The Laws of (Marketing) Magic

A few months ago, I wrote on Facebook that about 60% of the staff at my current job refers to my work as “doing my magic.” It’s a variation of an old meme:

  1. Something is needed
  2. Sara does her magic
  3. Profit!

At first, I was somewhat flattered by this–“I really feel like a magician, y’all” was my exact phrasing. But it’s starting to wear on me a bit, so I thought I would take the opportunity to remind everyone that even magic has rules. Consider Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration from the Harry Potter universe: while magic allows you to summon or conjure many things, there are certain materials or conditions that can’t be created magically. One is food, which–as Hermione explains–can be multiplied or summoned but not made by magic. Money is another; I imagine that money can’t even be multiplied, because that would create substantial problems with an economy based on precious metals. If a wizard wants money or food, they must trade goods or services like any Muggle.

In the kinds of marketing I do–writing and designing promotional material for print and digital distribution–the relevant magical law is the Iron Triangle. Also known as the project management triangle, but obviously “iron” sounds a lot more alchemical.


The version of this I learned from working with printers is: you can have it fast, cheap, or good; pick any two. In other words, you can optimize the costs of your project (which tends to be the major concern for nonprofits I’ve worked with) and you can have it done well, but you have to allow time and plan well. Timing and planning is not a specialty of my current employer, however, and I find myself butting up against the laws of marketing magic regularly as my supervisors assign me last-minute tasks or make eleventh-hour changes. And while they understand certain mathematics of production–if we order double the brochures that we planned, the final bill will be greater than the price estimate we were given–that it might take more time to print and fold those additional brochures came as a surprise to them.

A couple other magical laws that may apply to marketing:

Knowing the true name of a thing makes it easier to magically affect. So, for example, when I am asked to remove all the Times New Roman font from a document that contains no TNR, I have no idea what to do. (Turns out my supervisor does not like serif fonts, period, but I did not know that at the time.)

Certain magic cannot be performed without artifacts of power. I just created a glossy full-color trifold brochure in Microsoft Publisher, y’all. And it looks pretty okay. But it was not easy. You have to sort of jury-rig bleeds and crop marks unless you want a white border all the way around your piece. Also, you can’t do much to modify the .pdf resolution settings, and you can’t create a CMYK document even pretty much anything printed in color is printed in CMYK. I yearn for Adobe software.

More fun with the magic of making-to-order:

How a web design goes to hell, from The Oatmeal

A sweeter, gentler story about book design at The Toast

An entire Tumblr dedicated to difficult clients.


Circles and Traces

For a side project, I’ve been scouring over the notes and bibliographies of books I haven’t read in some years. For example: Cooking, Eating, Thinking, an anthology of philosophical approaches to food studies which I came across early in my research and haven’t revisited since, though I thought it was a solid collection. As I opened my copy, my fingers brushed against a familiar texture: an embossed seal on the first page, the kind that an overzealous bibliophile might use to stamp her name in books she’d prefer not to lose. Okay, to be specific: I have such an embossing tool, a gift from my mom actually, and I impress “Library of Sara Elizabeth Davis” on any book that I lend.

I had no recollection of lending this anthology, so I looked closer and saw that the seal was not mine at all: it reads “Library of Sarah Lucia Hoagland.” I realized that I must have ordered a used copy of this book online some time ago, and I didn’t give it further thought as I paged through the bibliographies.

But because I was looking so closely at the notes, I came across a familiar name at the end of one chapter:
Hoagland, Sarah Lucia. Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value. Palo Alto: Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1988.

I flipped back and forth between the front page and bibliography. How did this happen? Did she just happen to buy this book that cites her work? That seems unlikely. Did she get a gratis copy for reviewing it? I don’t see such a review online. Was it perhaps a gift from the editors, were they friends? That seems plausible; the previous owner of my book and one of the editors of the book were both publishing in the same feminist journals in the late 80s, perhaps they knew one another. But then why give it away?

I cull my bookshelf mercilessly every time I have to move, particularly in the last few years. I had amassed a large collection of assigned reading for graduate school, and at first I kept all of the books, believing myself to be building a library of selections for the survey and intro courses I would inevitably teach. But my life changed course, and I shed classic and canonical texts like a distressed bird sheds feathers. Did I press my mark into any of them? Is anyone reading my former schoolbooks, wondering who SED is and why she gave them away?
Will my brilliant, talented, published and to-be-published friends and I ever get to a point where we’ve given each other so many of our own books that each book is not a little miracle but something to be disposed of or replaced?


One day my gentleman friend came by for a visit with a T-shirt and a story. “I’m not sure if you’ll want this…” he began, tentatively, but the story is that he was hanging out with some friends of his in a bar (one of my favorite bars, too) and one of his friends found the shirt, just abandoned at one of the tables littered with curled-up menus and plastic spider rings. The friend thought she’d keep the shirt, but she forgot to take it with her. Thus the shirt passed into the gentleman’s possession, and he took it home and laundered it and brought it to me, because it advertises The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, an awfully bad movie that I enjoyed an awful lot and gleefully reenact whenever I have the opportunity.

Astonishingly, the T-shirt fits. It is designed for women but is not a babydoll tee or similar horror; it accommodates my figure and has long enough sleeves to cover my shoulder tattoos.

What are the odds? Where was this T-shirt last time I was at that bar? Are there often T-shirts just lying around there? (This would not be surprising, actually, but I have never witnessed such a thing.) Who left this shirt there and where did she get it (and are there more of them, because my friends want some)? Why did she take it off or drop it? Does she miss it? Because I’m not sure I would give it back. This shirt is Relevant To My Interests. I love the happy accident of it, the ridiculous serendipity.


Here’s another story I like to tell about serendipity. When I last looked for a new apartment, I had some difficulty with a realtor who advertised some amenities that the apartment didn’t have, and then waffled about when and how he would go about adding them. I wanted that apartment badly: it was located on a convenient corner in my comfortable neighborhood, had gorgeous parquet floors, an extra little room for a study. I gave the realtor an application and a partial deposit for the apartment, telling him that I would be happy to sign the lease just as soon as he committed to adding the promised amenities and put an outside date for that in writing.

A busy week went by and I didn’t hear anything, so I gave the realtor a call. I could come pick up my deposit at my convenience, he said, as he’d rented the apartment to another tenant.

This left me in a bad position, since it was near the end of the month and I’d already put in my notice on the apartment where I lived. I got back on the market in a hurry, calling realtors on my lunch break and visiting apartments after work every day. I had my eye on one apartment above a nice restaurant, but the realtor wouldn’t take me there until the tenant moved out, saying that he was rather bad-tempered and she didn’t want to rile him up.

But a day or two before I was scheduled to look at the place, I walked past the apartment to catch a bus and saw the bad-tempered tenant moving out. I apologized for interrupting his move but wanted to ask him a question or two, since I’d be seeing the apartment in a couple of days. He was actually quite friendly and offered to show me the place himself. So while movers came and went with his boxes, he walked me through the narrow but pretty apartment, talking about the good points and bad. The realtor was included among the latter, and he told me about the troubles and frustrations he had when the property was bought up by an aggressive neighborhood company. “Oh, I could tell you about frustrating rental experiences in this neighborhood,” I said, and offered up the story of my lost parqueted apartment.
When I finished, he was quiet for a moment, then asked me if the address of that apartment was ### Nearby Street.
It was, actually.
I was touring the soon-to-be-former apartment of the tenant who became the lessee of the apartment I thought I had put a deposit on.

I told this story to a coworker shortly after it happened. “Wow!” she replied, then paused. “So are you dating that guy now, or what?”
I thought this was a hilarious question, so I told it to another friend. “Well, yeah,” she said. “I was gonna ask the same thing.”

I suppose that would be a fair question if we were in a book or a film, in which two worlds never collide except in service of an overarching plot. This would have been an excellent premise for such a plot: the man had inadvertantly taken away something I wanted, offering the perfect excuse to start a pointless rivalry that devolves into attraction, or to form a forced team in pursuit of real estate justice.

Even if we abandon the narrative tropes of romance, we still expect a certain amount of plot resolution from our coincidences. In a book or film narrative, if your plot arc coincides with the arc of another person or thing once, it will likely do so again and again. Fictional coincidences are the sign of a cosmic arrangement or a divine sense of symmetry that brings together what fits together. Insignificant choices would be proven significant by virtue of a shared trajectory: the book is a foreshadowing of an academic future, the shirt is the trace of another geeky girl’s past.

In reality, a coincidence happens precisely because different trajectories don’t intersect at more than one point. The arcs only cross once, and the only thing I can be definitely said to have in common with the owners of the book and shirt is that we inhabited the same place once, albeit at different times. I marveled and wondered at my used book and my rescued shirt, but they don’t make really good stories because the questions they raise must go unanswered.

So here is what happened after the momentous apartment coincidence was revealed. I sincerely wished the not-actually-bad-tempered tenant good luck with his new terrible realtor, and I moved into another nice apartment above a flower shop, leased by an entirely different company. As for the tenant, he presumably moved into that apartment with the lovely parquet floors, and may still be there. Perhaps the backstory I shared about the slippery realtor became a shield or a weapon he could use to insist on his tenant’s rights. Perhaps he never had an issue with the place and never gave it another thought. But I never saw him again, so I do not and may never know.

How Not To Be: Promo Copy

I actually drafted this post several months ago, but felt hesitant about publishing it while I still worked for my previous employer. I sent it out into the world now mainly because I think it will be of interest to first-time authors, particularly the academic authors-to-be of my acquaintance.

The occasion: I was working on promotional copy for three very different books whose authors had given me three perfect examples of descriptive copy that I could not use for promotional purposes. To be fair, the authors’ own descriptions of their own books was not ever intended for promotional use. We definitely don’t expect academic writers to be able to write a perfect piece of promotional copy (although some do!); the promo copy we use is displayed in a number of different spaces for a number of different audiences, and there’s no reason that a scholarly author would be aware of the demands and restrictions of those spaces. But we wanted to be true to the author’s vision for their book, so we would ask them for a short summary and tried to be clear about what we planned to do with it.

The style and content of the descriptions I received could often tell me a lot about an author’s hopes and expectations for book promotion. The three descriptions which inspired this post were for books in quite different fields, but let’s imagine they were all for the same book–something common but specialized, like Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. These three authors would describe The Elements of Style as follows:

  • A. The Elements of Style is a comprehensive guide to euphonic grammatolatry. Combining the logocratic methodologies of neoterism and semantologics, this book makes an incisive critique of verbigeration, catachresis, and sesquipedalia.
  • B. The Elements of Style is essential reading for everyone who uses language to communicate. In presenting a new perspective on words, syntax, and punctuation, this fresh take on classic rules of writing will help us understand humankind and the world.
  • C. When we write, what are we saying? What does it mean to be a writer? What are words? The Elements of Style shows that language is more than sentences and sentences are more than words.

A is writing for a target audience of scholars similar to A, and who indeed are among the readers who we hope will respond to the copy. A will most likely resist my revisions, worried about alienating independent buyers, but A‘s copy will need to be rewritten so that it is also legible to nonspecialists: the librarians, book buyers, and sales representatives who move large quantities of books. Nonspecialist book people want to order or promote books in subject areas that are relevant to the specialized scholars and customers they serve, but “grammatolatry” might not come up in an online catalog search for “writing style,” and in fact may make the book appear less readable and relevant.

B is already writing for a larger audience, but unfortunately a much larger audience than B‘s book is likely to have. I would quietly erase the larger claims about how B‘s book will apply to the wider world–anyone smart enough to read B‘s book is smart enough to discover the larger implications on their own–and add in more information about what the book is actually about so that it will show up in relevant searches. B will most likely protest, and ask us why we wish to pigeonhole this important book.
B has a cousin who does not aim to reach general audiences but lists every marginally relevant academic discipline: students, graduate students, and senior scholars of history, law, politics, science, engineering, and on and on. It’s not a good use of space: on the odd chance that an engineer does want to pick up a monograph on medieval history, they will not attempt to find it by searching for “engineer.”

I never know what authors like C are going for, but on the plus side, C probably won’t mind if I replace their suggestion with something more practical and descriptive. On the minus side, I still have no idea what C‘s book is about.

In general, promotional copywriting for academic or nonfiction books should offer a concise, informative summary of what the book is about and what makes it different (better) than other books. I personally prefer for the copy to be engaging and fun to read–the kind of thing that will grab a random bookbrowser at a conference and hold her attention. But that person is such a vanishingly small percentage of our buyers that clear, accessible, searchable information is the priority. To that end:

  • Be specific. What does the book argue? How does it make the argument? Does it cover a specific time, place, population, or problem? What sources or perspectives make it unique? If it’s a collection, what unifies the variously authored chapters?
  • But don’t get lost in the details. Promo copy is like microfiction. In few words you must sketch out the who-what-when-where of the book and merely evoke the rest. These are the takeaways I should have: What is your topic? What argument or question are you exploring? What materials and methods do you use?
  • Don’t try to do a Shyamalan. No cliffhangers, no surprise twists. Nonfiction readers–especially for academic volumes, which tend to be pricy–need to know up front how it ends. The reason they buy the book is to see how you get there.
    Once we sent a marketing plan to a couple of historians who co-authored a book about an 18th century trial. The offender was “sentenced to death” for the crime; we edited this to “executed” so that it would fit in the 350-character metadata field. The coauthors got upset when they saw this, because we’d gotten it wrong–the guy was sentenced to death, but he died of natural causes before hanged. Well, we didn’t know that. The book’s editor didn’t know that. No one knew it because none of us had read the book all the way to the end, where this minor fact was revealed. No one cares, though: the reason people pick up that book is to see whether the guy actually did it, not how he paid for his crime.
  • Don’t give more than half a sentence to what other scholars are doing. Your book itself will do all the work of positioning your argument in relation to other arguments. But promo copy is for sales, and we are not selling other arguments, we are selling yours.
  • No need to namecheck the theorists or scholars whose work you build on unless they are literally the subject of your study, or your whole angle is that you think you’re the first person to do a study of X through Theorist Y. Those names won’t mean as much to the nonspecialist bookhandlers who are ordering copies for their stores and libraries, and the readers in your field will most likely be able to infer.
  • Don’t tell your readers what to do. Your readers are smart. They are also busy. They’ll decide for themselves whether your history book is suited to their scientific interests or if your ethnography will inform their human rights mission. The best way to get book across disciplinary lines is to be quite clear about what it is and does.

A note on #readingwomen–and other underrepresented authors

As noted, I am a fan of the push to #readwomen2014. Now that VIDA has released their Count for 2013 (a breakdown of how many male or female writers are published or reviewed by leading literary publications), it’s clear that calling for change in concrete terms (such as quantity of reviews and reviewers) can indeed be effective, and considering the way the #readwomen2014 hashtag has taken off, I am very excited to see the numbers–for book sales as well as for VIDA’s count–this time next year.

But I would be remiss not to mention Roxane Gay’s count, brought to my attention again in a recent essay by Aimee Phan. In 2012, Roxane and her graduate assistant combed through book reviews in the New York Times–just the Times, because it took an enormous amount of time and energy to research–to see how many non-white writers were reviewed in that extremely-difficult-to-get-reviewed-in publication. Their results:

We looked at 742 books reviewed, across all genres. Of those 742, 655 were written by Caucasian authors (1 transgender writer, 437 men, and 217 women). Thirty-one were written by Africans or African Americans (21 men, 10 women), 9 were written by Hispanic authors (8 men, 1 woman), 33 by Asian, Asian-American or South Asian writers (19 men, 14 women), 8 by Middle Eastern writers (5 men, 3 women) and 6 were books written by writers whose racial background we were simply unable to identify.

If you need a visual, she provided a pie chart that makes the point astonishing clear. Aimee Phan’s article elaborates on the problem–reviews can play a critical role not only in publicizing a book but showing readers [at least one way of] how to read it. If writers of color aren’t getting reviewed, then they aren’t getting read as often or as well.

The bulk of my reading these recent years have been wallet-friendly free Kindle classics–my already-read-by-women-2014 list heavily features 19th century lady authors–but I really love new fiction. I love reading a book that was written in the now, and I love reading a book that is accompanied by a little splash of publicity, so I can share the experience of having read it with others. When I am looking for a brand-new book to enjoy, deliberately choosing books written by women comes easily and naturally to me. Deliberately choosing books written by writers of color sometimes requires more work on my part, as the abovementioned statistics plus my own media intake cottoned by privilege make it less likely that I will come across publicity for these books.

All the more reason, then, to share with my few readers the books by writers of color that I have loved in the last year or two.  If these books aren’t being reviewed, then let me tell you about them so that you’ll want to read them. If you’ve read them, then let’s talk about them.

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve raved about this book before, but since there were several commenters in a recent Toast thread who claimed that they hadn’t yet started the book due to its imposing size and subject, let me tell you what I told them: it is great fun to read. It is thoughtful and painful, but it is also engaging and accessible, with sex and romance and enjoyable snapshots of intellectual (and pseudointellectual!) life and more. (Also, as I was writing, this post in praise of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie appeared in my feedreader. She is deservedly on fire)
  • I am going to include Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi because I re-read it in the last year, and because I pre-ordered her forthcoming book Boy, Snow, Bird the second I heard about it. Her books tend to dwell in abstract, archetypal themes that are well-suited to the folklore and fairytales she draws on. Mr. Fox‘s narrative skips gleefully between mid-20th century and once-upon-a-time, and between Europe and Africa. She genderswaps characters when she feels like it (I particularly enjoyed the finishing school for husbands); the fluidity of identity is part of her point.
  • A Tale for Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. I don’t usually enjoy when writers write about writing, but I do when Ruth Ozeki does. Like me, main character Ruth finds writing painful and foggy and frustrating, and she gets lost down rabbit holes of Googling for answers, but she can’t stop because when you get there, you can create something that has a measurable impact.
    I also often recommend My Year of Meats, which is a treasure box of textual and imagery gems. I’m so glad she introduced me to The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagan, and I often think about her Midwestern host family pouring two liters of Coke over a roast and her Japanese assistant preparing a light batter out of the kudzu that has conquered Mississippi.
  • Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith. This is a book of poetry but as I noted on my Books By Women post, I read it like a novel. I got interested in her work by way of this lovely simple reflection on living paycheck to paycheck, but the overall arch of the book is one of nostalgia.
  • Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorakor. You have most likely enjoyed at least one (but probably several) series of books starring a young person who realizes his or her latent magical powers and goes off to some kind of school to learn how to use them. That happens to Sunny, but her story takes place in Nigeria, and her magic is a rich mix of ideas I recognize from other magical fiction and some I recognize from research for my voodoo tour in New Orleans. This is YA fic and a fast read.
  • The Geometry of God by Uzma Aslam Khan. A Pakistan paleontologist and his granddaughter who finds a key fossil in the identification of an ancient whale species struggle to pursue their scientific passions as the Creationist party gains power.

Special mentions: I read The Book of Salt by Monique Truong (which Aimee Phan mentions in her essay) quite a few years ago, but it is one of my all-time favorite novels and was great fun to teach in class. Unrequited love and the loneliness of being an expat in Paris, cooking for Gertrude Stein! Gorgeous, gorgeous descriptions of cooking and communicating across cultural lines. I also taught Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat in that class; Danticat, like Oyeyemi, started writing fully-grown books at an insanely young age, and just about anything you pick up by her will be lovely and lonely and moving. Breath centers the struggles of a young ex-pat woman with her overbearing mother, her national identity, her eating disorder, and her sexuality–conflicts inseparably connected.

Another few special mentions. Today is International Women’s Day, the hashtag is all about celebrating women writers, and as Roxane Gay’s count shows, woman of color are being reviewed less than white women and less than men of color. But I know a fair number of my peers are interested in science fiction and speculative fiction, so these novels by gentlemen of color are worth mentioning. You’re into the genre of young people discovering latent magic or the mystical powers of the universe unseen by the average human? So what if instead of young people they are older black ex-cons and ex-addicts trying to correct the mistakes of their past, and they band up in a rich man’s house to do paranormal investigation, and then they have to save the world? I don’t know, Big Machine by Victor Lavalle is hard to explain but I ate it up. If you love Poe except for the racism, you might get a kick out of Pym by Mat Johnson. To be frank I didn’t love the execution of this book as much as I love the premise, but it does pose a tragihilarious answer to the mystery of what happens at the end of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. And if you’d like a searching, philosophical take on the zombie apocalypse or just want to read about New York City in ruin, you might enjoy Zone One by Colson Whitehead. I never miss a chance to rave about Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, an alternate history which imagines midcentury culture if the elevator had been considered America’s crowning technological achievement (with all its metaphorical resonances of rising up) instead of the automobile. That’s the kind of Big Idea book I will never come up with, and it is well-written and extremely teachable to boot.

Elsewhere on the Internet: Women, art, and love

There’s not really a theme here: this is just a list of links I’ve enjoyed this week that I wanted to share before I take to the sea. (I finally get to say that and mean it!)

Remember when I posted about Lilit Marcus’s article about reading only women in 2013? Lilit posted a sequel at The Toast, which describes some of the blowback she’s gotten and details a few more of her favorite woman-authored discoveries (in case you were looking for ideas to add to your #readwomen2014 list.

If you’ve somehow missed it, this is #readwomen2014. It is pretty astonishing how it has blown up on social media in a month, especially to those of us who have been quietly and deliberately reading woman-authored books all along. But it’s a bandwagon I’m happy to jump on, so behold: the #readwomen2014 shelf on my Booklikes page. It will only grow longer. The ladywriters shelf, of course, lives on.

Also at The Toast, grad student Tina Rivers has some thoughts about art history being the scapegoat in conversations about education and jobs. She makes several good points, but my favorite is that visual literacy is an extremely valuable skill in contemporary life. Yes, job-value as well as life-quality-value.

Speaking of visual literacy, I knew before reading this article that the marauding toddler in question was crawling on a Donald Judd sculpture. I’m no great fan of mid-century minimalism, so usually the best I can say about Donald Judd is that I know his work when I see it. But that’s actually quite something: functional and formalist though his work may be, it still forged a distinct place in 20th century visual landscape. Whether we know it or not, the way we see and imagine things today has in part been influenced by the work of Judd and his contemporaries. Besides, parents, you have no idea whether that thing can hold a child’s weight or not!

That story reminded me of one I’d heard when working at the Philly art museum: the reason that we don’t permit backpacks in galleries is that one time a woman tripped on hers and punched a hole through a Picasso as she lost her balance. A quick Google search led me down this rabbit hole: Picasso-punching confirmed, although it doesn’t note whether her backpack was the culprit; plus several other horrifying stories of art destruction (mainly of Picassos, interestingly).

I really enjoyed this Awl story about a woman who ghost-wrote love letters, among other things. The author, Bonnie Dowling, often had to coax the real message out of her clients; her work seemed to be as much counseling as it was writing. But I think the story resonated so much with me because I place so much value on textual communications in relationships. I tend to prefer an epistolary courtship of some length, regardless of whether I met the romantic interest on- or off-line; I rely on chatty emails and texts to establish intimacy when I’m not ready or able to invest much facetime. I’ve grown out of this somewhat, but I used to rely heavily on Emails to carry the point in relationship arguments as well. For someone who is most comfortable in text, writing is a source of power–leverage, even, when that’s necessary. I can’t imagine handing that power over to someone, or not having it to give in the first place. . . . and that failure of imagination on my part suggests some astonishing unexamined privilege on my part. I had to take stock of my expectation.

Are you reading Dr. Ladybusiness? You probably should be if you’re a poet and/or a current or recovering academic, which is a significant percentage of my peer group. Anyway, she recently wrote to place the recent revival of interest and backlash on Dylan Farrow’s story in the context of a larger struggle to reconcile the sins of the artist with the legacy of the art. It should be simple, and she makes it so:  it’s your choice whether you continue to value the art of criminals (convicted or otherwise), but why should that so-called controversy drown out the voices of those who survived their crimes?

Trolling Your Thesis

If you are a current or recovering academic, odds are good that you’ve already seen lol my thesis within the last month–and thanks to each and everyone one of you who linked to it.  Reducing years of research and pages of explication into one sentence = academic comedy gold. I’m delighted by the premise as a book pusher, since in addition to my seasonal task of writing appealing summaries of our new books in three paragraphs or less, I also boil that down into short copy of 350 characters (roughly 5o words). The short copy is public–it goes with the rest of the metadata to online trade partners and databases–but privately, we also write short catchy taglines to interest our sales reps in each title. The “lol my thesis” entries remind me of these: when you strip an argument of its jargon and shrink it down to its basic components, the result might be pleasingly direct and sharp, or laughable and absurd.

I like the science lol-theses best, because they are so much more straightforward. After years of research, their authors have found something new–or, alternately, something quite obvious, but at least it’s proven beyond reasonable doubt.

  • Bad puns are simple enough that a computer can make them up, but actually funny jokes are harder. Artificial Intelligence, University of Edinburgh. [link]
  • Avoiding people has its mental health benefits. Clinical Psychology, University of the Philippines. [link]
  • “That’s surprising that the microorganism evolved when you put it in a difficult environment” said no one ever. Microbiology, University of Sydney. [link]

It’s a little harder to do pithy summaries of humanities and humanistic social sciences; our arguments tend to be made from excess verbiage, more rhetorics than empirics. But some good lol-theses are made by contradicting received wisdom or by going all meta on the project–two time-honored tools in the contemporary humanities toolkit!

  • It’s not selfish to be selfish. Philosophy, Whitman College. [link]
  • You can write a 120 page thesis on a 119 page book. English, University of Victoria. [link]

Some of them sound like studies I definitely want to read. And I imagine what the short copy for these theses would sound like if I rewrote their summaries with all the proper keywords and house style and whatnot. They would become more specific, searchable, and targeted to their audiences–but far less catchy! That is precisely why we write the secret internal-use-only handles for sales reps: we can’t publicly release summaries like these.

  • College professors don’t actually *teach* very well, except for the one teaching *this* class. Education, Brandman. [link]
  • There are thousands of ways to be a compatibilist, but there’s only one way to be a libertarian, and it’s the crazy way. Philosophy, University of Victoria. [link]

But many, many others are not quite funny. I do not wish to pick on specific examples, but you will know them when you see them: they are a little too long, usually. A little defensive, maybe, or trying too hard. Some of them straight-up humorlessly describe the thesis, or weakly inject humor by way of infantilizing or aggrandizing the project. I say this with utmost sympathy, but I’d wager that a survey would reveal the authors of the significantly-less-funny submissions to be currently or recently engaged in thesis-writing. It’s still a little too close for us them, a little too hard not to take it seriously, however much I they wish to play it cool. 

I get it. I really do. You know who else does? Matt Might, the author of The Illustrated Guide to a PhD.

With the utmost affection and sympathy, I like to revisit this comic with my publishing colleagues when, say, a scholar of a very obscure and little-read archive wants us to advertise their book in or send review copies to The New York Times. I wish I remembered more often to share it with my academic colleagues, too. This marvelous illustration depicts the process of education as a series of concentric circles, with each level of education taking you to the outer limit of knowledge in your specialized field. When you reach that limit, you dedicate your time and strength to pushing at the boundaries until you break through–making a discovery or argument or artwork that no one has made before! It can be exhilarating, and after all that time and energy spent at your task, all you can see is the place you’ve broken through. It looks huge, it looks like the whole world.

But compared to the rest of the world’s knowledge, that already known and that still waiting to be discovered, your breakthrough looks like this:

From An Illustrated Guide to a PhD

His message is: Keep on pushing. My takeaway is: Keep humble–and keep humor.