Academic research is an expedition into unfamiliar territory. Propelled by instinct or educated guesses or the research of others, scholars strikeout in search of answers with great hope—but no guarantees—of finding them. This, for me, is the appeal of scholarship. At its best, scholarly research is like transcontinental exploration: We know the Pacific Ocean is that way. Find us the best route to the coast.
The promise of discovery is what makes scholarly research attractive to unscholarly readers. People like to hear the untold story, the behind-closed-doors conversations, the surprising history of familiar people or institutions. People are curious and will gladly follow an able guide on an intellectual adventure.
What kind of guide do they want?
They don’t want an expedition guide. As romantic as the notion of exploration may be, it requires great sacrifice. Many scholars expect their readers to make big sacrifices to make it through their research. Kiss your wife and child, set your affairs in order, and pack a lunch. We’re gonna be a while. Most nonspecialists, if they can’t see a clear path through the underbrush or aren’t sure their guide knows where she is going, will give up before they invest themselves too deeply. And who can blame them? The process is not nearly as important as the destination for most non-academic readers.
What most readers want is a tour guide. Someone who has made the journey and knows the way. Someone who can assure readers he knows where the journey ends and that it is well worth the time. Someone who is sensitive to the pace at which and the stamina with which most readers read—the way a good tour guide understands when travelers need to stop for a breather and a snack. In my opinion, there is no subject matter that is too weighty for a popular audience. If readers feel they are in the company of a sensitive guide, they will follow wherever you lead them.
When you study, channel Meriwether Lewis. When you write, channel Rick Steves.