The ‘So What?’ Problem

Advice for academics about writing and getting published

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Careers, April 23, 2008

Many years ago, as a cub editor at Oxford University Press, I was invited to the company’s annual sales conference to talk about the books I was overseeing. The meeting was one of those things you mostly only heard about, like the Loch Ness Monster or Shangri-la. There were tales of bacchanalian excess at the sales conference that didn’t quite square with what you knew about your staid and sober coworkers.

The event was put on by the sales and marketing people; editors were only grudgingly welcomed. Our purpose was to present the fall books to the sales reps who had been called in from the field and get them excited about the upcoming list — jazzed enough to go out there and sell. But editors were not always the best people to do that.

Editors, especially those who spend their days acquiring scholarly books, tend to read the same way academics do. They read for information and to understand the details of the argument. What’s important is the content, and that is as it should be. But the problem is that when it comes to trying to tell people why they should plop down $25 to buy the book, focusing exclusively on the content doesn’t work that well.

I had seen enough editors present their books in both editorial and marketing meetings to know that the skills and personality types of close readers do not necessarily translate into good public speaking. Editors tended to drone on, immersed in content, and make arguments that would sound fine in a dissertation defense. They were captivated by details, by internecine struggles, by the thrill of finding something that plugged a gap in the existing literature. Listening to book editors can be like listening to someone tell you the plot of a movie.

Those were my role models and so, when I presented my own books in editorial meetings, I imitated them. But a sales conference, I knew, was a different kind of thing. Each sales rep had from 30 seconds to two minutes to tell bookstore buyers why they should stock a particular title. Those minutes could make the difference between a store taking two copies or 20. If the sales force liked a book, it could have a tangible effect on that book’s future. I was anxious about squandering the opportunity to help my books.

I spent weeks writing my presentations. I memorized them and practiced delivering them — to my husband, to my friends, to a videotape recorder. Then, when I was visiting my parents for a weekend, I tried out my spiel on them.

After I had spent exactly the right amount of time (Was it three minutes or perhaps five?) on my favorite book, my stepfather, George, never one to mince words, said, “So what?”

I asked what he meant.

He meant, “So what?” He understood the argument of the book but he didn’t understand why he should care. Why should he even be interested in it?

Good question. I went back and tried to figure out why anyone should care about this project; I asked myself why I cared. The answer wasn’t in the book. I spent a long time trying to think through the implications of the author’s argument until I had spun out an extension and made it applicable and real. When I presented the book to the reps, I told them that I had done a test drive on George, and he had said, “So what”? I told them I was going to give them an answer to that question, and I did.

Later I heard that my presentations had gone over well, and at the next season’s conference, some of the reps told me they had sold the book by saying exactly what I had told George.

It was a pivotal career moment for me. I realized that too much academic work suffers from the problem of “So what?”

I don’t want to make an argument here for dumbing down scholarship so that it’s fit for mass consumption. Sometimes there are gaps in the literature to be filled and questions to be answered. Sometimes we need explanations written in theoretical and technical language. Much of scholarship doesn’t need to have practical, real-world applications. We write, after all, mostly for our peers.

But I do believe that academics should be able to explain their work to me in a way that I can grasp. I don’t care if the topic is topology, geology, comparative linguistics, or astrophysics. Academics, especially those who teach, should be able to give a brief description of their work to anyone, without resorting to equations, jargon, or the work of other scholars.

And they should be able to say why it matters. They should be able to answer the “So what?” question and do it on at least three levels.

First, as writers we need to polish our “elevator pitch.” We may not have much in common with Hollywood, but like those LA writers, we should be able to explain what we’re working on and why it matters in the amount of time it takes to get from the lobby to an office in a high-rise.

Then we have to know the version that will appear on the book flaps: Here’s what I’m doing, and here’s why you should read it. That means cutting out a lot of the details that are important to you — truly, madly, deeply important to you — and thinking instead about the big picture and what might be important to your potential reader.

Finally, most of us will be called on — in job talks, public presentations, and conversations with others — to give a more elaborate explanation. A half hour, 45 minutes, sometimes even an hour’s distillation of years of labor. In such situations, it may not be possible to keep your talk free of technical language. But still, the “So what?” question must be addressed.

Graduate students are trained to focus on specifics, to prove that they’ve done the reading and the research and to show it on the page. What gets lost is why they’re doing all that work. In too many conversations that I’ve had with fellow faculty members who want to talk about turning their dissertations into a book, when I ask what it’s about, they say, Well, I look at this and that.

OK, I say. And so?

Well, they say, no one’s ever looked at this and that before.

OK, I say. What’s your argument? Why does it matter?

And then we’re back to the fact that no one’s ever looked at this and that before.

If the monograph isn’t dead, it’s certainly on life support. Books on narrow topics aren’t going to get published unless the authors can find ways of drawing out the implications of their research. You have to reach beyond a specific and small set of scholars and into a larger readership, at least within your discipline, and, at best, to a group of people in other fields. One of the most important ways to do that is to make sure everyone — including you — knows why your work matters.

Once you figure that out, write an introduction that a college freshman could read. Write an introduction that brings the reader into your topic and then into your work. Stand back far enough that the reader can get a sense of the landscape, and then zoom in.

I’ve edited (and ghost-written) countless grant applications to the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and other funding sources. I know very little about science. But I do know that I should be able to understand why a government agency is being asked to fork over millions of dollars. A good introduction can go a long way.

The tired advice is to write your introduction last. Like all those lines from Shakespeare and the Bible, there’s a reason that advice has become a cliché: because it’s right and true.

Write your introduction after you talk it out to a person not in your field — and after that person says, as she is likely to, “So what?” If you can answer that question, you will have a better book. And your editor will be able to use it to crib marketing copy and a sales presentation, and the book will be represented as what you’ve written, rather than what your editor wishes you had written.



Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, in Spokane, the M.F.A. program of Eastern Washington University. Her Web site is www.racheltoor.com, and she welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.