What Academics Misunderstand About ‘Public Writing’

Full vitae misunderstand public writing

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By Irina Dumitrescu 

Public writing can be a touchy subject. From one perspective, we are living in a golden age of public intellectualism. Today’s scholars have numerous ways to reach a broad audience — from online magazines hungry for fresh takes on the topics of the day to print magazines looking for authoritative essays. Writing coaches and programs such as the OpEd Project offer training in how to pitch to general-interest publications, while grant agencies in Europe and North America increasingly require recipients to communicate with the public. To some scholars, public writing has even started to seem like yet another skill they are expected to master to stay competitive.

At the same time, academics often approach newspapers, magazines, and websites with assumptions drawn from the outlets we’re used to writing for: scholarly journals and, since the early 2000s, the blogs that flourish as a faster, more casual medium of scholarly exchange. Trying to write for the public can mean a series of unpleasant surprises about what happens to our work at every stage of editing and publication.

Even as readers, however, scholars tend to misunderstand how public writing — or as the public would call it, “writing” — works, what it’s for, and what makes it good. The result is both unnecessary frustration for academics making that first foray into newspapers and online outlets, and misplaced indignation among certain scholars who think their colleagues’ public essays should read just like scholarship.

In more than a decade of writing essays and reviews for the public, both in my academic wheelhouse and outside of it, I have gathered a number of lessons that I offer here to spare other freelance writers some pain and annoyance. My comments are specifically about the process of writing — sometimes with a contract, and preferably for pay — for editors at established print and online publications aimed at a general audience.

Control. As a scholar, you are used to having an enormous amount of say over your writing and how it is presented. It may not always feel that way, particularly when you are responding to Reader B and revising that article for the fifth time. Yet the final work represents your vision.

The moment you write for general-interest outlets, however, you are subject to their editorial vision. What that means in practical terms: Headlines, illustrations, and publication dates are decided for you. Sometimes the headline will misrepresent the article it accompanies, or exaggerate your message to attract clicks. Readers angered by the headline tend to direct their rage at you, the writer. In some cases, you will see the draft headline during the editing process, but it can still change after that point.

All of the above holds for art, too, which can range from subtly inaccurate to deeply offensive. The worst headlines usually appear online, but the good news is that you can sometimes persuade the editors at online outlets to change a particularly egregious headline.

Much the same goes for the publication date. Unless a piece is pegged to a quickly developing news event, it’s likely to go into a publication queue and appear anywhere from weeks to months later. That can be challenging for writers impatient to see their work appear. Even when an outlet gives you a publication date, it can be delayed without notice, either due to more pressing pieces or because the editors saved it for use with other articles on the same theme. In one case, I had a book review appear online as announced, but in print a month later.

Meanwhile, readers used to the fast publishing potential of Medium or personal blogs might wrongly assume that a newly published essay reflects your current thinking, when, in fact, it may only reflect how you viewed the matter six months ago. Just as work in scholarly journals suffers from a time lag, so does much popular writing.

Even once your essay has been published, you may be surprised to find it syndicated to other outlets or translated into foreign languages — all without your knowledge or permission. In some cases you will receive a permission request and a fee for the reprint, but in others you will not even be informed.

Before you allow your work to be published by a particular venue, ask your editor to spell out the copyright arrangement (since it’s not always clear in the outlet’s “terms and conditions”). If the terms don’t include nonexclusive reprint rights, you can sometimes negotiate for that. Check the publication to make sure it fits your ethics, but know that the moment you agree to sell the rights, you have limited say over how your work will be presented.

Editing. Editors for general-interest publications usually like to play an active role in shaping articles, to an extent that can be bracing for scholars used to solitary writing. With a few exceptions, such as op-eds and literary essays, you will usually land assignments with a pitch outlining the story you plan to tell and how you will go about it. Most editors prefer a pitch to a draft, as it allows them input at an early stage of the work.

Once a draft is done, the fun really begins. Some editors make only general comments or tiny changes, while others revise the text intensively. We academics tend to be precious about our prose. It can be hard to receive a draft in which the editor has mercilessly slashed our darling paragraphs, rewritten our brilliant sentences, and inserted her own writing.

Viewing writing as a collaborative endeavor has been one of the most difficult lessons I have had to learn as a crossover writer. Once I learned not to be so prickly about what happened to my prose, however, I began to see the bright side. If you have a hands-on editor, you can ask for advice early in the process, and worry less about providing a perfect draft — the editor will work with you to improve it.

I knew I had reached a new point in my freelancing education when I received page proofs from a new publication and marveled that the editors had not changed a word. Later, when I compared the proofs to my original draft, I realized that every single sentence had been rewritten.

Style. Much has been written about bad academic prose, and I do not need to repeat it here. Even good academic prose, however, is ill suited to a general audience.

The habits we learn in writing scholarship serve us poorly in popular writing. Graduate school teaches us to craft our prose defensively — to ward off possible attacks from colleagues. We shy away from strong claims, watering down every sentence with “perhaps” or “one could say.” In the worst cases, we make our prose completely impenetrable, figuring that if our critics can’t understand what we’re saying, they won’t be able to tear it down. But the qualities that make scholarly writing unassailable turn off general readers.

One of our key defenses is citation, which is what makes it so unsettling to write something without footnotes — particularly if the essay is related to our research. A public-facing piece will not cite all of its sources. It may not cite any.

I have seen that prompt consternation among colleagues, who grumble that the foundational work of Professor X wasn’t mentioned in that (enviable) New Yorker feature written by Professor Z. But the public does not want to read about Professor X’s contributions. Readers of your general-interest essay don’t expect in-text citations of everything you read that went into writing it.

Purpose. Public writing has a different ethos from scholarly prose. We write scholarship to establish our credentials in a field, to lay stake to original claims, and to build a name for ourselves in the profession. For general-interest writing, however, you should follow Horace’s advice for poetry: Aim to instruct or delight — ideally, do both. Tell your readers a story, and give them the basic information they need to take it in. Avoid jargon for the most part, but teach your readers a key term when it will help them understand your topic better.

One genre that can be confusing in this respect is book reviews. They are an easy entry point into public writing, as they draw on skills that scholars already have. But the point of writing a book review for the public is not to show how clever you are or what typos you have caught in the text. Rather, it is to help readers decide if they want to buy the book, and to offer them insights and information to enjoy even if they choose not to.

To be fair, the most useful book reviews in academic journals do that, too, in their own register, but general publications usually are more interested in the experience of the reader than in the egos of the reviewer or the author whose work is being reviewed. This also means that if your book is the one being reviewed in a mainstream publication, you may be dismayed to find the “review” is an independent essay using your book as a hook. Try to appreciate the publicity.

Quality. Academics sometimes make the mistake of thinking that their standards do not need to be particularly high when writing for the public. Even though you will not be writing with the precision of scholarly prose or citing every source, you should still strive to be as accurate and careful as you would be in your scholarly publications, especially if you are drawing on your specialization.

A few mainstream publications still have fact-checking departments, but, in general, assume you bear full responsibility for ensuring the truth of what you write. You owe the public an even higher standard of rigor than you do your colleagues, since the public is more likely to trust your credentials and has less access to your sources. If you get proofs before publication, check them carefully to make sure that no inaccuracies have slipped in.

The uncomfortable reality is that — while crossover work counts for little in the way of raises or promotions in academe — it can still hurt your reputation if you do a sloppy job.

Given all of those warnings, why write for the public at all?

There are strategic reasons, such as raising your visibility or showing the relevance of your research. It is also satisfying to reach readers who are curious about your field, but do not have the training necessary to appreciate your scholarship. As a public scholar, you have the freedom to write about topics beyond your area of specialization, which in turn can enrich your research and teaching. Finally, many of the qualities that make for good public essays — clarity, conviction, style — can improve your scholarly writing too.

Irina Dumitrescu is professor of English medieval studies at the University of Bonn.

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