The Georgians, A Forum: Part 4

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by Penelope Corfield, Royal Holloway

A few authors, having published a book, regard its appearance in print as a ‘done deal’. But many, if not most, writers enjoy the creative post-publication dialogue. Comments, criticisms, appreciations, denunciations, corrections: all are grist to the mill. Publication is like throwing a stone into a pool, hoping for ripples – or, better still, great waves – of interested and interesting reactions.

Photograph of Penelope Corfield
Professor Penelope Corfield

In the case of The Georgians, readers’ responses have already enabled me to correct, in the 2023 paperback edition, a couple of tiny errors that appeared in the 2022 hardback. (Annoying to blunder but a relief to put things right!) 

And the discussion at Birmingham provided a fruitful moment to consider the special requirements of publishing outreach works for the interested ‘general public’. (Yes, this mythic beast definitely does exist!) 

My experience can be crystallised into three points. The first was and is the importance of explaining complex arguments in accessible terms – but without oversimplifying. Managing that feat requires a lot of thought. But it’s totally worthwhile. Academics are often unaware of their abstruse vocabulary. So it’s vital to think carefully – not just about the key points to make but also about how to communicate them accessibly. 

The second point relates closely to the first. It’s helpful to give lots of real-life examples, to back up an argument that might otherwise seem too abstract. Often, such case-histories are readily to hand. They help to trigger the argument in the first place. But it can work the other way round. At times, I formulate my case and then search consciously for suitable examples. It can take some hard searching. But substantiating a general point with a specific case works wonders.          

Thirdly, a book needs to be ‘shaped’ to carry the analysis forward and to keep readers fully engaged. Just as, within chapters, the role of paragraph breaks is crucial – so, within books, it’s essential to find the ideal number, length, and sequence of chapters. (Very different from the standardised format of a doctoral thesis – which is designed to showcase original research, not to experiment with outreach format).   

With growing experience, the need to ‘shape’ each book has become ever-more central to my thoughts. It’s something that I now discuss with (for example) my former doctoral students who are turning their theses into outreach books. It’s the ultimate way of engaging with readers, by helping them to share – and to enjoy – the unfolding intellectual journey. 

Here there’s real scope for creativity. In The Georgians, I inserted, as chapter-ends, short free-floating sections entitled ‘Time-Shifts’. They illustrate the many cross-links between past and present. And today various readers report that they find the Time-Shifts fun and stimulating. So the next challenge is to invent something equally involving but different for my next book. … Onwards and upwards, writing creatively whilst thinking constantly about the readers!    

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