It doesn’t appear on my official CV any longer, but I’m not ashamed to acknowledge the ten years that I spent writing romance and romantic-suspense novels. In addition to letting me make a full-time living as a writer, it taught me some surprisingly useful lessons in my subsequent career as a public-minded scholar and teacher. Here are some of those lessons.
Get comfortable with the constraints of your genre
From the early years of “weblogs” in the mid-1990s, blogging has emerged as one of the more flexible of digital tools for communication. Blogs now run the gamut from lightweight Tumblr weirdness to serious scholarly exploration. Blogging is a remarkably expansive genre—but it’s still a genre. And as such, it has its limitations, which it’s important to recognize and accept.
It took me a long time to accept the much narrower limitations of romance novels as a genre. I was always trying to make them say more and do more, which in hindsight was a clear sign that I wasn’t destined to spend the rest of my career writing them.
You can make a case that many classic novels fit inside the romance genre (Jane Austen is probably the standout example here). But by and large, you’re not going to move the world in a romance novel or change scholarly thinking in an 800-word blog post.
That said, sometimes pushing against the constraints of a genre can be an incredibly stimulating exercise for the the imagination and intellect. Here’s a 1000-word post I wrote about a 2011 Superbowl ad that took me weeks to finish because I found the ad so complex to unpack. I consider it one of my stronger attempts to say a lot in a short form and to write accessibly within an intellectual framework.
There’s a surprising pleasure in working well within tight constraints and a lot to be learned from negotiating the tension between bearing your readers in mind and focusing on the demands of whatever question you’re trying to explore. And every once in a while, even in the frothiest of genres, there are moments when somebody manages to transcend the limitations and do something original and even important.
Do some of the work for your readers
Writing for a popular audience is very different from dense academic writing. Work written for scholarly consumption aims to expand a highly specialized conversation. It demands that the reader be at least somewhat in the know about what’s already been said, and even for those who are, it often demands a considerable investment of time and mental energy.
That’s a lot of work for the reader, as most students will tell you. Scholars are often writing as much to explain things to themselves as to other readers. And within the system of peer review and classroom course adoption, a scholarly author is pretty much guaranteed at least a few readers who will be motivated to struggle through even the least-accommodating piece of prose.
It’s a very different story with digital and pop culture publishing, which are very crowded venues. You need to make a quick impression and give people a reason to keep reading in the moment and to come back for more of your work later on.
Follow (some of) that online advice
There’s a lot of digital advice out there about how to optimize online content for searchability, use formulas for writing attention-grabbing titles, pull readers in by including a survey or contest, etc—and it’s not a bad idea to be at least peripherally aware of those strategies. It helps to know how to sell something in this crowded marketplace, but that doesn’t mean you need to dumb down your ideas. It just means you have to frame them in a way that’s different from how you’d present them in an academic essay.
That means aiming for general rather than specialized language. It means shorter paragraphs, some section headers, and—crucially—a right-off-the-top “hook” or grabber in the opening paragraph. Online reading can be disorienting and distracting; you need to reach your readers immediately rather than warming up gradually to what you plan to say.
It also means that titles and visuals matter. A lot. (One of the more humbling things I learned from writing romance novels is that a good cover can do half the work of selling a book.)
Images in a blog post don’t necessarily have the same weight, but they’re definitely important. Ideally, they should add something to your text rather than simply illustrating it. At their best, they can contribute to whatever point you’re trying to make, as well as creating visual interest on the screen.
I confess that I never felt completely at home as a romance novelist. And I knew my time in that field was coming to an end when I found myself far more excited about Janice Radway’s literary study Reading the Romance than about reading romances themselves. But I still make use of a lot of what I learned from writing them.