• Rethinking Research

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Writing for Peers vs. the Public: When Academic Writing Falls Short

Writing for non-academics requires a different set of tools and approaches than for scholarly writing, but the payoff is worth it, writes Diana Brazzell.

March 25, 2019
 
 

The internet has made it easier than ever for scholars to engage directly with the public. An explosion of new content formats and dissemination channels has opened up opportunities to increase the impact of your research by connecting with practitioners, policymakers, business and nonprofit leaders, journalists, activists, and citizens. But to truly inform and influence audiences outside academia, scholars must learn to speak in a language the public can understand.

Academics are trained to communicate in a style that is well-suited for peer researchers, but falls flat when it comes to engaging lay readers. Scholarly writing tends to focus not on the forest but on the trees, often plumbing the depths of one particular tree or even a single branch. The need for precision leads to the use of technical jargon, detailed discussions of narrow points, and copious footnotes.

While heavy on detail, scholarly writing is often light on story and context. The main goal of a journal article is to convey information as thoroughly as possible. Readers are assumed to want that information, so there is no need for artistry or storytelling to engage their interest and hold their attention. The “research story” is presented in a linear manner and only gets to the most compelling parts – the conclusions and implications – at the end.

This approach is the exact opposite of what makes writing interesting to the general public. To understand why, think about the last news article (or podcast, video, or blog post) you read that got you really excited – as a layperson, not an academician. What made this particular piece of content engaging to you? Was there a human story that grabbed your attention? Perhaps a surprising fact or provocative opinion sparked your curiosity? Was it pleasurable to read and watch the story unfold? Did you have an immediate sense of the importance and relevance of what you were reading?

Articles that engage and excite us do so because they tell a story and evoke an emotional connection to that story. A listing of facts, no matter how thorough or significant, won’t do the trick. Effective writing also clearly conveys why what we’re reading matters. We like to have a view of the entire forest even as we climb and explore particular trees.

Whether you’re writing for academic peers or the public, the goal is the same: to share important information and influence your readers. But the most effective way to do this depends on your audience and their needs and expectations. Writing for non-academics requires a different set of tools and approaches than you’re accustomed to using for scholarly writing (we’ll explore some of these strategies in upcoming articles).

However, the reward is substantial – if you can learn how to write for the public, you’ll be able to reach people you never could through academic publications. Effective communication can unlock the power of academic research to influence public discourse and practice, inform leaders and decisionmakers, and improve society through evidence and expertise.

Diana Brazzell is co-founder and executive editor of Footnote, an online media company that increases the impact of academic research and expertise by sharing it with a broader audience.

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