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You’re a content producer now, part one: how to write articles for a mainstream audience

How does a scholar, trained thoroughly in academic style for academic journals, enter the wider world of general publishing?

John Weldon's avatar
Victoria University
30 May 2022
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Research management

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Institutions are increasingly pressuring academics to share their research more widely in order that it should positively contribute to the world outside academia. It is no longer enough simply to publish in academic journals that no one reads; universities want to see a fiscal and/or a reputational return on investment for their research dollar. Such work can be beneficial. It builds profile for both academic and institution, which in turn helps with grant applications and approaches to philanthropic and governmental funding sources, too. But although they may be very keen for their staff to publish more widely, universities are not so good at supporting them to do so. It can be difficult for academics to develop the skills and know-how necessary to make the leap successfully from academia to more mainstream publishing.

So how does someone, trained thoroughly in writing for academic journals, enter the wider world of general publishing? With whom and how do they share their research? Here are the best ways to break out of academia and into the media.

Academic writing is a genre

Academic writing is as rule-driven and formulaic as romance writing, steam punk, crime, journalism or any other genre. Genre readers and publishers expect their writers to adhere strictly to structural elements and rules – and failure to do usually results in rejection of the manuscript. Academic writers have their own conventions so successfully beaten into them by assessors and the dreaded Reviewer 2 that they often see these as universal.

They’re not.

Realising that, and being open to learning new ways to write and to communicate, is the first step to publishing more widely.

You’re a content producer now

Once you start working on how to share your research more widely, and to different audiences, you become a freelance content producer, not an academic. Seeing yourself as such helps to reframe your understanding of what you’re writing and why. Your job, as a content producer, is to solve the “what do I publish next?” problem for editors and publishers. There will be publications and audiences out there looking for what you have to offer. Identifying them is the next step.

Target your audience

Although academic writing skills are not (as) relevant when you’re producing a book or article for a general audience, your skills as a researcher are. You’ll use these to track down outlets that cover your turf, such as niche newspaper or magazine supplements. Social media sites, where like-minded academics gather, can be a great source of leads in regard to industry and government publications and websites. Online, outlets such as THE Campus and The Conversation publish on a variety of HE teaching and research areas. You might also ask your librarian if they subscribe to any media guides, which list outlets and editors. Time spent identifying the best publications to target will save you hours, days and perhaps weeks of frustration in the long run. You’ll spend less time waiting on rejections from publications that simply can’t use your work no matter how good it is.

Listicles, how-tos, explainers and other formats

So you’ve identified the publication you want to target, you know they publish in your area, and you have the contact details for the relevant editor. This is where you begin to broaden your toolbox as a content producer by learning how to write in ways other than academic. A number of standard formats and structures are commonly used by general publishing outlets, and a great many online resources will unpack these for you. THE Campus, for instance, makes good use of the listicle, how-to and explainer formats, among others. Many publications will also list contributor guidelines that tell you specifically what they are looking for – you’ll find these on their website. The more formats you become proficient in, the more kinds of articles you’ll be able to pitch.

Newsworthy content

Writing for a more general audience requires you to be compelling (a quality not nearly as 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’re being short-changed, if what they are reading is not interesting or relevant to them, they’ll turn the page or click out of your article.  You may not be writing front-page news, but an understanding of newsworthiness will help you decide which elements of your research are most likely to attract an editor’s attention.

Approaching an editor

You may only get one chance with an editor. A badly worded or overly long email, a vague pitch or, heaven forbid, an editor’s name spelled incorrectly could send your one and only shot straight to the bin. When emailing an editor, be professional, clear and brief. Introduce yourself, the content of your proposed article, the format and how/why it would be suitably interesting and relevant to their readership. You might wish to attach smaller pieces (less than 1,000 words) as a Word doc; for larger pieces, provide a brief, compelling synopsis instead. If you’ve followed all the steps in this article, your pitch should almost write itself.

If you think the above reads like a research methodology, you’re right. The writing rules may have changed, but the need to be rigorous, well read and well researched applies just as much to publishing more widely as it does to academic writing.

For part two of this series, click here.

John Weldon is associate professor and head of curriculum of First Year College at Victoria University, Australia. He is co-author, with Jay Daniel Thompson, of Content Production for Digital Media: An Introduction (Springer Nature, 2022).

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