Stretch your work further by ‘triple writing’

Rewriting your research to serve different purposes and to reach different audiences can lead to new opportunities. And it’s fun, says Matthew Flinders

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Matthew Flinders's avatar
University of Sheffield
29 Mar 2023
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“Bandwidth” is not a term that is generally used in relation to academic research and writing. But it should be.

In recent years the pressures and expectations placed upon academics have grown significantly. “Excellence” is now expected in relation to teaching, research, administration and societal relevance.

Coping with these pressures, particularly in relation to “engaging with multiple audiences in multiple ways” – to borrow sociologist Michael Burawoy’s phrase – is not easy, especially given that traditional academic pathways and doctoral programmes still generally over-emphasise the value of peer-reviewed publications and downplay the role of writing for broader public audiences.

In this context, how do academics communicate their ideas while protecting themselves from burnout and becoming pressure vessels?

A clue is in the notion of the research, development and innovation “ecosystem”. Here the emphasis is on the mobility of insights and information across disciplinary, organisational and professional boundaries. The ecosystem dynamic focuses attention on the need to nurture engagement with a range of potential audiences, while underlining the value of the cross-fertilisation of ideas.

As a result, the bandwidth that academics are expected to span in their writing has widened far beyond the traditional narrow focus on writing for other academics. And yet – and this is the key argument of this article – achieving bandwidth does not demand that academics necessarily work harder. But it does demand that they work smarter. The idea that any one piece of writing should be written for one specific audience should be jettisoned in favour of a more efficient and multi-phase approach. This is the art of triple writing. Put very simply, this approach adopts a “triple dipping” of research that allows the piece of work to be framed and disseminated to three main audiences.

First and foremost, as academic researchers, it is absolutely right that our primary output should be a peer-reviewed paper of some form. This is what I refer to as “phase 1” and is focused on the foundations of traditional academic writing. (The great problem of academia in the past is that many scholars have not been supported or incentivised to progress their writing beyond phase 1.)

Phase 2, however, sees me rewrite the main scientific paper as a much shorter article that is pitched to a practitioner audience. A research article on, for example, veto points in bureaucratic networks might form the basis of a submission of evidence to a parliamentary select committee that is looking into what effective policymaking looks like. An 8,000-word journal article with a lengthy bibliography would, through this process, be translated into 1,200 words of accessible text with a light sprinkling of references.

Phase 3 then sees the phase 2 draft reduced even further into a very short and engaging newspaper article or blog of between 500 and 600 words that is aimed at a wider public audience. The submission of evidence might, through this approach, be upcycled into a piece for The Conversation or any other mass-access online platform.

The key to triple writing is that it does not view academic writing solely in traditional “academic” terms. It often creates ripple effects, with a phase 3 piece of writing encouraging the reader to access the phase 1 original publication – which, in turn, leads to contact with the author and, in turn, opens up new networks, data and sources of funding.

Triple writing is therefore closely aligned to the notion of structured serendipity, whereby the positioning of your research and reputation in the right place at the right time creates a fortuitous blend of luck and strategic guile.

And here are three more reasons why you should practise triple writing: it’s fun; it is inclusive; and it helps you develop new skills.

Triple writing is fun. Period. There is something about the freedom a scholar has when writing for practitioner or public audiences, especially when compared with the crusty conventions of formal academic writing. Moreover, once the general knack of writing for different audiences is mastered, producing publications is generally a swift and efficient process. It’s enjoyable to dare to range beyond your professional comfort zone. And taking specialist research into a more generalist world is a skill that is likely to define a successful academic career.

A second benefit of the art of triple writing is that it embraces diversity. I’ve heard early-career researchers claim to be experimenting with micro-tagging, vlogging and writing for international audiences, just as I have seen scholars combine different types of writing within a framework that also produces visual-, audio-, dramatic- and arts-based outputs. A phase 1 publication might also provide the basis for two or three practitioner pieces, and potentially even more short public-focused articles. Triple writing thinks in terms of a cascade from root to periphery, from academe out to the public (and back again).

Finally, this method can help to train scholars and develop their skills. The provision of support to academics in relation to communication skills and innovative practices is woeful. Doctoral training and post-doctoral support structures remain largely embedded in an elitist, 19th-century culture that continues to deify peer-reviewed scientific publications.

Scientific discovery is and always should be the foundation of an academic career. It is the basis from which claims to credibility are based. But at a time when society is demanding that publicly funded researchers demonstrate greater bandwidth in their capacity to communicate, catalyse and connect, the art of translation provides a powerful way of remaining passionate while being productive.

Matthew Flinders is a professor of politics at the University of Sheffield and vice-president of the Political Studies Association. He has worked as a special adviser in the House of Lords and the House of Commons.


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