Writing is as much a science as it is an art. Anyone who has ever written an academic paper is especially aware of the many technical rules. Yet, how to write a piece that is not only read by fellow experts? Having served as International Perspective’s Chief Editor for over two years, here are my thoughts on how to transition from writing academic pieces to popular articles. (Featured Image © Drew Coffman)
I have written several articles and reviewed dozens. What I quickly learnt is that many students and graduates do not know how to write an article for a popular audience. They either rigorously apply the academic method, or courageously rush into the uncharted territory of writing an opinion piece. The result is often less than satisfactory, but there is something to learn from every failed attempt.
Make Your Story Matter
There are hundreds of popular articles published about international affairs every single day. Why should I, or anyone else, be interested in reading your piece instead? If you want to have an impact, you will have to tell a story that stands out.
Link your story to a current hot topic and aim to add a unique perspective
Start by writing from a so called unique angle or ‘popular hook’: make you story relevant by linking it to a current hot topic and aim to add a unique perspective. I generally decline to publish articles on topics such as ‘the end of the liberal world order’. The subject is far too general, and why would I want to read your opinion instead of that of an established expert?
Writing is reading, and you will have to do a lot of it in order to find your unique angle. Read about your topic of interest to discover what other authors had to say. It will help you decide what not to write, and where you could offer additional insight. Don’t expect to come up with ground-breaking articles. Often, being able to add a bit of nuance to an ongoing discussion can go a long way.
Court Your Readers
Academic papers tend to overlook the importance of grasping your readers’ attention. Students are obliged to write and professors are equally obliged to read. With a popular article, such as an opinion piece, you will have to convince your audience to read – and to continue reading. To do so, your article should be easy, quick and enjoyable to dig into.
Keep an article simple by focussing on your main story line. In the introduction, provide enough information to lure in readers, while enticing them to continue reading. Then, build argument upon argument to keep them engaged. Your conclusion should connect these arguments and leave your readers with one, final statement. Do not linger in your introduction, do not add trivial arguments and do not use your conclusion as a mere summary.
You will have to convince your audience to read – and to continue reading
Readers have limited time and they generally dislike reading long texts on a computer screen. To increase your outreach, you should aim to meet your audience half-way. Sentences, paragraphs and the article in general should therefore be short. I personally aim for paragraphs of 50-100 words, and articles between 800 and 1,600 words. Delete unnecessary words and rewrite entire paragraphs when necessary. Indeed, to kill your darlings is essential.
There is plenty of other things you can do to make your article more pleasant to read. Spend enough time to think about a descriptive, yet original title. Additionally, illustrate your theoretical arguments with lively examples as readers tend to remember these better. Last but not least, avoid technical jargon when you can use simple words.
There is one academic rule to keep to: the legitimacy of your popular article depends on your evidence. Arguments of authority are a bad practice in general, but that’s especially the case when you lack practical experience altogether. However, don’t let this stop you from writing! You can demonstrate your capacities by providing proof for statements you make. Much like in academic papers, referencing to diversified sources and established authors continues to be important.
Be humble and recognise your limitations
So be humble and recognise your limitations, both regarding your knowledge and practical writing skills. To improve your writing, ask fellow writers or friends to proofread your article: they will notice grammatical errors you did not, and they can grant you insights you had not thought of. You will not always agree, but make sure to at least discuss their feedback.
Finally: practice, practice and practice. You can only learn how to write by actually writing. Although I may be a bit biased here, my advice would be to start writing for a magazine such as our own. Our editorial board provides aspiring writers with the necessary support, including systematic peer review. If this interests you, be sure to check how to become a contributor or make a guest contribution. I would be happy to welcome you!