second paragraph without the numbers, and you will be seeing a less clear paragraph. It’s very satisfying for readers to know exactly how many ideas they are about to get, and then to tick them off. “Two. Okay: One, Two. Done!”

5. He uses the word “distal.” I probably would have avoided that. I had to look it up. It basically means “distant,” but it’s more specific to anatomy.

If you actually go read the rest of Sapolky’s book, you’ll see him describing the way that our emotional experience influences our intellectual decisions. If your readers get frustrated—especially if they think that this is more your fault than theirs—then they are going to be less likely to make positive evaluation. Their emotions, not just logic, will influence their decisions.

One thought on “Introducing the hard stuff”

  1. I think it might be equally bad for the readers to get frustrated and think it’s their own fault. No one wants their pleasure reading to make them feel stupid. They might decide to put the book down to avoid feeling bad about themselves.

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