How to write articles for mainstream media
Academic writing addresses a narrow readership of peers interested more in the work than the workers. Mainstream readers seek the same information, but they also want to hear about the motivations of those working in research and the struggles they encounter along the way. Often, they’re looking for a person they can empathise with and from whom they can learn. They want to identify with the research – not just as a series of results but also as a journey that a fellow human being has undertaken. Put simply: they want a story.
In part one, we explored in detail the process of preparation and the research involved in publishing outside academia, from an idea through to pitching to an editor. Here, we’ll discuss ways to bring your ideas to life on the page or, more likely, screen that will further increase your chances of publication.
Tell a story
In essence, all storytelling structures follow the same arc – the struggle of a protagonist in pursuit of an objective – and they all have a beginning, middle and end. In this case, you are the protagonist and the story revolves around your research journey. Your readers want to know why your research objective was important to you, how you overcame the obstacles you faced, how you picked yourself up when things went wrong, why you didn’t give up and what the reward was for your persistence.
Whether you’re writing a magazine piece, podcast script or TED talk, wrapping your work up in a good story will increase your chances of being read or heard by non-expert audiences.
Podcasting, and especially investigative podcasting, is a case in point. What makes this medium so appealing, apart from the subject matter, is the way the narrators, writers and/or researchers become storytellers and characters in their own stories. Listening to them recount their journey allows us as the audience to discover their motivations, moments of indecision, triumphs, mistakes and breakthroughs, and we love it. Their voices humanise the work for us, allowing us to empathise with them, to imagine ourselves in their place and to connect more closely with the work under discussion.
What’s your point of view?
Your writing will be richer and more varied if you explore the effect that different points of view (PoV) can have on how a story lands.
PoV is the vantage point from which you tell your story. Your choice of PoV will affect the closeness of the relationship between you the storyteller, the story and the reader.
Academic writing generally uses third-person PoV (he, she or they rather than “I”) as this puts distance between writer, reader and story. The article will sound more objective as a result.
First-person PoV, on the other hand, places the writer in their own story. It reveals you to the reader: “I knew I’d made a mistake.” Second person (you, your) addresses the reader directly, inviting them into a shared world of experience: “You know how it feels.” It’s also effective when writing instructional pieces (like this one): “Your best course of action is…”
Active v passive voice
The active voice is more direct, less wordy and makes for more dynamic text.
In seeking objectivity, academic writing often eschews pronouns altogether. So, rather than writing in the active voice: “I tested the population for the virus,” a researcher might use the passive: “The population was tested for the virus.” There is not enough room here to explain in detail the difference between active and passive voice. Suffice it to say, the good folk at Purdue Writing Labs have a very clear and simple guide to the difference between the two voices.
Tone and style
When we talk about tone, we’re talking about the attitude conveyed by a piece of writing: is it formal, forceful, polite or distant? We achieve a certain tone by way of the stylistic language choices we make: will we use Latin terms or common names? Long or short sentences? And so on.
Each publication creates its own tone and style to suit the audience it targets. Some will be quite formal; others might use more relaxed, conversational language (where contractions are welcome, for example). You’ll develop an ear for this as you research publications you want to write for. You might also wish to pick up a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style – a staple of writers’ libraries for more than 100 years.
Organisation and layout: SEO and chunking
Thoughtful search engine optimisation (SEO) and “chunking” can make it easier for readers to find your work and then find the information they are seeking within it.
A carefully worded headline and subheadings throughout the text help with SEO, which means Google will rank your article higher in its searches. Think about keywords: if someone Googles “rubric” and your article has the word rubric in its headline or subheadings, it’s more likely to pop up in their search results. (Keep in mind, though, that many publications will rewrite the headlines in the editing process, according to their own SEO strategies.)
Chunking involves breaking your work up into logical sections using subheadings, lists or bullet points. Clear subheadings also help readers navigate within your piece. Online readers tend to use an F-scan pattern when reading on screen. This involves them focusing first on headlines and subheadings as they search your work for the information they need. Make it easier for them to do this with clear, keyword-oriented word choices.
Referencing and evidencing
Check with your publisher or editor, but in the main, publications outside academia don’t use formal referencing styles. If you are writing for an online publication, use hyperlinks to include useful references and further reading.
Learning to write for more general audiences and publishers is a journey – no two outlets will want exactly the same kind of piece. Their understandings of the formats and methodologies discussed in these pieces might differ, too. The general principles, however, will always be the same. Good luck.
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).