The appetite for academic research in the media is huge. Studies and statistics lend credibility to comment pieces and provide great insight into current trends. But it’s not quite as straight forward as throwing dissertations at journalists!
It can be hard when your research is your own and you have a thorough understanding of what you are writing to try and make it accessible to audiences of all kinds. However, by keeping in mind some suggestions and top tips when writing for media, it is possible to keep your work of an intellectual standard as well as interesting for the masses!
Writing for experts
One reason that academic writing doesn’t work for the media is because research papers are written primarily for an audience of other academics. Research papers do not shy away from complex, in-depth explanations and are often full of academic jargon and terms that other professors comprehend. Authors generally adopt a direct, formal tone because they are addressing their peers who already have an understanding of the topic at hand and, more importantly, a pre-existing curiosity. In other words, the writing style itself doesn’t need to generate interest when readers are already attentive. Unsurprisingly, this works perfectly within peer review circles and the academic community but not for mass media.
Writing for everyone
When writing for the media, the most important things to bear in mind are who your audience is and what are they interested in. Most people want to pick up a newspaper and gain a better understanding of what is going on in the world around them. Some even want to pick up a newspaper and relax!
This doesn’t translate to ‘they only want to read sensationalist fluff’. The readership of the Financial Times or The Economist, for example, are largely educated professionals who like to engage with stories that make them think. However, they don’t want to read an article which may be hard work, or feel like they are having to look up certain terms! When adapting academic writing to suit the media, the idea isn’t to dumb down exciting research, but to make it accessible.
There’s an important distinction to be made between keeping your readership interested and being patronising but it’s not as hard as it sounds to walk that line. Sometimes common sense can be enough. For example, making sure you have explained any words that people may not be familiar with. Thinking about how much prior knowledge a person may have can often indicate what parts of a research paper are necessary or unnecessary to put in. Keeping the tone conversational is also another way to make sure content stays engaging.
This leads us onto considering more general tips when having to write for media.
Tips for writing for media
The best way to write for a media outlet is to be clear and concise. Writing clearly usually makes research accessible because you are conveying to the reader exactly what you want them to know. It is less likely that the reader will get confused or not know what you mean. By being concise and cutting out words that do not need to be there, you are getting straight to the point. The reader will know what to take away from the research instead of having to decide the important bits for themselves.
Sometimes, linking research to current cultural trends or news stories is a good way of giving readers the option to do some further reading beyond your own paper. That way, you are not forcing any extra information on them, but guiding their knowledge or interests to useful resources.
In addition, using headlines and sub-headings can often help a reader to follow what is going on in an article. It can lead them to the bits they are most interested about, or just provide a comprehensive overview of the paper.
Another useful tip is to get someone, ideally someone who is not of the same faculty or with very basic knowledge of the subject, to proof your work. They can provide first-hand insights as to whether your work is easy to understand and enjoyable to read, and it always helps having a second set of eyes just to check that you haven’t made any silly mistakes or typos!
Ultimately, academic writing does not work for the media because it is usually full of academic jargon and aimed at an audience who have an understanding of the topic at hand and a pre-existing curiosity. However, this does not mean that writing for the media should be a challenge! By keeping your work accessible, clear and concise, you are allowing an audience to follow and engage with your research.
If you’d like our help in adapting academic writing to suit popular media channels or if you’d be interested in engaging with BlueSky Education for communications advice please get in touch. We look forward to hearing from you.
Originally posted October 2018, updated November 2021