I’m the author of two textbooks. So I am interested in the pedagogy of non-fiction writing. And I’m starting to think I’ve been doing it wrong.
Knowledge is hierarchical. But in writing, I only really pay lip-service to that. In my introduction I summarise the bits of the book to come. I add summaries to the end of each chapter, and a little introduction at the start. But mostly I see them as ways to support the main text, they aren’t the real content.
What would a book look like that was radically committed to being hierarchical? You could access the central thesis by reading only the first page, the general argument within the first ten, the details in the first half and the hardcore analysis only if you need it (few do).
I’ve never seen it done.
My wife commented that, as authors, we are rather narcissistic. We don’t like the idea of someone not reading every last word. Most of us would pale at the idea of condensing the whole book into the first page. The thesis will be obvious once we’ve taken our readers through the full analysis and synthesis, there should be no short-cuts. Our expertise may be missed in so abbreviated a form.
Yet a week after finishing my book, most readers will only remember the overview. Even (perhaps especially) professional readers. As a scholar, you certainly want the details for works in your areas of interest. But there’s a much bigger hinterland of books you read to fill out your broader knowledge, to keep track of related areas, to find out what the main arguments are, where the controversies lie.
Is there any reason beyond vanity for this? Am I missing an obvious reason why this wouldn’t be just a much better way of approaching academic writing? In the age of Wikipedia, when we’re all used to consuming knowledge by drilling down, is it not obviously a better way to write?