Pressure has increased on scholars, especially junior ones, to add public writing to their arsenal of skills.
Getty Images Writing for the public as an academic has brought me great joy. It’s been a way to explore topics in which I was not an expert, look at my own field in new ways, and keep publishing despite a heavy administrative load. But not everyone thinks of public writing in such rosy terms.
Over the past five years I have given talks and workshops on public writing and marketing your book at a variety of colleges and universities. At the beginning, most attendees came to the events curious and eager to find an alternative to traditional scholarly work. In the past year, however, I’ve noticed a different trend: Participants are still keen to write for a broad audience, but the dominant emotion in the room is fear.
Pressure has increased on scholars, especially junior ones, to add public writing to their arsenal of skills. Nonacademic writing has become an extension of their professional personas, which triggers familiar anxieties. I soon realized that it was no use explaining to workshop participants how to pitch to an editor or edit out jargon if they were too worried to write for the public at all.
With that in mind, I wrote this essay to explore a few common fears associated with public writing, and how to deal with them. Some are reasonable concerns; others, subtle forms of self-sabotage. All of them can lead to writer’s block. In a few cases, the best way to deal with apprehension is a change in perspective. In others, it can be helpful to see that there are many forms of public writing, some of which pose less risk than others. I believe that you can enjoy both satisfaction and a sense of scholarly integrity in your public writing if you learn which genres and outlets suit you. But first, the fears.
“No one will care.” If you are curious and interested in your topic, someone else will be, too. That, along with a willingness to work on your writing craft, is all you need. Tell your story as best you can, with honesty, detail, and language that suits the genre. That is enough.
Some disciplinary cultures require scholars to argue why a topic matters — what the “stakes” are — at the start of a paper. You can take that approach in a piece for the public, but you don’t have to. You also don’t have to have a world-changing, dazzlingly original argument: Old wine in new bottles can still be really good wine.
“I do not have the necessary expertise.” As scholars, we are trained to be very careful when making statements outside our narrow domain. Of course, most academics do have to speak authoritatively — in the classroom — about topics that we haven’t written a book on. But when we write, we sometimes assume we need years of research to make even a small contribution.