Academic writing is aimed at a narrow readership of peers more interested in work than workers. Traditional readers seek the same information, but they also want to know the motivations of those working in research and the challenges they encounter along the way. Often they are looking for someone they can empathize with and learn from. They want to identify with research – not just as a series of results, but also as a journey that a human being has taken. Simply put: they want a story.
In Part 1, we explored in detail the process of preparation and research involved in publishing outside of academia, from an idea to pitch to a publisher. Here, we’ll discuss ways to bring your ideas to life on the page or, more likely, screen, which will further increase your chances of getting published.
Tell a story
Essentially, all story structures follow the same arc – a protagonist’s struggle in pursuit of a goal – and they all have a beginning, middle, and end. In this case, you are the protagonist and the story revolves around your research journey. Your readers want to know why your research goal was important to you, how you overcame obstacles you encountered, how you picked yourself up when things went wrong, why you didn’t give up, and what the reward was. of your perseverance.
Whether you’re writing a magazine article, a podcast script, or a TED Talk, wrapping your work in a good story will increase your chances of being read or heard by a non-expert audience.
Podcasting, and in particular investigative podcasting, is a good example. What makes this medium so appealing, besides the subject matter, is how the narrators, writers and/or researchers become the storytellers and characters of their own stories. Listening to them tell their story allows us as an audience to discover their motivations, moments of indecision, triumphs, mistakes and breakthroughs, and we love it. Their voices humanize the work for us, allowing us to empathize with them, imagine ourselves in their shoes, and connect more closely with the work under discussion.
What is your point of view ?
Your writing will be richer and more varied if you explore the effect different points of view (PoV) can have on how a story lands.
PoV is the point of view from which you tell your story. Your choice of PoV will affect how close the relationship is between you the storyteller, the story, and the reader.
Academic writing typically uses third-person PoV (he, she, or they rather than “I”) because it puts distance between the writer, the reader, and the story. The article will seem more objective as a result.
First-person PoV, on the other hand, places the writer in their own story. It reveals to you to the reader: “I knew I had made a mistake.” The second person (you, your) speaks directly to the reader, inviting them into a world of shared experience: “You know how it feels.” It’s also effective when writing instructional pieces (like this one): “Your best course of action is…”
Active vs passive voice
The active voice is more direct, less verbose and makes the text more dynamic.
In seeking objectivity, academic writing often avoids pronouns altogether. Thus, rather than writing in the active voice: “I tested the population for the virus”, a researcher could use the passive: “The population was tested for the virus”. There is not enough space here to fully explain the difference between active voice and passive voice. Suffice it to say, the good folks at Purdue Writing Labs have a very clear and simple guide to the difference between the two voices.
tone and style
When we talk about tone, we are talking about the attitude conveyed by a piece of writing: is it formal, energetic, polite or distant? We achieve a certain tone through the stylistic language choices we make: will we use Latin terms or common nouns? Long or short sentences? Etc.
Each post creates its own tone and style based on the audience it targets. Some will be quite formal; others might use more relaxed conversational language (where contractions are welcome, for example). You will develop a listening ear by researching the publications you wish to write for. You can also pick up a copy of Strunk and White’s Style elements – a staple of writers’ libraries for over 100 years.
Organization and layout: SEO and chunking
Thoughtful search engine optimization (SEO) and chunking” can make it easier for readers to find your work and then find the information they’re looking for.
A carefully crafted title and subtitles throughout the text help with SEO, which means Google will rank your article higher in their searches. Think about keywords: if someone searches for “topic” on Google and your article has the word topic in its title or subtitles, it is more likely to show up in search results. (Keep in mind, though, that many publications will rewrite headlines in the editing process, according to their own SEO strategies.)
Breaking up involves dividing your work into logical sections using subheadings, lists, or bullet points. Clear subheadings also help readers navigate your article. Online readers tend to use an F-scan pattern when reading on screen. This means that they focus on titles and subtitles first when they search your work for the information they need. Make it easy for them with clear, keyword-focused word choices.
Referencing and proof
Check with your editor or publisher, but on the whole, publications outside of academia do not use formal reference styles. If you are writing for an online publication, use hyperlinks to include useful references and further reading.
Learning to write for a more general audience and publishers is a journey – no two outlets will want the exact same kind of article. Their understanding of the formats and methodologies discussed in these articles may also differ. The general principles, however, will always be the same. Good luck.
John Weldon is Associate Professor and Head of Curriculum at First Year College, University of Victoria, Australia. He is co-author with Jay Daniel Thompson, of Content Production for Digital Media: An Introduction (Springer Nature, 2022).