Short-Form Writing for the Public: Part II of a Series

26 February 2017, 0804 EST

This is part II of a series on bridging the gap between policy and academia.

In my last post, I laid out some principles for thinking policy engagement as an academic. In this post, I’ll talk about one such strategy — short-form writing for the public — which includes blogging, Twitter, and other social media. In subsequent posts, I’ll review some others.

I’ve been blogging on and off since the mid-2000s and since 2011 here on the Duck of Minerva. I’ve also contributed to the Monkey Cage a fair amount in recent years, among other outlets, and have a pretty active social media presence on Twitter and Facebook.

All of these things take time and energy so you have to ask yourself, what purposes are served by engaging in those activities? Are you merely doing this because you get some gratification from having a bunch of pageviews, retweets, or likes? It’s easy to fall in to your self-esteem being driven by these metrics, but unlike citation counts, you won’t get tenure based on retweets.

In its early days, blogging provided a number of folks with more visibility for their work. I often think of blogging as akin to a public platform for a rough draft of my work, where I’m puzzling through new ideas and topics. I’ve often seen blogging as a way to better understand a topic through the act of writing and engaging with readers. 

While blogging once had some stigma attached to it, it has become more normalized and routinized as part of the arsenal of activities that scholars do to promote their work. With the professionalization and integration of blogs like the Monkey Cage into traditional media, it seems almost obligatory for scholars, particularly younger ones trying to make a name for themselves, to have a short-form piece accompany their longer peer-reviewed work.

This is an attractive route to take, but it too takes time. For example, a Monkey Cage piece these days is more like pitching a conventional op-ed to a newspaper or Foreign Affairs. They have to express interest, you write it, it goes through multiple rounds of review and editing. It can take a month or more to place.

If you submit to these outlets, pay close attention to their style guide. It has to be the right length, include appropriate hyperlinks, and make the case why the issue is worthy of 1200 words and the readers’ time. For the Monkey Cage, in particular, their pieces are not op-eds but bring academic knowledge to bear on important questions. You will get dinged if you stray from their style.

The audience for an academic blog like the Duck of Minerva is both smaller and narrower than writing for something like the Monkey Cage.  Most of the readers of this blog are going to be professors and graduate students.

By contrast, a platform like the Monkey Cage has a more general audience so the kind of engagement you have with readers on the comments thread is often like what you read and expect from conventional newspapers.

We often have no way of knowing who read our pieces and whether anyone will be influenced by our work so, again, we we shouldn’t include placement of a piece on even a prestigious blog like the Monkey Cage as policy influence.

Of late, I have done a few guest posts for the Council on Foreign Relations. There, I would expect that their readers might be professionals with expertise in the areas I am writing about, but that is a guess.

When it comes to choice of outlets, part of it is a function of who will accept your work, but to the extent that you have agency to choose where to publish, it also comes back to whether you think the route to influence is through broad public engagement or through tailored persuasive appeals to policymakers.

Writing for policy is also a different than academic writing. In the policy space, people often anticipate when their topic will be timely. Right before an international summit or conference, there will be more demand for comment and policy folks will have things ready.

Policy folks are also highly responsive to emergent developments so they often drop everything to write something in response to breaking news. Journalists, pundits, and think tank folks can afford to do that, but it is a harder thing for academics with long-running research programs to do successfully without a cost to their other research.

In recent years, it started to feel like blogging had sort of run its course, as a result of market saturation, with a number of established first-movers dominating the field. With the blurred lines between conventional journalism and blogs, blogs started to feel a bit exhausted as a medium.

Twitter kind of became the place where people tried to cultivate an audience for their on-line persona. With the election of Trump, I think that there is a return to blogging as a place where both scholars and readers want to understand the current moment in more than 140 characters or threaded tweets.

Twitter has allowed a number of folks to become commenters and curators of information which people are parlaying into interesting career trajectories. For example, Erin Simpson went from Harvard trained PhD to running a firm that did analytical work for the Pentagon. She developed a strong on-line presence on Twitter and has become a go-to person to comment on U.S. national security of late with a new podcast on War on the Rocks. Others like Laura Seay are trying to carry out a more conventional academic career but arguably has become an important tastemaker on African politics in particular through Twitter and her involvement with the Monkey Cage.

Visibility can create ancillary benefits in your scholarly career, invitations to conferences, funding opportunities, advances for books, but on its own should not be mistaken for policy influence.

So again, when you think about having an online presence, you also have to think about whether you are writing on social media for expressive purposes, career advancement, or some other purposes.

While the stigma of blogging may have diminished, the stakes are also somewhat higher as blog posts and social media are more normal parts of the professional repertoire. Irreverence, mistakes, and hot takes can lead to negative consequences, and the thirst for followers and re-tweets might induce you to become a cruder, caricature of yourself.

So, in choosing a public voice, I would mind the gap but also proceed with caution. Next up, long-form writing for think tanks.