Dear Academics and Experts, Public Writing Doesn’t Mean “Dumbed Down”

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I’ve been editing Dismantle with Elise Chatelain for just over four years. We’ve had the pleasure of working with contributors from a wide range of backgrounds—they’re artists, journalists, creative writers, and activists. We’ve also published crossover work by dozens of scholars. Because of this, we’ve often been asked to speak on translating academic or specialized ideas for a general audience. We’re happy to share our experience, and others are happy to hear what we have to say. But we often run into the same misconception: that experts moving to public writing have to “dumb down” their work.

We get it. If you have an advanced degree or technical training, you’ve devoted years to becoming an authority in your field. You’ve done tons of research and likely created complex documents that could withstand rigorous peer review. You’ve deeply absorbed the language of your craft and know how and when to wield it. How could you possibly convey this in-depth knowledge while writing at a sixth grade level?

According to most sources, sixth or seventh grade reading level is ideal for search engine optimization. But for what it’s worth, I’ve never been held to this “standard.” I’ve used ten-cent words in my articles if they’re appropriate, and no editor has batted an eye. I’ve quoted Siegfried Kracauer and Georg Simmel in mainstream magazines, and been invited to pitch again. If your interest is in sharing your expertise more widely, you likely won’t be pitching content mills (where SEO reigns supreme). Instead, the editors you encounter will be too busy looking for clarity to count your semicolons and syllables. 

When you write for an academic or professional journal, you’re talking to a narrow audience of others in your field. You share assumptions about what’s common knowledge, what the foundational texts and concepts are, and so on. On the other hand, a general audience is a bigger group with a more varied knowledge base, so you can’t assume what they already know. If you think knowing different things than you only equates to knowing less, you should probably stick to hashing it out with your conference colleagues. But if you think your ideas could benefit others who spent their lives doing something different from you, get on out here! Editors want to hear from you—and writing for new audiences is really satisfying.

As a former academic, I’ve actually found public writing to be more stimulating than producing scholarly articles because I can’t use shorthand or fall back on generalized theory. The standard practice in academia (and most professional circles) is that “proving” one’s expertise is almost as important as the point they’re making. When I wrote my dissertation, I was basically showing my committee that I had researched my subject area. Fleshing out my point was almost secondary (“It’s so Foucauldian!…you know…Foucauldian.”). But as a public-facing writer, I’m forced to spell out exactly what I mean and why it matters. That makes my writing stronger.

It also means I have to get over myself, which is liberating. The audience always comes first, so my priority in every case is: what parts of this topic are essential for my reader to know right now, and what can I leave out? Ironically, in some cases this means being more personal, because my experience might give the reader something to connect with. But generally, I try to always answer the question: why does this matter to them? 

An analogy: My partner is a bike mechanic. When he’s at work, he speaks in bike parts, model numbers, measurements, and so on. Everyone in the room knows what he means, so this language saves time he can spend doing something else. But when he talks to me about bikes, he describes a part and explains what it does, how it relates to other parts, and why I need to know about it. I care about bikes and ride one almost everyday, but I don’t want to hear every scrap of arcana about rim diameters. I’m not less intelligent than he is; it’s just that I need different things when it comes to bikes. 

I know many experts are capable of doing the same thing, because many of us are also teachers. If we’re doing our job right, we’re constantly translating research into accessible, engaging, useful stories for our students or mentees. Your readers will be smart. Like any learner, they’ll check out if you can’t convince them that what you have to say matters. The good news is, most people will read your article in a news outlet or magazine because they want to be there, discovering something new. When I was a university instructor, most of my students were in my classroom to fill a gen ed requirement. 

When you publish outside of your field, you don’t have to dumb anything down. If anything, writing for the public can be more rigorous. It can also be incredibly rewarding to share the knowledge and research you care so much about with people who could choose to spend their time in a million ways—but they’ve opted to spend it with you.    

(P.S. Interested in doing more public writing? Elise and I offer an online course called Your Public Voice with guidance and tools for getting started in the industry. Find out more here.) 

This piece is brought to you by Dismantle Writing Services. Let’s write a better world together!

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more. Most of her work is about everyday fashion and consumer culture, with forays into pop culture, higher ed, and labor.