Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

Public Writing in Uncertain Times

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By Katie Rose Guest Pryal

It’s hard to think about writing for the public lately on any topic other than the same few themes dominating our uncertain times: the upcoming election. The fires out West. The Black Lives Matter movement. And, of course, Covid-19, which seems to govern much of what we do now as well as much of what we read. Likewise, if you work in higher education, reading about higher-ed topics, then you are mostly reading about one of two things: how your campus is dealing (poorly or well) with Covid-19 or the Black Lives Matter movement.

To academics, it may seem harder than ever to write for the public. Under stress yourself, you may have strong feelings about Covid-19 or Black Lives Matter yet be struggling to formulate a pitch, or to find the motivation to write at all. Maybe you want to write about something else entirely, but the news outlets you want to publish in are only interested in essays related to Covid-19.

As a Ph.D. and a longtime freelance writer, I’m dealing with all of those issues myself, and they are the focus of this installment of the Public Writing Life — on how to write for a popular audience (and get paid for it) when you are part of the academy.

Why are you writing for the public now? We continue to face uncertainty on so many levels: financial, health, employment, not to mention the challenges of adjusting from a traditional classroom environment to a virtual one. Like many of you, I’ve coped by writing — in private journal entries, Facebook posts, Twitter threads, or otherwise. I’ve written essays about how living in a pandemic has affected me and my anxiety disorder. I’ve written about homeschooling and taking it easy on yourself as a parent (since I’m a homeschooler by choice and have learned a lot from the experience).

I didn’t write those pieces because I felt a need to be “productive” — quite the opposite. And I didn’t write them to get paid. I wrote them because I couldn’t stop thinking about how much my life has changed along with everyone else’s. I quite literally couldn’t get the thoughts from my mind. Writing helped me gain perspective (at least a little) on events so large they seem to defy perspective.

Despite being a professional writer, I opted to publish those essays on my own website (my blog) and share the links on social media, rather than submit them to public or paying venues. Why? Sheer exhaustion. After I’d finished writing, the thought of pitching, submitting to editors, and revising seemed too much.

As a public writer, experienced or not, you have lots of options for publishing your work. “Publish” simply means “to make public.” Establishing a blog and publishing your work there creates a space that can feel safe when you are writing about subjects that are personal or exploratory. Publishing on a blog is also a way to get something out there when you don’t have the energy (because of, say, a pandemic) to go through the pitching and editing processes.

Moving the personal to the public. Sometimes the personal story you have to tell might change the world for the better, and you want to publish it in a traditional venue so that you will reach a larger audience.

Erin Celello, an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater and a novelist, co-wrote an essay with her husband for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in April about how, back at the height of an earlier pandemic, her husband was in a coma and on a ventilator after contracting H1N1 influenza. The article was shared widely (more than 500 shares on Facebook alone) and advocated for the seriousness of Covid-19 and the importance of social distancing.

Why write publicly about her husband’s illness at all? “Somehow, we’ve found ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic that has been weirdly politicized,” she told me. Where she lives, she said, people “think this is a problem for urban areas, and that the solutions to it are being unduly levied on them.” She described how “thousands of people jammed themselves onto the lawn of the capitol to protest safer-at-home restrictions.” In writing their essay, she and her husband hoped they “might encourage people to think a bit about why we’re doing this [staying at home], even though it’s decimating our economy and so many people’s livelihoods.”

But writing and publishing the piece wasn’t easy for Celello. Their story spread rapidly across social media and garnered a lot of attention. “We’re both pretty private people,” she said, “and I wasn’t prepared for all of the emotions that sharing our story brought up.” Ultimately, she was glad they published the essay: “We both felt it was important, in light of all the misinformation and apparent controversy surrounding protection measures that local and state governments have taken.”

And, as a novelist, Celello understood the power of storytelling when it comes to persuading people to change their behavior: “We hoped a personal angle might be effective in helping people see what was at risk, even if those risks seemed far away or deceptively small — mathematically speaking.”

In other words, by telling a personal story, Celello brought the risks of Covid-19 up close to her readers in a bid to convince them to keep themselves and their community safe.

What’s your angle? How do you approach a big subject? How do you find something new to say on a topic when so much has been said already? Using personal narrative to make a point about something larger is one way to write about Very Big Things, like Black Lives Matter or the fires out West.

Or maybe the conundrum you’re facing is different: You want to write about something that isn’t a Very Big Thing lately. (Keep in mind: Even if you want to write about something unrelated to Covid-19 or Black Lives Matter, your piece will be colored by those issues. How can it not be?)

The first hard lesson you must learn about writing for general-interest publications: If the topic isn’t timely, then no editor will publish your article. That’s just how public writing works. If you don’t have a news peg — an angle that makes your topic newsworthy — then no editor will touch your story. Why would they? They are looking for timely, relevant, compelling, potentially influential essays that lots of people will want to read.

The good news for those who do want to write about Very Big Things is that within those topics lies an infinite number of angles — including ones that fall within your speciality. You may already have an idea burning up inside of you already. You just need to write it down.

So how do you approach editors with your idea? I’ve touched on this in previous essays, and my next column will focus on what not to say to editors, but here’s a short primer on how to make an attractive pitch:

  • First, do your research. There’s no point pitching a piece to a publication if your exact angle has already been the subject of a recent piece. Consider how to join a conversation that’s already in progress. Right now, with so much happening in the media on these big topics, finding out what’s already been said and written is more important than ever before. And be sure to cite others who have already started conversations you are joining because public writing is a community.
  • That said, don’t assume you shouldn’t write at all merely because the outlet ran something similar on your topic. Your odds of getting published improve if you can find a way to build on what’s been published on this topic before. Help the editor see that what you have to say furthers the debate.
  • Write a strong pitch. And as I’ve noted before: Don’t be discouraged by rejection; it’s just part of the process. Keep a positive attitude, and don’t get snippy if you’re rejected — after all, you might want to pitch that venue again. If you use the rejection as an opportunity to show you are a professional, you’re more likely to get a positive response next time.

If you feel safe making your writing on these issues public (which is a concern you should consider), it’s more important than ever for higher-ed workers to share their thoughts about Very Big Things. We have the training to take on complex subjects and make them understandable to public audiences in a thoughtful fashion. That vital skill is in short supply right now when we need it most.


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