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  • Contextualization: The Scholarly Writer and the Audience1Vol. 53. No. 1, Fall 1990
  • Barbara Brothers

When 1 was asked to contribute to the NEMLA panel on avoiding rejection, sponsored by the Conference of Editors of Learned Journals, I knew from my brief tenure as one of the new editors of the College English Association publications, CEA Critic and CEA Forum, that I wanted to address the need for scholarly writers seeking publication to think not just about the content of their essays but also about their intended audience. Before becoming an editor, I had observed that scholarly writers sometimes fail to conceptualize themselves as writing to and for a particular group of readers. On occasion I know that I, too, have failed as a writer to begin with a specific sense of who my audience is to be. My experience as a beginning editor has only reinforced my perception that as professionals writing for scholarly publication we are narcissistic—less concerned with being read than with being published, less concerned with assisting our readers to understand our message than with sounding learned.

A few individuals submitting articles and essays to CEA publications blatantly demonstrate their lack of awareness of the publications to which they have mailed their pieces of writing: Some essayists include no cover letter identifying the particular publication for which the essay is to be considered; others send cover letters stating that the submission is to be reviewed for either of our publications. If writers don't know the publication or don't have a particular one in mind, they can hardly consider their audience when formulating an essay's purpose or when composing and editing that essay. It is not surprising, then, that the essay's purpose, style, language, and examples seem to be more appropriate for another scholarly journal or newsletter. But such problems are not exhibited just by essays submitted without cover letters. Essays specifically directed to one of the CEA publications may also seem more appropriate for another—for example, one with a more narrowly focused audience of specialists such as the Barbara Pym Newsletter, The Tennessee Williams Review, or Style. What makes such essays inappropriate for us is not the subject of the essays but how the author has addressed that subject.

If these problems arose from nothing more than a lack of knowledge of CEA publications, including perhaps our blurring for a time the differences between the journal and the newsletter, or were only isolated instances of a writer's haste to get an essay into the hands of a journal, the issue [End Page 290] might not be significant enough to address in a forum such as this. But are these writers who display their ignorance of their intended readers merely revealing either their haste, carelessness, or lack of knowledge of CEA publications? Or are they acting upon their assumption that individual essays, not journals as a whole, have readers? Do they not understand that learned journals have an identity apart from their names—Journal of Beckett Studies, Victorian Poetry, The Henry James Review? In other words, why do contributors to all our journals think almost exclusively about being published and little, if at all, about who will read their essay if it is published in one journal as opposed to another?

Perhaps graduate education—the directions for and kinds of writing assignments we give or the lack of discussion of writing for scholarly publication—may be partly responsible for producing scholars of language and literature who believe in a generic critical literary essay and write in a vacuum. Or perhaps the way in which we have taught students of literature to read—the text is all—has been translated by them into a tenet for writing critical essays: One need not question to whom one is writing or for what reason; an essay, like a poem, is a self-enclosed text. That scholarly writers sometimes fail to imagine a context for their writing may also be attributed to how we teach research. Initiates to our profession are not usually introduced to the various journals and other publications for which they may have professional use; they are introduced to bibliographies...


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