As academics, we are trained to research, read, think, write, and teach. For those of us who want to engage readers outside the narrow confines of our universities or research communities, writing public scholarship seems a natural fit.
There are so many outlets for doing this sort of writing: personal blogs, local and national newspapers, online journals and collective blogs, and national magazines.
Whether we’re writing on our own Medium pages or aiming for bigger platforms like TheRoot.com, the Atlantic, or the Nation, it is worth taking some time to think about why an outlet might be the right fit for our work, and how to make our writing accessible to non-academic audiences.
Public scholarship matters
The “why” might seem obvious. As institutions increasingly heed the call to make research matter to a wider public, many of us want to be on those front lines.
And let’s be honest—it feels good to see our names out there on ideas we’ve worked hard to develop. The retweets, the likes, the hearts, and the stars all feel really good, especially when compared to the slow rewards of academic writing.
A journal article can take years to produce and get published, and when it does, chances are it will be downloaded and read by a very tiny audience. It is certainly important work and the rewards of deep research are many, but in the everyday it can be nice to feel like we’re not all alone in our work.
Write with purpose
The chance to have more public conversations about our work can only make it better. However, without purpose and intention public writing can take some of us away from the kinds of research and writing that help move fields forward—the very kinds that are actually in the background of the best public intellectual work. Our work is important, and if we replace that work for the quick rush of seeing our names on blog posts and in newspapers, we risk losing the skills necessary for complex thinking not only in our disciplines, but in all our writing, across contexts.
With this in mind, make sure your public scholarship is thoughtful and intentional, and that it works alongside your other work to move your ideas and career forward.
Writing for non-academic audiences is important work that helps hone translation skills, keeps those writing muscles loose, and often leads to new opportunities—no small thing in this tight job market.
So, how do we write for non-academic audiences? Well, the same way we write for academic audiences: we ask who our audience is, what we want to communicate, and what sort of feedback we want.
Non-academic audiences want what any audience wants: smart, engaging writing about ideas that matter. What they don’t want is to see the bones behind it the way we show it in our dissertations, articles, and books. That means scholarly citation in the traditional sense takes a back seat, as does the specialized languages of our disciplines. This is what I mean by translation; we have to take what we know and the ways we are used to writing about what we know and translate it for different audiences. In that translation, we get to see what we understand at a gut level, and what we don’t.
Use the skills you already have
My best advice for figuring out how to write for non-academic audiences is to do something we as scholars are already good at: reading. Where do we want to place our writing? Where are the audiences we want to be in conversation with? Will we produce those audiences by writing our own blogs, or will we join audiences having conversations we want to be a part of?
Go to those spaces you’ve identified and read what people are writing. Just as our disciplines have their conventions, so do our newspapers, magazines, and websites. Read widely and then start writing.
Write all the time, every day, and write even if you think no one else will read it. Writing is how we develop our own voices, too often stifled by the expectations of the academy, and it is our authentic voices that are worth sharing in public with other speaking in their own ways, too.