If No One is Going to Read Something, Should You Still Write It?

Now that I’ve wrapped up my dissertation and am starting to think about how I might go about turning it into a book or some articles (or ideally both!), I’ve been giving some thought to the relationship between writing and reading.  I have many close friends in journalism, and for them the relationship is rather straightforward: you write in order to be read and, for the most part, the wider the readership, the better.

For academics in the humanities and social sciences… it’s complicated.  Yes, the ultimate goal is for our work to be read (and perhaps even have an impact on the wider world), but the intended audience is usually much more limited.  I’ll be lucky if my dissertation is read in whole or in part by more than a dozen people, and I’m sure many are familiar with the oft-heard claim that the median academic publication is never cited (for discussions, see here, here, and here).

But even if academic writing isn’t always widely disseminated, I think it has great value as a way of making the writer lay out his/her thoughts clearly and intelligibly.  Academic writing (and particularly a humanities/social sciences dissertation) can be a form of writing qua learning.  The messy realities of wrestling words and ideas into coherent shape on a page show up in an academic’s teaching, punditry, and activism for years down the line.

Which got me to thinking–are there other forms of writing which are not primarily intended to be read?  And the answer that leapt to mind are a lot of major governmental reports.  Sure, every now and then governmental organizations produce big reports that are widely read and discussed (and can even get on the NYT‘s bestseller list), but they are the exception, not the rule.  And even for the exceptionally well-publicized reports, like the recently released Chilcot report on the U.K’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War, it’s doubtful that it’s primarily intended to be read, given that it’s 2.6 million words long, or about three times the length of the complete works of Shakespeare.

So then why are these reports written?  Why is all of this energy expended writing something that probably will not be read all that much or all that closely?  One possible answer is that bureaucratic writing may have a documentary function – the act of writing the report serves as evidence, independent of whether it’s read or not.  In other words, sometimes bureaucratic reports are written just because they have to be, in the same way that sometimes meetings are held just because they have to be, even if no one else is present in the room.

Maybe that’s why long, unreadable government reports get written, but critically-minded scholars like James Ferguson and Isaac Kamola have convincingly argued government texts almost always have a secondary role beyond simply fulfilling bureaucratic requirements.  Governmental and para-governmental reports are also always political interventions!  For instance, in my dissertation I discuss 14 high-status reports about East African regional integration that received funding from European sources between 2007 and 2014.  I note that while the reports typically present themselves as having technical, problem-solving aims, they also have the secondary political function of raising the profile of certain contested issues and forcing East African governments to cease foot-dragging and implement policy changes.  Sure, maybe they’re read only by a few dozen people, but that intended target audience will feel the message loud and clear.  We should not be fooled by the generic formats or the routine list of acronyms on the inside cover—intended or not, these reports are interjections into the political economy of East Africa.

Given this discussion, it’s particularly interesting that one organization which takes seriously the question of which of its reports actually get read is the World Bank (to its credit):

About 13 percent of [the WB’s] policy reports were downloaded at least 250 times while more than 31 percent of policy reports are never downloaded.  Almost 87 percent of policy reports were never cited.
If I can’t figure out how to turn my dissertation into a book or articles, it might nevertheless have a future as a World Bank policy report!

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