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Writing for General, Non-Academic Audiences: Benefits, Opportunities, Issues

September 12, 2017


Scott Montgomery

First Things

1. Why Write for the Public?  

Social scientists investigate and write about society. It therefore makes sense that they share this important work with those whom they study, including decision-makers. In truth, the public is very interested in what social science disciplines have to say—about politics, foreign policy, history, economics, area studies, studies of society, culture, and language. People are more aware of how relevant and important knowledge is in these fields than ever before.

A key reason is that they know or sense the world has entered a period of major uncertainty. Major challenges to liberal democracy, for example, have risen in many western nations, including the U.S., even as issues related to terrorism, immigration, climate change, religion, and more have appeared as daily headlines. It is clear that the news media aren’t able to do justice to the complexity of the real world without relying on academics with real expertise in related areas. The internet is also a factor. People spend far more time reading online material than print. Online venues of information are where the public now seeks answers.

This has meant a growing realm of new publishing opportunities. As members of the academia, we have spent years researching, debating, and communicating at the highest levels of knowledge. We are experts in our chosen subjects and are very often the best ones to inform the public about the background and substance to certain issues and to provide it with opinions that have depth and logic. Some might say we have the obligation to do this; others would disagree. But either way, the reality is that there are more avenues than ever before to share our expertise in a greater arena. In short, there are concrete reasons to write for the public. What are they?

  • Such writing confirms and legitimizes the importance of your work (and you).
  • It creates and or expands your presence as a worthy, knowledgeable source both nationally and internationally–even globally.
  • It generates influence and therefore opportunities to make new connections and collaborations, as well as representing your work further.
  • It helps you think about your work in new ways, suggesting new areas of research.
  • It will raise your level of confidence, as a scholar and representative of your field.
  • It can produce valuable ideas for a book or a new course
  • It will attract the notice of grad students (apprentices)
  • It is a way to defend against intellectual malfeasance

2. What are the Proven Benefits?

Writing for a general audience develops a powerful new skill. You don’t have to be John Stuart Mill to understand that an ability to communicate with the greatest number provides you with something of considerable utility. But it helps to make this concrete. What specific, proven benefits can it yield?

  • By creating a track record of publication, scholars have made themselves more attractive to book publishers. It shows you can write well enough and already have an audience. These are actually very important things for a publisher.
  • By urging (or forcing) you to think about and work on your writing, the stylistic and vocabulary choices you make, it will improve your scholarly writing.
  • If you work in an area that is controversial or focused on conflict, your research may be misinterpreted or misused by others who write for the public. Representing your own research for general readers is the best way to defend against this or correct it.
  • Comments from readers can be valuable, suggesting new areas to research or write about; other articles, papers, reports, etc. you may have missed; issues related to your work you may have overlooked; possible collaborators in other countries or other fields. You will also receive compliments from thankful readers—a true and sincere reward.
  • As your readership will inevitably include other academics, the range and number of citations to your work in journal articles and books may well increase.
  • Establishing a respected online presence—demonstrating a concern for public understanding—has helped some scholars gain research funding, including from private sources (foundations, institutions, donors).

A common worry holds that non-academic writing won’t count toward tenure or promotion and may even count against them. The first part of this remains true in a significant number of  universities, though the second part is less often the case today than in the past. Anyone seeking tenure, of course, must satisfy the requirements their department has set. Yet such requirements are not always fixed or inflexible: there is growing recognition that material published for a broad readership can bring positive attention to a department and institution. Old school bias against writing for the public is eroding today.  

It’s also true that not all social scientists decide to remain within the halls of academia. Outside this realm, any publication you do for general audiences is likely to count in your favor, possibly quite strongly. If you work for an NGO, think tank, research institute, foundation, or even a government entity, the ability to communicate with broad audiences could advance your career no small degree. 

3. Facts and Knowledge Matter

The title of this section should require little explanation or argument. Yet we know that isn’t the case. It is all too clear that if the most well-informed people don’t come forward to help guide public debate, others will. As is also clear, some of these “others” may have only tentative loyalty to the facts on a particular subject. Social scientists, by adding their voice on subjects directly relevant to their expertise, can help ensure that actual research and knowledge have a solid position in related discussion and debate. These are not small achievements.

Again, this isn’t to argue for any obligation or necessity of activism. The point, instead, is that the national and global conversations about many important issues and topics remain much poorer without the informed participation of social scientists.

This applies not only to the public as a whole but to policy-makers and their staffs. If you have done research on something like the psychological state of people involved in natural disasters, the rise in the number of felons not allowed to vote in the U.S., or the history of Russian nationalism since 1917, you may well have important, helpful things to say about a situation or event that is a focus of international interest.

4. You, Your Institution, and Your Field

We hinted at this above: anytime you publish something online, you expand your presence in the one medium that matters most today. Some call this your intellectual “brand.” As an academic, you may find this term uncomfortable, due to its marketing aroma. Yet “brand” is today applied to any entity that can benefit from a larger scale of recognition, e.g. companies, neighborhoods, cities, activist groups, political parties, celebrities, and institutions, and so on. In the digital universe, “brand” has become synonymous with “recognition.”

Such being the case, whenever you publish online with your affiliation after your name (nearly always, in other words), attention goes to your institution and, if mentioned, your department as well. Because many such publications are now being picked up by other journals, blogs, tweets, and more, this benefit is often multiplied. Indeed, it gains an exponent.

Universities are coming to recognize this advantage. A growing number have begun to encourage it. This is not limited to departments of political science or international studies, whose subjects are often in the news. It can apply to most social science, since departments and colleges not only take pride in their faculty adding to public conversations about important subjects but understand that this kind of activity can increase possibilities for concrete benefits:  funding (from both public and private sources), attracting new faculty and graduate students, and also raising the overall level of status and influence of the institution itself.

Beyond yourself, your department, and the institution you work for, it is your chosen field that benefits from your online publication. The historian who writes a piece about textbook changes, the anthropologist who examines American cultural forms in China, the Gender Studies prof who looks at the role of young mothers in the migrations from Syria, all draw attention through their commentary to their background and training. Adding to the perceived legitimacy and value of your discipline is no trivial thing.

5. General Audiences:  Who are They and What Do They Want?

Writing for general audiences used to mean making your material as simple as possible. The rule of thumb held that the average reading level of the public was equal to an eighth grader. No more. Such may approximate the truth in some areas of science (molecular genetics?); it is decidedly not the case for social science material.

Today, the overwhelming majority of people who want to read articles, essays, op-eds, commentary, and more about topics related to the larger world is made up of college-educated individuals and students. In broad terms, they are not merely interested in the society around them. They are eager to make sense of it. They are hungry for information, interpretations, ideas, conclusions, and opinion. These are not neatly defined categories, to be sure; they are meant only to provide some notion of the range of material involved. Informal surveys of academic authors who write for the public suggest that the more of these elements you include in a single piece of writing, the more appreciative your audience will be.

6. Policy Makers: A Special Market

Depending on your subject and message, your writing may reach a special subset of educated readers: decision makers, especially in government. If this is one of your goals in writing for non-academic audiences—to inform or sway opinion on matters you feel strongly about or that affect your field or the nation—then by all means seek to join the ranks of those who are doing so. Here are some realities to keep in mind.

Trying to publish an article on a major policy issue in the news will be difficult, unless you already have a proven track record related to the subject. No matter how knowledgeable you may be, if you haven’t published a book or several articles (or both), or if you don’t hail from one of the world’s most elite universities, you’ll be competing against people who have these “qualifications,” including people who may already be known to the editor as competent and reliable. The editorial world, in fact, is fairly conservative when it comes to selecting writers; a particular journal or other venue usually wants to avoid as much risk as possible on a big issue topic. You can sometimes get around this by taking a unique angle on the subject (e.g. using data or information that you have special purview over), or choosing a smaller, corollary issue that you can then use as a basis for advancing your larger point of view.

Of course, think tanks of varied stripe can be a source of competition. Swaying decision makers’ minds is what they attempt to do for a living. Policy makers and their staffs are familiar with the better known among think tanks but also understand that each has its own (limited) point of view. Think tanks purposely choose issue areas and topics highly relevant to government and military concerns. Of course, some places lean heavily right, others left, and still others aim somewhere near the center. If you have the opportunity to write for these places, your work will most likely be read by some people with input to the policy making process. But few, if any, policy makers or their staff rely on think tank material alone.

Here’s an example. You write an article about research you’re doing on a fishing grounds disagreement between Malaysia and Indonesia near the Kepulauan Anambas islands. This article is shared around by some readers and ends up in other publications that cover Southeast Asia. It ends up on the “must read” list for naval staff members of the U.S. 7th Fleet (Pacific) and a senator on the Armed Services Committee concerned with Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. Such interest in your piece is even more likely if you make the connection to regional territorial concerns part of the article. This works on a local level, too. A short piece where you introduce sociological research on life expectancy for certain professions in a particular state, province, or city will be of immediate interest to any government representative (national or provincial) for this area.

Two key points are worth noting. First, people involved in policy making always want the most current, high-quality information available. Second, government staff members and even intelligence agencies, no matter how thorough they may be, do not have a monopoly on such information. As an academic researcher, your work involves generating new knowledge and interpretations that others might utilize. This can put you in a special position to impact debate and opinion and, thereby, in some measure, policy decisions too.

Style and Content  

1. Familiar Territory

Writing is a skill, and like any skill, it comes from training and practice. But it can be greatly helped by recognizing that this skill is something you are entirely familiar with. You know from your own reading, years of it in fact, what kind of discourse you’re aiming at for a general audience. You’ve read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of op-eds, news items, non-scholarly articles, professional blogs, and much more. You know a good article, well-written and well put together, when you see it.  

No less, you already have some skill communicating with non-expert audiences—your teaching, especially to undergraduates. You have real experience with explaining scholarly knowledge to the uninitiated. These days, moreover, with so many foreign students studying in English-speaking countries, you may have revisited your explanatory powers (consciously or otherwise) and adjusted them further.

Like many academics, you may sometimes weave in little stories to your teaching, biographical or historical material, touches of humor, a striking aside or a powerful image, even a bit (if you’re truly daring) of personal experience. Such elements increase your familiarity with communicating to general audiences. If you are at all successful in your teaching, you know a good deal about how to do this.

Fortified with this realization, you may feel a surge of capability to forge ahead and begin writing and publishing brilliant pieces that will inevitably elevate la condition humaine. However possible, this isn’t likely just yet

2. Examples: Useful Comparisons

A good way to show the truth of what has just been said is to compare the difference between an academic piece of writing and its re-written form for general readers. Here, then, is the  scholarly piece:

In the social sciences, post-colonial thinkers have done much to overturn standard positive ideas of “civilization” by showing that it was routinely associated with Western imperialism and its promotion of racism, slavery,  genocide, genderism, and other such iniquities.1 However, it is possible to maintain that the term was not always employed in colonial times to reinforce such points of view or to extend them and deepen them further.1,2 Indeed, historical study reveals that Western attitudes toward colonialism were quite diverse and complex. While a majority of thinkers embraced colonial “adventures” and the profits it brought to the home country, there were others who rejected and even denounced colonialism in various forms, including bitter literary satire.

And here, the non-scholarly version:

What does the term “civilization” mean today? For much of the modern era, it was a positive word, associated with things Western. But for exactly this reason,  scholars have recast it as embodying the evils of colonialism, particularly racism, slavery, and genocide. This new view may itself be incomplete. It turns out that European attitudes towards the colonial seizing of territories were complex. While many thinkers did celebrate it, some found it odious and expressed their reaction as bitter satire. Irish author Oliver Goldsmith was one of these.

We can see what has been done here.  If we were asked to make a list of the changes that have taken place between paragraphs 1 and 2, it might look like this:

  • Sentences are shorter.
  • They also vary in length.
  • The first sentence poses a question to engage and even intrigue the reader. This is one way to begin.
  • The style of paragraph 2 is more colloquial (“for exactly this reason,” “It turns out”).
  • There is a clear logic and flow in the language, with transitions.
  • Words with more charge have been substituted (“evils,” “seizing,” “hateful,” “angry”).
  • The message is not dumbed down too much. The style is not condescending; it does not say, in effect:  “readers of this article are probably not aware that…”).
  • Paragraph 2 does not include everything in paragraph 1 (“genderism,” “historical study”), but has enough to convey the essential meaning.
  • Paragraph 2 is shorter.
  • No footnote or reference citations are included.
  • A specific person has been added.  

Here, for variety’s sake, is another version, still shorter and more concise. Some publication opportunities demand a piece that is 800 words or less, in which case you’ll need to evaporate a large part of whatever original paper, essay, or thesis you’re translating.

What does “civilization” mean today? Many scholars maintain that, as epitomized by Europe, it has an inerasable bond with colonialism, therefore racism, genocide, and slavery. Accurate as this is, it may not be the whole story. In fact, there were Europeans who didn’t celebrate the colonial “adventure” but saw it deserving of bitter satire. Irish author Oliver Goldsmith was one of these.

As scholars of social reality, we really do know things that can help the general public better understand and even navigate the contemporary world. But to do this, we need to make our knowledge and research accessible. We need to do this in ways that are recognized as credible but also interesting. At some level, we need to make our readers want to know what we know.

3. Tips to Think About

Some important tips emerge from our brief comparison above. They are things to think about as you read general interest articles that have to do with your field or related fields (you should do this kind of reading, if you want to write this kind of material).

  • The introduction should be brief, about 4-6 lines. It should not simply state something but create interest.  It also needs to at least hint at what comes next.
  • The main body of an article, together with its conclusion, must be able to defeat the worst question directed at any published writing: “So what?” So you need to tell the reader why your material is important and interesting.
  • But not so important that you deserve to brag in some fashion or trash the work of others in your field. As the author, you are as much a representative as an individual.
  • To engage readers, it often helps to have one or more people in your narrative, who are involved in doing something, whether in the past, present, or future.
  • In contrast to academic writing, an article for the general reader needs to have emotion in it. There are a number of ways to do this: using charged words (as shown in paragraph 2 above); adding a bit of human detail; adding emphasis (“this striking idea/discovery/finding”).
  • If you are arguing a position, briefly mention arguments against it or else possible weaknesses. If relevant, also note the work of others in the field. Being humble and generous is attractive to readers and will generate good will towards your material.

Writing Skill and How to Acquire It

1. Good Models are Good Mentors

All good writers learn their craft from other writers. This is true no matter what type of authorship is involved, whether non-fiction or poetry. Apprenticeship takes place through disciplined emulation, by absorbing and adapting quality work that has been published.

The first step is to identify and save models of excellent writing in your own area or areas you wish to write in. Ask yourself whenever reading an article:  is this something I wish I had written? If so, save it to re-read and study later on. Just one or two examples aren’t enough; think in terms of five or more. Think also of replacing early choices with later ones that seem better.

It’s best to expose yourself to a range of articles for a couple of reasons. Quality writing can’t be produced by formulae; there are a number of effective ways to compose any specific article. Also, choosing a fair number allows you to go through them with an even more critical eye and choose the best three or four.

What to look for? An article is divided into:

  • title
  • opening (paragraph 1), starting with the first sentence (readable in 7-10 secs)
  • body
  • conclusion (last paragraph), ending with powerful closing sentence

Examine your models in terms of these parts. The workshop presentations included on this website provide some examples to help you do this. It is a good idea at this point to look through these samples to help sharpen your skill at judging what works best.

Consider asking these kinds of questions:  How well does each part work? How do the different parts fit and flow together? Does the opening engage your interest while revealing what the article is about? Does the body follow this up, developing it, adding interesting details while keeping you engaged? Does the conclusion bring everything to a meaningful end, with an effective final sentence? If your answer to any of these questions is “no” or “sort of,” then you need a better model.  

2. How to Use Your “Mentors”

Once you’ve chosen several or more model articles, you need to study them. A major goal is to absorb from these temporary “mentors” an awareness of what sounds good and what doesn’t. Another aim is to learn different approaches for writing each section of an article. Ultimately, repeated study of excellence can build over time a kind of internal voice or guide that is able to continually produce options for the next phrase or sentence, for the arrangement of details, and for other aspects of structure and expression.

There are more than a few ways to study your models with these goals in mind. Some are mentioned below, but you may have methods of your own or know of others from friends or writing guides that you feel are more suitable. The key is to find one or more approaches that work well or best for you. This may require some experimenting, which is never a waste of time in this context. Trying out different methods will almost inevitably teach you important things about your own proclivities as a writer. Overall, your models provide material to adapt, emulate, and personalize.

Here, then, are some approaches to consider:

Method 1: Choose one article to work with and simply read it over slowly and carefully, one sentence and paragraph at a time, paying close attention to the style (word choice, sentence length) and to how well each part follows what came before.

Method 2: Either copy the article out, perhaps one part at a time, perhaps selected paragraphs, or recite it in your head. The goal here is to actually reproduce its language and flow. This method has been used by many fiction and non-fiction writers to “try on” the style of a great author and to absorb some of its structures, sounds, and vocabulary.

Method 3:  Go one step further and memorize parts of an article so that you have them ready in mind. This approach would focus on specific sentences and paragraphs that you find particularly good. These are pieces that you can use in your own writing by imitating their syntax while using different words. This last—different wording—is important, of course. Plagiarism must be avoided; nothing said here should be understood to suggest that copying is justified. It isn’t. Note that software used to check for plagiarism today is sometimes programmed to identify a succession of as few as 6-8 words as probable stealing from an older publication. 

3. Tips and Techniques

The following are a final series of ideas to help you move forward with writing for a general audience.

  1. Assume your audience will know very little about your topic. You’ll need to explain any concepts or theories you want to include. Avoid using any jargon if possible, or else use only one or two terms and define them in the text.
  2. If you are writing about a series of events, the development of a theory, or some other topic with a historical dimension, be sure to “honor chronology,” as the saying goes. Putting things in order this way encourages you to create a story-like narrative, which will be more engaging and successful for a non-academic audience.
  3. If your subject is your own research, keep in mind that a general interest piece is not the place to stake a claim. This is not really the place to demonstrate and demand you be recognized as priority discoverer or developer of something entirely new. You are writing about your work, somewhat similar to a jounalist, except that unlike a third party observer you can’t successfully praise and admire yourself.
  4. Depending on your topic, you might find it helpful to begin with a brief anecdote, vignette, or description of a scene as your opening. You can then follow this with an explanation of what it means or suggests in terms of your main topic, an easy way to move into the body of the article.  
  5. As your models show, sentences in general interest articles are generally shorter, often much shorter, than in academic writing. They also use the active tense more often—the subject performs the action of the verb, e.g. “Ruth Coyer, a sociologist at Drake University, wondered about this and decided…”, “Her findings revealed that…”, “Today, most sociologists reject Coyer’s work, but my own research suggests it may have been too easily dismissed.”
  6. One way to think about the body of an article is this:  supposing the opening engages the reader’s interest, whatever follows must answer the question “So what?” or, still more blunt, “Tell me why should I care?” These may seem rather brutal questions (and they are), but they accurately convey what’s at stake for you, as the writer.
  7. Pay attention in your models and other quality articles to the use of questions. These are powerful, rhetorically speaking, in terms of engaging the reader. They can be employed in a number of places too—in the title (“Can Christians Truly Understand the Qu’ran?”), as the opening sentence (“Why has the U.S. never signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty for nuclear weapons, a key part of the non-proliferation landscape?”), as a transition within the body (“So what might this tell us about how language is used by teenagers in Singapore?”), and in some cases as the ending (“At present, we still have no final answer to how many species of hominids may have existed in Central Asia.”). Questions can be used several times in a single article, but they can be over-used too. Be aware that they are a rhetorical device with a specific purpose.
  8. Most online journals and other venues want you to pitch an article first. This is helpful, because it can prevent you from wasting much time writing something that isn’t wanted. Some journals ask for a brief (100-150 words) description of the topic, why it’s important, and what your expertise is to write about it. Others provide boxes for you to fill in with this information. Such a pitch is often quite valuable, as it forces you to condense and clarify your subject in as few words as possible (no windy descriptions allowed).  
  9. In all cases, your subject will have a much better chance of being accepted by an editor if you tie it to something that is in the news or otherwise a recent or ongoing event. Timeliness is above godliness.
  10. It is very common for editors in general interest online journals to make changes insubmitted articles. They may substitute their own title, delete whole paragraphs, reorganize section, add or erase subtitles, and ask for more information. You should be ready for such hands-on treatment and not take offense. But make sure that important things are not warped or lost and that accuracy is maintained. Editors are not tyrants; they want articles to be as high quality and appropriate to the audience as possible. But they aren’t experts and can make errors of judgment, just as writers can. You want a good relationship with them, so if you need to reject any of their changes it’s best to be direct and friendly and to explain why their suggested change shouldn’t be used.
  11. Last but certainly not least, if you work at a college, university, or research institution, it is very likely they have a media relations office. This will be staffed by knowledgeable, experienced people who know the publishing world quite well and would like nothing better than to help you get an article written and placed. They have other work to do and cannot serve as your mentor, but they can often be good guides and can help jump start your own efforts. By all means, check out this office and what it has to offer. You may want to do this even before you begin to write, to discuss your topic idea and how to approach it. But don’t expect anyone to do your work for you. Moreover, people who work in media relations do not know everything. The landscape of online, general interest publication is highly dynamic and constantly evolving. Exploring it yourself, specifically in relation to your own field, is a good idea. You may well discover resources the media relations people don’t yet know about and will thank you for communicating to them.  


This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.