Writing for a public audience (Susan Lawler)

Photo by Matt Cornock
Academics who are used to writing for their colleagues and students usually find that writing for a public audience is quite a different gig!

It takes time to develop a style and vocabulary that is accessible to people not familiar with our discipline.

So, why would you bother?

Writing for the public can increase the impact of your research or promote tertiary education because it puts your ideas before a wider audience.

It can also, counter-intuitively, force you to think deeply about what you are doing and why. This is because you always understand a topic better after being forced to explain it to someone new. Most of us have had the experience of learning by teaching.

How do you do it? 

A big challenge of writing for the public is to grab their attention. Why would they want to read about your research or teaching project?

Try thinking like a journalist: what current event or issue are you addressing; or what pun or metaphor can you use as a hook? A snappy title or catchy phrase can boost readership enormously.

People like stories, so it is a great idea to structure public posts around a narrative. Begin with an anecdote, a joke, or a situation containing dramatic tension. The goal is to get the reader to care about the topic enough to finish reading the article you are writing. To achieve this, you must keep your language simple, explore interesting ideas, and explain any big picture implications.

In order to prepare for the task, a few warm up exercises can be helpful.

  • First of all, think about what you want people to learn from you, and keep it to a few points. 
  • Express those points in a couple of different ways. Use a website like the Writer’s Diet to ensure that you are using active verbs and concise prose. One suggestion it to write about your research or project in a familiar but brief format. For example, as a tweet (140 characters), newspaper headline, or use exactly six words. There is something called the six word memoir, which is a fun way to play with words! 
  • Share written fragments and ideas with friends or family to see what they respond to.  Chances are you will be surprised.  

Because we spend our days surrounded by students and colleagues with whom we share a discipline and generally think like us, reaching out to a wider audience requires an effort.

Don’t underestimate the effort required, but also don’t underestimate the reward.

Enhance your public profile, find supporters and followers and potential postgraduates by reaching out to a broader audience.

Can you remember when someone else explained something that delighted and surprised you? Usually, this happened because someone took the time to make it accessible to you, a non-expert.

You can decide to be the one who surprises and delights others, and reap the rewards.

Susan Lawler is the Head of Department of Environmental Management and Ecology, La Trobe University. Much of her research has been on freshwater crayfish, often in conjunction with staff at the Murray-Darling Freshwater Research Centre, which is located on the Albury-Wodonga campus where she is based.

Susan writes a regular column for The Conversation (a website dedicated to academic integrity and journalistic flair) called This thing called lifeSusan tweets at @DrSusanLawler.