On scholarly vs narrative voice in LIS literature

Once upon a time, I wrote a book chapter about a lesson that I teach students in my first-year seminar about being wrong. The lesson involves having them listen to the song “If I Had a Million Dollars” by The Barenaked Ladies and then telling them a vaguely embarrassing story about a time that I claimed, very confidently, that an emu and a llama were the same thing. If you know the song, you’ll understand. Or maybe not since emus and llamas are very much not the same thing.

In the chapter I originally submitted, I described this lesson and the story it involves in a relatively casual tone, similar to the one I use for this blog. This was different from the more scholarly voice I’d used in my previous professional writings. The reason I chose this more casual, narrative voice was twofold. First, the story was meant to be at least a little funny and it’s hard to tell a funny story in a scholarly voice. Second, I figured that rules about tone and voice are less strict for book chapters than they are for scholarly articles. The opportunity to throw off the constraints of scholarly writing and talk about my work in a voice and tone I personally prefer to use was one of the main attractions of getting to write a book chapter for me in the first place.

What I didn’t account for was the book editors’ preferences or expectations around the level of scholarliness they wanted for their book. Their feedback on that original submission was one of…polite alarm. The kind you might express when someone you know and like has made a particularly embarrassing faux pas. Like if I’d worn a bunny costume to a black tie party.

And I was embarrassed, not least because these editors were people I knew well and whose work I greatly respected. Because I had worked with them on previous projects, I should have known and understood the value they place on scholarliness and written my chapter accordingly. As it was, I ended up frantically rewriting the whole thing and adding a ton more research to my literature review. I don’t know if anyone was super happy with what I ended up with, but it did get published, so I guess it turned out okay in the end, more or less.

Still. I can’t help but wish I’d been able to keep the original narrative tone.

The thing is, scholarliness in LIS literature is extra important because we have a lot of trouble getting non-library faculty to take our work seriously. This matters, especially when that work is being reviewed by a tenure committee. Non-library faculty tend to treat library faculty like the scholarship we do is a form of dress-up. Failing to write in an adequately scholarly voice only invites them to continue believing this, which leads to our scholarly work and our status as faculty being undervalued.

So I totally understand why maintaining a scholarly voice is important.

But in writing my own book, I made a decision to write it in a more narrative tone, similar to the one I originally used for that book chapter (and the one I use here). This was a choice I spent a lot of time debating because I knew there was a risk that doing this would mean that my work would be taken less seriously. I’m past the point where I have to impress a tenure committee but there are future potential promotions to think about. Having a book project on your CV looks good no matter what but an obviously scholarly work is more likely to be taken seriously than one that’s less scholarly.

Which is to say, my book is definitely scholarly and research-based. It’s just that that research is described in a more casual, narrative tone.

Despite my misgivings, I decided to do this for a couple of reasons.

First, writing a book is a long and involved process. I knew writing in a tone that was more natural to me was going to make that process a lot more bearable. And also that it would go faster since I wouldn’t have to do as much work to “translate” my ideas into a scholarly voice.

Second, as a reader, I much prefer books written in a friendly, readable tone rather than ones written in a strict, scholarly voice. I wanted to write the type of book I knew I would enjoy reading.

Third, the voice I use in the book is actually basically the same one I use when I’m teaching students. I think of this voice as my teaching persona and since part of the goal of the book is to teach other librarians about my ideas on the contextual nature of research and how to use those ideas in various instructional scenarios, using that same voice made sense to me.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, it was my book and I was in charge of deciding the content and tone (so there). That said, I didn’t actually know how much I was in charge. In sending my editor the first few chapters for the first time, I fully expected him to react with that same polite alarm I’d previously experienced from my book chapter editors. Or worse: just outright alarm. I was prepared to do a full rewrite if I had to. But luckily I didn’t: the editor’s feedback indicated that he actually quite liked the tone and was generally pleased with the content and organization.

Now, the final book isn’t finished yet. There’s copyediting that needs to be done but the goal there seems to be making needed corrections while also preserving the narrative voice as much as possible. So I’m happy about that.

I guess the final test will be any reviews that come out as well as the reactions of the book’s readers. I’m kind of nervous about that but for now I still feel like I made the right decision in choosing a more narrative tone for this particular work.

So I fully respect my editors’ preferences when it came to the book chapter I wrote for their project. These are serious scholars whose work is taken very seriously and they had every right to ask for a higher level of scholarliness in the work that I submitted to them. I want my work to be taken seriously too but I also want it to reflect who I am not only as a scholar but also as a writer and a teacher, which is why I made a different choice for my own book.

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