Public Scholarship: 10 Questions to Ask

Decorative: "Thinking in Public"


"10 Questions Every Academic Should Ask Before Writing for the Public" (post) is part of a new series from ChronicleVitae called "'The Public Writing Life" about how to write for a popular audience (and get paid for it) when you are part of the academy."

  • "[P]ublic engagement has different consequences for different people — consequences we all need to pay attention to — which is what this new series and this first essay are about."
  • "Here are 10 questions that every academic should ask before writing for the public."
  • Each point is elaborated in the text.

1. "Who is my public?"

  • "[C]onsider 'the public' to mean this: educated people who read popular magazines and websites that you also like to read."
  • "What venues do you turn to for your daily commentary on world events, large and small?"
  • "The readers of those venues compose your public audience."

2. "Why do I want to do this?" 

  • To "earn money"? "[B]ecause [your] institution encourages public engagement"? "[T]o make sure [your] research is accessible to as many readers as possible"?
  • "[H]ave a clear idea of [your motivations] before you get started." 
  • "[A] warning: If you go into this work seeking fame and fortune, you probably will be disappointed." 

3. "Have I done the reading?" 

  • "Before you join a new scholarly group or write for a new academic journal, you do a little research about that group and you read that journal — that’s just Academic 101."
  • "If you want to write for the public, you have to become a part of the public you will be writing for."
  • "Read the magazines you want to write for."
  • "[S]ee which journalists are experts on the topic, and then read everything those people have written about it lately."
  • "[S]ee what kind of conversations people are having and ... find areas where you can contribute."

4. "What does my institution think?" 

  • "[I]nstitutional consequences of putting your thoughts and ideas before the general public" are possible: "There is a risk of backlash." 
  • "If the fallout turns ugly, you will need your institution’s support. But can you count on it?"
  • "[T]ry to answer two key questions":
    • "Do you get professional credit for speaking publicly?
    • "[W]ill your institution stand by you if there are negative consequences to something you write?"

5. "Have I found my writing peers?"

  • "[Y]ou are going to need help from a community of peers who also write for the public."
  • "They will read your pitches and your pieces ... support you if (when) things go wrong ... spread the word about your latest work by sharing it on social media ... [and] refer you to editors."
  • "Public writing is a community-driven project. We need each other."

6. "Do I have to be on social media?"

  • "Yes, you need a Twitter account."
  • "Twitter is where editors and writers hang out."

7. "Have I read the submission guidelines?"

  • "[R]ead the publication you want to write for."
  • "Next, turn your attention to the logistics: Do you know what the editors want in a pitch? Do they even publish freelance work? Do you know their guidelines for submitting something?"
  • "Writing for the public means learning a new trade: freelance writing."
  • "Don’t start sending off pitches unless you’re fairly certain you know what you’re doing." 
  • "[R]ead the guidelines (more than once)."

8. "Can I write a pitch?"

  • "A pitch is a highly specific genre."

9. "Am I prepared to share the credit?"

  • "In public writing, citation is about two things: (1) giving nods to people whose work you leaned on to make your own argument, and (2) building community."
  • "If you can give a nod to someone who’s written something on your topic already, do it."

10. "Am I ready for this?"

  • "If you have a good writing idea, use it now."
  • "Don’t save it for later, for a better time, for a better story or book or article."
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