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  • Writing Books for a General Audience:Motivations, Goals, and Challenges
  • Larry Ford

Why write books for a general audience rather than trying to appeal to a much narrower group of specialists already predisposed to seek out the latest intheoretical insights or practical applications? For me, there are several answers to this question but the primary one is that I have only one way of writing (and speaking), and that tends toward a fairly casual and accessible style with a minimum of big words. I don't know if I could write a very esoteric, theoretical work even if I wanted to. Thus it is easy for me to pick a style—and therefore an audience—as I begin a writing project. Once I make the decision to write a book at all, I don't have much of a choice about the general tone or style. Having said that, I also firmly believe that there is a need for at least some academic books to be written in a reasonably accessible manner. I want to interest general readers and undergraduate students in topics that might otherwise appear to be either very complicated and technical or purposefully obfuscated in order to weed out all but the most committed readers. I will talk a bit more about style and audience later, but first there is the question "Why write books at all?"

In order to deal with some of the more important aspects of the above question, I will focus on the story of writing four of my books; Cities and Buildings, The Spaces Between Buildings, America's New Downtowns, and Metropolitan San Diego. The first three appeared in the years 1994, 2000, and 2003 and were done in cooperation with George Thompson of the Center for American Places and published by The Johns Hopkins University Press. George was responsible for getting me to write these kinds of books in the first place, since he urged me to put together some kind of urban book for him back in the late 1980s. The book that resulted from these early discussions was Cities and Buildings: Skyscrapers, Skid Rows and Suburbs (1994). Its completion was delayed in part by my Fulbright to Jakarta in 1991 and by George's involvement with a set of AAG field guides (one of [End Page 119] which, Southern California Extended, I co-authored). To be honest, since it was my first real book, it also took a while to get myself in gear.

Getting Started: Cities and Buildings and the Process of Writing Books

The content and organization of Cities and Buildings was based largely on what I was teaching in my geography of cities course at San Diego State. My course attempted to merge the spatial tradition of geography with a landscape approach that emphasized architectural change. My goal in writing the book was to get at least a little of the vast amount of information I had collected over the years in print before I became senile and forgot most of it. In addition, I wanted a book I could use in class that the students would actually enjoy reading. On the other hand, I did not want to write anything approaching a normal textbook in which all the usual and expected basic information was included. I only wanted to write about what I wanted to write about. I didn't know if this would be a problem but, since the book was never supposed to be a standard text, it was not.

Getting a "first book" proposal accepted was a long and challenging process. No fewer than 10 people were asked to review the proposal in some depth, and I received copies of the resulting comments. Most of the reviews were positive, and because I had published similar material in journals, it was clear that I could actually get something in print in respectable outlets. However, some changes in the proposed book were requested, and this was a good thing. Some of the better reviews helped to shape my goals.

To my delight, several of the reviewers suggested getting rid of the introductory academic verbiage and belabored justifications for the approaches I was using and...


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pp. 119-131
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