Writing in Public

Feb. 12, 2018

Writers need readers—and in the present moment, many academic writers are seeking ways to address a broader and more diverse readership. At the panel discussion “Writing in Public,” five members of the Princeton community shared how their work outside the academy relates to their scholarship, and how writing for different audiences has increasingly become a part of their profession, especially as early career academics.

The discussion was organized by assistant professors Sara Chihaya and Kinohi Nishikawa as an offshoot of their graduate seminar, “The Present Moment: Contemporary Literature,” which explores the connection between para-academic writing and the academy.

Panelists included English Ph.D. alum Briallen Hopper (The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Republic) and three current graduate students in English, Sara Marcus (Rolling Stone, Bookforum), Jesse McCarthy (The PointThe Nation), and Kameron Austin Collins (The Ringer). The discussion was chaired by Matt Karp, assistant professor of History at Princeton and a contributing editor at Jacobin.

As they shared practical advice on writing for nonacademic audiences, panelists also shared their personal stories on when they began working for various print and online publications and how the experience has shaped their career.

“I think the swiftness of writing for nonacademic contexts is one of its virtues.”

The contrast between deadlines in journalism and academia and the respective differences in editing processes was a common refrain among the panel. Collins explained: “In the academy, you’re used to being able to work on an idea for months and then present a conference paper on it and publish the paper. After all that workshopping, you should feel a bit more secure about the finished product.”

In journalism, however, writers do not have that luxury. “You’re exposing one’s thinking before it’s been multiply peer reviewed and rewritten over a period of years,” Marcus reflected. This tight turnaround presents anxieties, especially for academics. “As someone writing multiple times a week on vastly different things, you don't always have time to become the expert that you wish that you were,” Collins remarked. “There's a fear of not nailing it every time.”

Despite these challenges, the panelists noted that writing for the public is, in many ways, liberating. “I think the swiftness of writing for nonacademic contexts is one of its virtues,” said Marcus. “Journalism is the best you can do in the time and space allotted. When it's done, it goes out and you start working on the next thing; there's something really freeing about that.”

Collins agreed: “I actually love being able to let things go; I love being able to move on.”

The panelists pointed out that para-academic writing can be a creative outlet that allows academics to respond to current issues in real time. “There's a way in which writing for a public audience can be an opportunity to move in very different directions and escape the intensity and slow burn of the academic specialization and flex other muscles,” said Karp.

Collins shared this sentiment, and cited his response to the 2012 Trayvon Martin case as an example. “I felt like there was a disconnect between the pace at which current events were happening and the pace of the work that I was doing.” He went on to say that writing for the public created an outlet for him to “think more actively and respond more quickly, not just as an activist or an angry person on Facebook.”

“Editors like experts; they love people who know what they're talking about.”

As an editor at The Point, McCarthy reiterated that publications are actively seeking academics who have something timely and important to convey. “If you’re a person who has something to say about a particular subject and it needs to be said now, that will come through in a pitch, and it will come through in a piece,” he said. “A good editor is always going to see that.”

While academic and para-academic writing are distinctly different styles, the panelists advised academics in the audience not to let this deter them from pitching their pieces. “I always thought there was an antagonistic relationship between website and magazine editors and academics,” said McCarthy. “What I've learned, though, is that editors like experts; they love people who know what they're talking about.”

Editors, panelists noted, are always willing to work with academics on writing for the public. “They can't teach you all the things you're supposed to be writing the piece on, but they can help you figure out how to write it in a way that's specific to their audience,” said Collins.

"There's no longer a stigma attached to public writing for academics."

A major takeaway of the panel discussion was the paradigm shift in the academy’s attitude toward para-academic writing. “When I went on the job market [in 2008], people were telling me, ‘Don't put [nonacademic writing] on your CV; people will think you're not focused,’” said Hopper. “But I think that's totally changed now.” Marcus corroborated this observation, remarking that her advisors always want to know when she has written something outside the academy.

Given the academy’s changing views toward outside writing, the panelists encouraged the audience to pitch their story ideas far and wide if they are interested in writing for the public. “More than ever, there’s a wide spectrum of outlets for you to send stuff to, on topics you’re interested in,” McCarthy observed.

The panelists also stressed the importance of persistence when pitching editors. “A rejection on one article is not a rejection on every pitch, and not hearing back is not a ‘no,’” said Hopper. “There's nothing wrong with following up on your pitch.”

One does not have to look far to see the proliferation of English (or Comparative Literature) Ph.D.’s in high-profile editorial roles, such as The New Yorker’s television critic Emily Nussbaum or Vanity Fair’s new editor-in-chief, Radhika Jones. As this panel exemplifies, the future of academics writing for the public is a bright one, and illustrates that scholars can—and do—make a difference in the world by sharing their ideas with broader audiences.