It seems that long gone are the days when completing a PhD was just about your thesis. Public engagement is now one of the many other considerations. Michelle Smith is here to tell us why it might be valuable to consider writing for the public…
Researching and writing a PhD is hard work. And to top it off, with such a competitive job market, most doctoral students know that they also need to gain experience in teaching, conference presentations and academic publishing during their candidature. One area that can set you apart in your field that is often not discussed formally by supervisors is public engagement. But how do you get started with writing for a general audience or being interviewed on radio or TV? And isn’t it frightening opening up your ideas to potentially thousands of people rather than your usual audience of your supervisory panel and cat?
When I completed my PhD in 2007, I took a series of workshops at the University of Melbourne on writing for a general audience for academics. I’d always wanted to be a “real” writer, so the prospect was exciting. However, I couldn’t understand how my research on girls’ books and magazines from the Victorian era would be of any interest to the typical newspaper or online reader. With a bit of work, I realised that the knowledge I had about femininity in a historical sense gave me a unique position to talk about gender in popular culture more broadly. The first piece I ever published was a review of Tim Burton’s film Alice in Wonderland, which gave me the opportunity to connect my Victorian knowledge with something that was new and that people wanted to know about. Since then, I’ve published about 150 articles in major newspapers in Australia, the USA and UK, as well as numerous pieces in the academically oriented The Conversation, for which I write a column.
There is a basic process for pitching an article to a newspaper or online site that involves an email to an editor noting your idea and the reason why you are the best person to comment on the topic, or simply sending a completed draft in some cases. The most difficult part of the process is re-orienting the way you write. The way you write a thesis or an academic article is definitely not how you write a media article.
First, you need to consider that the imagined audience for most non-academic publications presumes an education up to around 15 years of age. You cannot write as you would write for your supervisors as most members of the public have not spent 30 years immersed in complex theoretical concepts.
If you look at how media articles are written, you’ll notice that they have very short sentences in comparison with academic writing. It will seem strange at first to abandon long sentences with lots of qualifications added, but it’s also revelatory to be forced to say what you mean with no extra padding. Similarly, you need to abandon most jargon that is common in your field. It is your job to “translate” or explain complicated concepts for a likely intelligent reader who has never encountered such an idea before. The most shocking change is that you will almost always need to abandon the safety net of footnotes. Suitable links, generally to news sources, are acceptable, but you can no longer rely on a footnote for credibility or to do the work of summing up an area of knowledge for you.
One easy way to experiment with shifting your writing style is to set up a blog or to contribute to one that is run by an organisation within your field. I began my blog as a very focused site on girls’ literature and culture shortly after taking the course on writing for a general audience. It gave me a place to practice this new style of writing and to learn to make a habit out of it. Not only did it give me a place to experiment, but it was also somewhere I could “publish” anything that might not have been accepted by a newspaper (although as I’ve become more adept at it, I now mainly use my blog to reproduce articles I’ve already published). Surprisingly, my blog was a key factor in having scholars in my field notice my work. It also played an important role in being offered a research fellow position, as the leaders of the research centre in question were impressed by the public profile I had developed.
Once you do publish in print or online media, you’ll find that other outlets including radio and television will often seek further comment from you. The reaction to media articles is very immediate in comparison with the slow burn of academic publications and every day the media is looking for new stories and ideas to cover. For some of you, this prospect could sound like a nightmare. Yet the opportunity to give “expert” commentary on an issue is extremely valuable and another way in which giving some of your energy to public engagement can help you improve your ability to communicate complex concepts and gain a sense of satisfaction that you are helping to improve public debate with your expertise.
Have you considered putting your work “out there” for a larger audience to engage with? Do you already have a blog that highlights your research? We want to know! Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Michelle J. Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University, Australia, and will take up an ongoing lectureship at Monash University in 2018. Her research has largely focused on Victorian girls’ literature and culture and her most recent book (with Kristine Moruzi and Clare Bradford) From Colonial to Modern: Transnational Girlhood in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Children’s Literature (1840-1940) is forthcoming with University of Toronto Press. Michelle writes regularly for popular media and has published articles in the Washington Post, the Guardian, New Statesman and the Sydney Morning Herald. She also writes on gender as a columnist for The Conversation.