Why should I read what you have written?

Why should anyone read what you have written? This should be question No. 1 for anyone writing anything. So, let me rephrase the question: Why do so many of the contributors to the online forums in which I participate assume that people will be interested in what they are writing about, then feel disappointed when no one responds?

As students, we learn to write assignments. The teacher who hands us a topic has to read what we write. But once we leave school and start writing for others to read, we need to ask who these others are and why should they be interested in what we are writing about.

We may have found a topic that is utterly fascinating to us because of who we are and where life's journeys have taken us. If we are anthropologists, we may have devoted years of our lives to the study of a place that few if any of our readers will visit or to topics that are esoteric to all but a handful of others. But our reputations, our careers, our hopes of changing the world for the better, all depend on breaking out of that narrow circle. How do we do that?

In his introduction to Islam Observed, Clifford Geertz remarks that if our insights are valuable, they must prove their worth in larger conversations than those that concern the settings in which we found them, which are, after all, microscopic on a global scale. Proving that worth is often a matter of combining vivid detail with big, abstract ideas. Successful ethnography works like the dominant symbols described in Victor Turner's studies of Ndembu ritual. At their best, ethnographies fuse concrete, emotionally charged experience with a fan of possible interpretations, so that feelings energize concepts while concepts give shape to feelings. The writing grips us in ways that force us to think. 

Does what you write work this way? If not, why not? Are we too wrapped up in details? Or, conversely, too caught up in abstractions? Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, who are our readers and why should they care.

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