Andreas Müllerleile shares some tips on writing for a non-academic audience and explains how to format, style and structure a piece for maximum impact.

How to write for a non-academic audience

Writing for a non-academic audience can either be scary and difficult, or fun and enriching. In order to reach the latter stage, academics are well advised to take on board a few writing tips. The most useful piece of advice is simple yet effective: practice. Anyone who wants to master the art of non-academic writing needs to do it regularly – on your own blog, in a regular newspaper column or as a Wikipedia editor. There are plenty of opportunities out there where academics can practice non-academic writing.

Writing for the masses is quite different to academic writing. Style and context matter, articles are generally shorter and more to the point. You need to follow the public debate on a given issue to get a feeling of whether something is relevant or not. Forget footnotes, hypothesis or theoretical discussions. Articles should not be longer than 600-800 words and a piece ideally covers one point or explains one issue. Keep it simple. Try and focus on one argument only. Avoid jargon and clichés, be careful with anecdotes and analogies. It can be useful to develop a personal style but this often depends on the publication you are writing for. Make sure you talk to the editor in order to get an idea about the style of the publication you are writing for. Think about a good headline. A good headline will often define whether anyone actually clicks on your article. Use simple (but not simplistic) language and short sentences. The structure of a piece is as important as the content and it is useful to think about a clear structure at every stage of the writing process. Using subheadings and bullet points can be a good way to improve the readability of a piece. Finding a topic to write about can also be challenging. Broadly speaking there are three different formats that can be used by academics:

(1) Explainers: Try and explain an issue for a non-academic audience. The ability to explain complex issues in a clear and simple language is not only a skill that can be learnt, it is also in high demand outside academia. Editors in the mainstream media are keen to hear from academics that are able to write good explainers!

(2) Op-eds: Take a stand and formulate an opinion on a current issue. This is the classic newspaper column approach. In order to develop a position you should follow the debate and think of your own take on it. Try to develop an original thought or write a clever response to another piece that caught your attention. Timing is key. Sometimes issues disappear quickly from the public agenda so make sure you write your op-ed when the issue is still hot.

(3) Recommendations: Make a suggestion or formulate one policy recommendation. The important thing is that this needs to be linked to a current public debate. You need to be able to explain the idea without using too much jargon. The rule of thumb is that someone who is not familiar with the topic can still understand your idea and maybe even explain it someone else.

If you write an article for a mainstream publication or a post on a blog, choose one of these three formats – and stick to it. Be very clear of what you want the reader to take away from your article. A good tip is to write down the idea/summary of an article in one sentence before writing the article – and repeat the exercise after you finished writing it. If you are not able to summarise the article in one sentence it may not be an article ready for publication in a non-academic outlet.


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