Writing for the broader public: why we write + how to do it

On Tuesday 16th May, the ‘Surgeons’ were lucky enough to be joined by Emily Brown from the editorial team of The Conversation, Fraser Macdonald from the University of Edinburgh, and our very own Oli Mould and Sasha Engelmann. The session focussed on the question of how to write for the broader public, and lead to lively conversations on why we might want to get published outside of conventional ‘academic’ outlets and how it can be done.

Fraser kicking off the session: “we often leave unexamined the emotional investments of writing”

I begin with a bullet point list of tips – because if you’re reading this, these are what you’ll probably want to know. I follow that with a discussion of some ideas and approaches to writing: pragmatically, philosophically and generally.

1. You are all eligible to write for a big audience
When Fraser said this, I was overjoyed… and relieved. All I needed was someone to tell me that I could write… and now I know this, I am telling you. YOU CAN ALL DO IT! Writing for the broader public is (as Fraser added) less hierarchical than academia and all you need is a good idea, elegantly expressed, well pitched, and delivered on time.

2. You need different writing hats
Writing not-just-for-an-academic-audience requires a different style. It’s not about ‘dumbing things down’, but making them accessible, precise and succinct – and it’s actually an incredibly useful skill that we need to develop as academics regardless of whether we write for public audiences or not.

3. Avoid jargon
Needless complexity disengages readers. Use key academic words if you have to, but sparingly; and only if they really, really add to your argument. Equally, don’t patronise your audience – just express what you need to say in a way that gets your point across well.

4. “Clarity, conciseness, directness, liveliness, informality, distinctiveness…”
These six words are the essence of writing for the broader public. If you take nothing else from this post, take these words and make them your mantra!

5. “Don’t you dare even think about boring the reader”
No explanation needed… just try not to be dull! Some ways to think about finding an interesting angle for your area of specialism might be:
– news-related or timely work (e.g. current affairs comment)
– finding the relatable human angle in your work
– unconventional takes (e.g. ‘why superfoods are bad for you’ or ‘why ‘x’ is not a thing’)
– something that answers a common questions (e.g. why alcohol makes you feel warmer)
– something niche or quirky (e.g. ….an article on vampire ethnography?)

douglas-adams-quotes-125

Don’t do this

To add a bit more texture to those five key points, I’d like to share some of the other insights from the panel. Fraser began the session by framing the question in terms of how we should write – for the broader public, but also more generally in academia. The key issue is always to be engaging. Don’t forget to make your content original and interesting! Think: why should this be written about? Why should it be written about now? Why should I be the one to write about it? These are the questions you specifically have to address when pitching to an editor. Explain your expertise, your connection to the area, and show your passion. Pitches by academics also often get rejected because the writer is unable to switch genre. With this in mind, I return to those golden six words: clarity, conciseness, directness, liveliness, informality, distinctiveness.

There was also fascinating insight from Emily on what is involved in the editorial process. The tagline for The Conversation – ‘academic rigour, journalistic flair’ – reflects a concern with disseminating high quality academically informed research and ideas. The process is seen as a collaborative effort which fuses your academic expertise with their journalistic expertise, with all the content being published under a creative commons license. The content in this case is not paid for, but possibilities that can arise from getting some of your ideas and research out through an outlet like The Conversation can be huge. Some of the ‘success stories’ from their writers were mind blowing, with one writer being asked to collaborate with NASA after publishing an article on the site. So aside from building your research profile, you can reach new audiences, create new opportunities for impact and partnerships… but also you should do it because it is (I imagine) pretty rewarding and enjoyable.

Oli gave insights from his experience of publishing multiple articles with The Conversation. His articles on parkour and the Cereal Killer Café in London have been particularly popular, with the former recently being translated into German. A key adjustment in writing for the broader public is to let go of some of your academic ticks – yes, you really can just, kind of, say stuff and give your opinion! It should obviously be an informed opinion but you don’t need to reference in the same way. Instead, you might hyperlink to online sources to bolster what you’re saying. You also need to be editorially flexible – but not beyond reason. Decide what your boundaries are, and don’t be afraid to stick to your convictions if the editorial process isn’t working for both parties. If it’s interesting and you’re passionate and you can write well… write it!

Sasha approached the question of writing more philosophically, from a point of view which centred more on writing as an experiential process. But, similarly, she asked why it is that we write. For her, the answer stems from the feeling that writing (in all its many forms) can extend the self into and towards other beings; or what Deleuze calls ‘entering a zone of proximity’. Writing, then, becomes an encounter which produces a feeling of connectedness which can lead you to (if you so wish) be a little less like yourself. This is not to say that writing is an escape from the self, but that it holds liberatory potential, and is a unique way of connecting with the world around you. In this sense, writing a PhD is also writing for a specific audience – so part of the task is learning different genres of writing but still being able to preserve the enchantment within the writing process that makes it so enjoyable and exciting. Writing is risky because of this idea of proximity – in practical terms: to editors, to an audience, to yourself, to others – but it should be seen as something to enjoy rather than to shy away from.

Similarly, the emotional investments of writing need more examination because they feed into the feeling of whether you feel able to write; and what you feel able to write. On the one hand, there is an emotional need to be recognised as a scholar – that is, to make some kind of conceptual contribution. On the other, there’s a desire to be read; and more than that – understood. If one of the key aims of all writing for any audience is to be understood, then writing must always be about communication. Communicating your idea, your research, in a way that works. This relates to broader arguments in academia about clarity and purpose (just think of the Sokal affair where a hoax article called Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity was published in a 1996 edition of the journal Social Text). Or, if you’re after a nerdy laugh (like me), have a look at these parody journals: Annals of Improbable Research, the Journal of Irreproducible Results.

The final feeling I was left with after the seminar was a strengthened sense of why we write, both within and outside academia; and also a stronger sense of why academics should write for publication outside of academia. Oli and Emily pointed out that at a time when ‘fake news’ has become a buzzword (either for misrepresentation, bad reporting or outright lies) there is no better time for scientists, academics and researchers to add their voices to the mix. Notwithstanding the supposed backlash against ‘experts’ (yes, from that time Michael Gove of Vote Leave urged voters to ignore the opinions of economists) is there much logic in asking a junior journalist with limited specialist knowledge to summarise a NASA report when you could get an astrophysicist to do it? Given the growing ethical call for more rigorous journalistic content, it may be time for us all to get writing.

About our panel…

Fraser MacDonald teaches at the University of Edinburgh and is a historical Geographer with an interest in Scottish lives and landscapes. He has published multiple articles in The Guardian, Aeon, and the London Review of Books blog and Bella Caledonia. His writing for The Guardian can be found here; his work for Aeon here; and his personal blog, Modern Lives, Modern Landscapes can be found here.

Emily Brown joined The Conversation in 2015, after graduating from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Philosophy and English Literature. She is the Cities Editor at The Conversation and is currently undertaking an MSc in Media and Communications at the LSE.

Sasha Engelmann has recently joined Royal Holloway as a lecturer in the GeoHumanities. She completed her PhD at Oxford University, during which she conducted site-based, immersive fieldwork at Studio Tomás Saraceno in Berlin. Sasha is engaged especially with topics such as art-science collaboration, transdisciplinarity, multispecies sympoietics and aesthetics. Her personal website can be found here.

Oli Mould is lecturer in Human Geography at Royal Holloway. His research at present is on the themes of urban creativity, activism, social justice. He has published multiple articles in The Conversation and blogs at TaCity.com, and some of his public talks and seminars can be found here.

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