Institutions are increasingly pressuring academics to share their research more widely so that it contributes positively to the world outside of academia. It is no longer enough to simply publish in academic journals that no one reads; universities want to see a fiscal and/or reputational return on investment in research. Such work can be beneficial. It creates a profile for both academics and institutions, which in turn facilitates grant applications and approaches to philanthropic and government funding sources. But while they may be very keen for their staff to publish more widely, universities aren’t so good at helping them do so. It can be difficult for academics to develop the skills and know-how needed to successfully transition from academia to mainstream publishing.
So how does someone, thoroughly trained in writing for academic journals, enter the larger world of general publishing? With whom and how do they share their research? Here are the best ways to get out of academia and into the media.
Academic writing is a genre
Academic writing is as governed by rules and formulas as romantic writing, steam punk, crime, journalism, or any other genre. Genre readers and editors expect their authors to strictly adhere to structural elements and rules – and failure to do so usually results in rejection of the manuscript. Academic writers have their own conventions so well enforced by reviewers and the dreaded Reviewer 2 that they often consider them universal.
They are not.
Realizing this and being open to learning new ways of writing and communicating is the first step to publishing more widely.
You are now a content producer
Once you start working on how to share your research more widely and with different audiences, you become an independent content producer, not an academic. Seeing yourself as such helps reframe your understanding of what you are writing and why. Your job as a content producer is to solve the “what should I post next?” problem. problem for editors and publishers. There will be posts and audiences looking for what you have to offer. Identifying them is the next step.
Target your audience
While academic writing skills aren’t (as) relevant when you’re producing a book or article for a general audience, your skills as a researcher are. You’ll use them to find outlets that cover your territory, such as niche newspapers or magazine supplements. Social media sites, where like-minded academics gather, can be a great source of leads when it comes to industry and government publications and websites. Online, outlets such as THE Campus and The conversation publish on a variety of higher education teaching and research areas. You can also ask your librarian if they subscribe to media guides, which list outlets and publishers. Time spent identifying the best posts to target will save you hours, days, and maybe weeks of frustration in the long run. You’ll spend less time waiting for rejections from posts that just can’t use your work, no matter how good it is.
Lists, tutorials, explainers and other formats
So you’ve identified the publication you want to target, you know it publishes in your area, and you have contact information for the relevant publisher. This is where you start to expand your toolbox as a content producer by learning to write in a non-academic way. A number of standard formats and structures are commonly used by general editors, and plenty of online resources will unpack them for you. THE Campus, for example, makes good use of listicle, how-to and explanatory formats, among others. Many publications also list contributor guidelines that tell you exactly what they’re looking for – you’ll find them on their website. The more formats you master, the more types of articles you can present.
Writing for a more general audience requires you to be persuasive (a quality not so essential in academic writing). Your reader will pay, literally or with their time or data, for the pleasure of reading your work, and if they feel they are being wronged, if what they are reading is not interesting or relevant to them, they will turn the page or click on your article. You may not be writing front-page news, but an understanding of newspaper interest will help you decide which pieces of your research are most likely to grab the attention of a editor.
Approach an editor
You can only get one chance with an editor. A poorly worded or overly long email, a vague pitch, or, heaven forbid, a misspelled editor’s name could send your one and only shot straight in the trash. When emailing an editor, be professional, clear, and brief. Introduce yourself, your proposed article content, format and how/why it would be suitably interesting and relevant to their readership. You may wish to attach smaller items (less than 1000 words) as a Word document; for larger pieces, provide a brief compelling summary instead. If you’ve followed all the steps in this article, your pitch should almost write itself.
If you think the above reads like research methodology, you’re right. The rules of writing may have changed, but the need to be rigorous, well-read, and well-researched applies just as much to broader publishing as it does to academic writing.
For part two of this series, click here.
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).
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