Wednesday, July 24, 2019

How to Start Writing for the Public

I Victor Ray provides some concrete tips for how to reach a broader audience. I
By Victor Ray 
A few weeks ago, I wrote about why I think scholars should occasionally write for public audiences. This week, I am offering some concrete suggestions on how to get started. I understand that much advice may be survivorship bias, so ignore what doesn’t apply to you.
Think of your expertise more broadly than usual. Scholars tend to specialize and are taught not to speculate beyond their expertise. Focusing narrowly on your chosen area is excellent advice for writing a dissertation or journal article -- where you are largely talking to an in-group of the initiated who have also spent years reading specialized research -- but can make writing for a broader audience difficult. I think of writing for the public as similar to good undergraduate pedagogy: you are aiming at folks who are smart and interested in ideas but have not necessarily had the luxury of devoting years of specialized study to a topic. Sociologists can offer a broad perspective to public debate that differs from the individualist bent of related social sciences like psychology and economics. We should not underestimate our ability to provide the larger context on an issue, which can help to reframe a question or reorient someone’s thinking. Historians like the folks at the African American Intellectual History Society do an amazing job of showing the relevance of history to current public debates.
Write everything down. And by everything, I mean every single idea you have about a topic, no matter how irrelevant you think it may be. When I first started attempting to write for the public, I was shocked by how quickly things moved. Scholarly work is slow, and it can take years to move from the idea stage to publication. I’ve had public writing published 30 minutes or so after submission. For example, this piece on Trump and the NFL was based on notes I had written weeks before as I was thinking about white resistance to Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protests.
Rather than chasing the news cycle (something academics aren’t trained for), writing things down lets you anticipate the news cycle, as you will already have the skeleton of an op-ed sketched out. Attempting to anticipate recurring topics also allows academics to draw on our expertise and write things that are weightier than a single news cycle.
Pitch before you write the whole article. Pitching saves both you and the editor time. It allows the editor to express interest and shape the piece before it is written, and it allows you to get the idea out without writing a few thousand words. There are a lot of online guides on how to pitch generally, and many outlets have specific ones. Follow the guidelines just as you would follow the formatting specifications for a journal submission. If the outlet doesn't have pitching guidelines, make sure you read some of their recent articles before submitting. And don't unnecessarily antagonize an editor by sending pieces that are thousands of words too long or incorrectly formatted.
Like journal articles, it is also important to keep submitting and to not be discouraged by rejection (Nobody knows your batting average.) My hard drive is a graveyard of failed pitches -- only some of which may be recycled. When pitching, get to the point right away and explain why you are the person to write the piece. If you are fortunate enough to have a piece accepted, listen to suggestions from your editor. Editorial suggestions can often save you from future embarrassment (or even legal risk).
Avail yourself of the ample resources that teach and help facilitate public writing. Public writing is a genre like any other -- it takes work to learn the conventions. But a number of excellent guides and resources can help you get started. Jessie Daniels and Arlene Stein have written an amazing book on the benefits of public scholarship. Outlets such as the OpEd Project provide resources and workshops with the aim of promoting underrepresented voices in the media. If you are privileged enough to be employed at a well-resourced university, their media office may be able to help you locate suitable outlets and pitch pieces. Beyond these formal outlets, I draw inspiration from brilliant public scholars like Tressie McMillan CottomEve Ewing and Zandria Robinson -- sociologists who consistently publish genre-spanning work that expands disciplinary conventions.
Be aware of the risks, but don’t let the risks define you. As many folks have pointed out, public writing can also have considerable downsides, and many of those downsides are magnified for marginalized scholars. Colleges and universities do not always protect marginalized scholars in the best of times and may not come to our aid when we are targeted for harassment. Learn your institution’s policies regarding public writing (if, indeed, it has any). If you are worried about a piece, have a trusted colleague read it over and flag anything that may get you in trouble or consider publishing anonymously. This is also an area where it is important to defer to a trusted editor, but beware of editors who are looking for clicks and are willing to put you are risk for their own self-interest. There is no way to completely avoid this risk, and even the best-argued article can become a target. Learn your own tolerance for risk and don’t overextend yourself. Ultimately, I think the potential rewards of public writing -- attention to you research and broader field, wide readership and contributing to important debates -- outweigh any real risks.

Why I Write for the Public

I Victor Ray explains why such writing is important for political, personal and practical reasons. I
By Victor Ray
Since taking over the editorship of “Conditionally Accepted,” I’ve sometimes been asked by colleagues and graduate students why I write for the public and how to get started. This column discusses why I started writing for the public, and I’ll be back next week with some concrete suggestions on how to get started.
I’ve begun to respond to the question “Why do you write for the public?” by asking, “Why wouldn’t I write for the public?” I understand why people are concerned about the potential costs of public writing, as some still think engaging with the public shows a lack of seriousness. In graduate school, I was told my desire to write for the public was evidence that I didn’t understand the job. But sometimes this concern is simply gatekeeping and worries about status, as elite spaces, by definition, depend upon exclusion. And while I know this isn’t a popular idea in some corners of the academy, I think academics -- who are paid to think about hard problems -- have a responsibility to help translate their ideas to the public. Public writing is important: politically, personally and practically.
This may sound hyperbolic, but lately it feels as if we are approaching the end of the world. We are in the middle of a mass extinction; many effects of global warming are locked in and irreversible; international fascism is no longer creeping; and white supremacist violence is on the rise. A well-paid set of propagandists invested in confusing the public about the causes and consequences of the issues furthers each of these problems. Academics with real expertise on such serious problems can help ground debates in empirical fact. Many national outlets want to hear what experts have to say about both the technical aspects of these problems and the potential political solutions.
I understand that many academics adopt a pose of neutrality, and some feel that our legitimacy rests upon this pose. The fear that taking sides will lead to (further) funding cuts is real. But I think many of the attacks on the academy would occur regardless, as simple facts about global warming or rising racial violence, in and of themselves, threaten entrenched power. Put another way, how can one remain neutral when our very conditions for intellectual work are threatened? As Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.”
I also write for the public because I see my work as part of a long tradition of black activist scholarship that was never fooled by the idea that intellectual, practical and political work should be kept separate. As an educator with expertise on racial inequality, I see my responsibility extending beyond the classroom, even if I don’t yet have tenure. W. E. B. Du Bois, perhaps the prototypical public sociologist, neatly encapsulated this view of the necessity of public engagement when he said, “One could not be a calm, cool and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved.” The racial problems Du Bois identified are still with us, and we can help eradicate them by engaging in the type of committed public writing that Du Bois modeled.
Claiming this intellectual tradition means it is my responsibility to attempt to contribute, however I can, to making life easier for folks that come after me. One aspect of being part of an underrepresented group at a university is that you have fewer people whom you can compare your experiences with. As a venue for scholars on the margins, editing and writing for “Conditionally Accepted” helps to serves as a kind of collective political resource for marginalized folks who are geographically dispersed but probably experiencing similar types of exclusion. I’ve had more than one person contact me following a “Conditionally Accepted” post to say that they used the post to help push for material changes on their campus.
Practically, when folks ask me about public writing, they are often worried about how the work will count toward tenure. This is a serious concern, especially as universities have pushed for more public engagement from scholars without concomitant protections for those of us who are marginalized or state risky opinions. In many places, only peer-reviewed work formally counts for the tenure dossier, so peer-reviewed work should obviously be prioritized.
But public writing can count in other, less tangible ways. It can help develop a regular writing practice that feeds into our academic work. For me, it helped me move from the assumption that my work wouldn’t be published to the assumption that if I revised enough, it probably would. Because writing for the public is typically a much faster enterprise (pieces are often submitted and in print during the same week), it can help to keep your work on people’s minds between the release of peer-reviewed publications.
Graduate school trains us not to speak until we are certain, and that can lead to anxiety about our work and writing. Publishing in popular outlets can also help us get used to seeing our work and knowing that people are reading it, discussing it and using it. Finally, public writing can help create invitations for work that does count toward tenure, such as invitations to submit to journals or public speaking engagements.
Ultimately, I see public writing as a natural extension of my academic work. I am committed to public debate about ideas and hope to engage across multiple platforms. Given this commitment, I don’t believe in limiting those debates to the formal gatekeeping of academic disciplines.