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Escaping the Ivory Tower

Tips and tricks for landing a piece in a non-academic publication

June 28, 2015

Alex T. Williams is a PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. You can find him on Twitter @AlexT_Williams or at his website.



We all know that academia can feel like an “ivory tower” at times. You may find yourself wishing that you could write an article that a general audience could understand—something that does not require a theory section in an academic journal that takes 6 months to publish in, which is then inaccessible to your friends and family. When that urge arises, you should try pitching a story to a non-academic outlet.


While non-academic publications won’t lead to a tenure-track job offer, they will help you contextualize the real-world value of your research. I have also found that writing for non-experts has forced me to refine my own research ideas--after all, you don’t really understand something if you can’t explain it to a lay person. Plus, having “popular” publications can help you prepare for a potential non-academic career by showing that you are capable of writing for a broader audience. But how do you approach a non-academic outlet with a story?


When I was a Google Journalism Fellow at the Pew Research Center, I was fortunate to learn how to pitch stories to their blog, Fact Tank. I have successfully pitched stories to Fact Tank, The Poynter Institute, The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, and The Conversation. These are the steps I take, each time.


1.  Take stock of what you are an expert in


What are you qualified to write about? You should write a story that is related to a topic that you have already researched. If you are a graduate student, you might think that you are unqualified because you do not yet have a Ph.D. However, it is important not to take your education for granted. Even though you might feel like you are only a middling doctoral student, the reality is that most adults don’t have the formal education that you do. I have never had an editor question my educational qualifications, and I doubt you would either.


2.  Find a story that is current but has an unexplored angle


It is really hard to summarize academic research into a news story in an interesting way that does not overgeneralize. Instead, try to find a news topic that intersects with what you research. Try to find the assumptions or “jumps” that news commentators are making. You will know that you have a strong story when you can boil it down to a simple question that you can answer—that no one else has explored.


For example, while my academic research has focused on how new media is changing the economics of the news industry, I’ve found that it has prepared me to write about how different types of media outlets cover major news events. Therefore, I’ve written about what drove people to submit comments to the FCC about net neutrality and whether the Baltimore protests were ignored before they turned violent.


3.  Decide on what outlet you want to submit to and write a first draft


Once you know what your basic question is, you should decide what outlet would be a good fit for it. You could submit it to a news organization, a news blog, or a niche website that focuses on your topic. With all of these options, I always ask three questions: 1) has the outlet published stories that are similar to mine before; 2) can I write in their writing tone; 3) would their audience be interested in the story? If you answer “yes” to all three, it is time to write a first draft.


To pitch the story, you will need to submit a draft of your article and a short note explaining it to the editor. I usually start by copying and pasting a story I admired that was published by the outlet into a blank word doc. This allows you to check the word count, which helps you gauge how long your article should be. Next, I write a draft of my article, which explains why the story is newsworthy, what my question is, how I answered it, and what I found. Make sure that you create any graphs or hyperlinks that you need. For advice on writing, I recommend the advice of the communications programs at Duke and Harvard’s Kennedy School.


You do not need a finished product because an editor will help you with word choice and style suggestions. Instead, focus on making sure you know exactly what your story is and how to explain it concisely. Make sure that you write a lede—which is the first paragraph of the story that is meant to hook the reader—and a story title. These are frustrating but helpful exercises that force you to think about the main takeaway of your story.


4.  Pitch the story to the publisher


Now that you know exactly what your story is, it is time to email a pitch to the publisher. Usually, you can look at the outlet’s website and find an email address for where you should submit stories to. If there are instructions, read them carefully—some outlets ask you to paste the draft into the body of the email, some ask you to use a specific subject line, etc.


I usually write three short paragraphs in the email: the first paragraph explains why the topic is newsworthy; the second paragraph explains what you found; the third paragraph briefly explains your qualifications in 1-2 sentences. Depending on the instructions, I either attach the draft or paste it at the bottom of the email.


The more concise the email is, the better. Editors have to sift through dozens if not hundreds of pitches a day. You want to make it as easy as possible for an editor to skim your email and understand what your story is. To understand how long you should wait before contacting them again, how to write follow up emails, etc., I recommend reading this webpage from the OpEd Project that answers these questions in detail.


5.  Work with an editor


If they say they want to publish it, you will begin working with an editor. Their job is to help you write more clearly and to match their publication’s tone. They may ask you to clarify a point, suggest style changes, or suggest adding or deleting a line. As long as you are open to their suggestions, working with an editor is a very rewarding experience. These changes should make your story a better fit for their organization.


An editor should not ever pressure you into saying something that you didn’t intend. If a suggested edit changes the meaning of a point you are trying to make, respectfully explain what you were originally trying to say. I’ve had to raise this issue before, and it has always been resolved by finding a way to make my original point more clearly.


6.  If they say no, try again with a different outlet


The same way every academic has rejected manuscripts, every writer has rejected articles. And you handle it the same way—you ask yourself whether you can improve the story and then you set about tweaking it for another outlet.


With some persistence, you will publish your story in a non-academic outlet. In my experience, you will be glad that you can send the link to your friends and family—who will finally have a better understanding of the type of research that you do. And it feels refreshing to escape the ivory tower every once in a while to contribute to news conversations as they are happening.


Are you interested in writing non-academic articles? Do you have any advice for others? Please let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig and used under a Creative Commons license.]


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