A few weeks ago, I wrote about why I think scholars should occasionally write for public audiences. This week, I am offering some concrete suggestions on how to get started. I understand that much advice may be survivorship bias, so ignore what doesn’t apply to you.
Think of your expertise more broadly than usual. Scholars tend to specialize and are taught not to speculate beyond their expertise. Focusing narrowly on your chosen area is excellent advice for writing a dissertation or journal article -- where you are largely talking to an in-group of the initiated who have also spent years reading specialized research -- but can make writing for a broader audience difficult. I think of writing for the public as similar to good undergraduate pedagogy: you are aiming at folks who are smart and interested in ideas but have not necessarily had the luxury of devoting years of specialized study to a topic. Sociologists can offer a broad perspective to public debate that differs from the individualist bent of related social sciences like psychology and economics. We should not underestimate our ability to provide the larger context on an issue, which can help to reframe a question or reorient someone’s thinking. Historians like the folks at the African American Intellectual History Society do an amazing job of showing the relevance of history to current public debates.
Write everything down. And by everything, I mean every single idea you have about a topic, no matter how irrelevant you think it may be. When I first started attempting to write for the public, I was shocked by how quickly things moved. Scholarly work is slow, and it can take years to move from the idea stage to publication. I’ve had public writing published 30 minutes or so after submission. For example, this piece on Trump and the NFL was based on notes I had written weeks before as I was thinking about white resistance to Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protests.
Rather than chasing the news cycle (something academics aren’t trained for), writing things down lets you anticipate the news cycle, as you will already have the skeleton of an op-ed sketched out. Attempting to anticipate recurring topics also allows academics to draw on our expertise and write things that are weightier than a single news cycle.
Pitch before you write the whole article. Pitching saves both you and the editor time. It allows the editor to express interest and shape the piece before it is written, and it allows you to get the idea out without writing a few thousand words. There are a lot of online guides on how to pitch generally, and many outlets have specific ones. Follow the guidelines just as you would follow the formatting specifications for a journal submission. If the outlet doesn't have pitching guidelines, make sure you read some of their recent articles before submitting. And don't unnecessarily antagonize an editor by sending pieces that are thousands of words too long or incorrectly formatted.
Like journal articles, it is also important to keep submitting and to not be discouraged by rejection (Nobody knows your batting average.) My hard drive is a graveyard of failed pitches -- only some of which may be recycled. When pitching, get to the point right away and explain why you are the person to write the piece. If you are fortunate enough to have a piece accepted, listen to suggestions from your editor. Editorial suggestions can often save you from future embarrassment (or even legal risk).
Avail yourself of the ample resources that teach and help facilitate public writing. Public writing is a genre like any other -- it takes work to learn the conventions. But a number of excellent guides and resources can help you get started. Jessie Daniels and Arlene Stein have written an amazing book on the benefits of public scholarship. Outlets such as the OpEd Project provide resources and workshops with the aim of promoting underrepresented voices in the media. If you are privileged enough to be employed at a well-resourced university, their media office may be able to help you locate suitable outlets and pitch pieces. Beyond these formal outlets, I draw inspiration from brilliant public scholars like Tressie McMillan Cottom, Eve Ewing and Zandria Robinson -- sociologists who consistently publish genre-spanning work that expands disciplinary conventions.
Be aware of the risks, but don’t let the risks define you. As many folks have pointed out, public writing can also have considerable downsides, and many of those downsides are magnified for marginalized scholars. Colleges and universities do not always protect marginalized scholars in the best of times and may not come to our aid when we are targeted for harassment. Learn your institution’s policies regarding public writing (if, indeed, it has any). If you are worried about a piece, have a trusted colleague read it over and flag anything that may get you in trouble or consider publishing anonymously. This is also an area where it is important to defer to a trusted editor, but beware of editors who are looking for clicks and are willing to put you are risk for their own self-interest. There is no way to completely avoid this risk, and even the best-argued article can become a target. Learn your own tolerance for risk and don’t overextend yourself. Ultimately, I think the potential rewards of public writing -- attention to you research and broader field, wide readership and contributing to important debates -- outweigh any real risks.