Writing for the Public: A Framework

In several undergraduate courses (a May course on education documentaries and first year seminars) and a graduate course (current trends in literacy) I teach, students write public pieces that challenges them to examine a common misconception and then help a general audience better understand the issue. The piece is created as an online document as well—requiring that students explore citing and supporting their claims with hyperlinks to credible and effective sources.

Having written public pieces in mainstream and alternative publications (The Conversation, AlterNet) regularly for over a decade and then writing online (in different types and for different venues) blogs for about five years, I have learned a great deal about writing from a specialized perspective for the public. As a university-based academic, I have also come to advocate that public work is at least as important for scholars as traditional publishing (peer-reviewed journals, books)—if not more important since the social/practical impact and scope of reach are often much greater for public work.

As a genre (commentary), a distinct medium (virtual/online), and advocacy, writing for the public is incredibly difficult and too often discouraging.

Primarily for K-12 teachers, academics, and scholars/researchers, this discussion of a framework for public writing also argues that we need more informed public voices—especially from educators, academics, and researchers.

Writing for the Public: A Framework

Public writing is an especially important genre of writing for stepping away from traditional views of essays and argumentation (as taught in formal schooling)—rejecting introduction (thesis), body, and conclusion templates; reconsidering paragraphing (short is better).

Openings (and even the title) of public works should seek to accomplish three goals (sometimes simultaneously): (1) engaging the reader by being interesting, (2) focusing the reader on the central topic and major claim of the piece, and (3) establishing for the reader your expertise or unique perspective related to the topic (consider that readers likely are reading you for the first time and have no context for your credibility).

For educators, academics, and scholars/researchers, public writing must purposefully and carefully recognize that popular perceptions about issues tend to be simplistic or even misinformed. That reality means the audience will be antagonistic and nearly impossible to sway.

Powerful examples of this for me has been writing about grade retention, corporal punishment, and the word gap. In all three situations, the evidence is overwhelming (or significantly complex, as with the research on literacy and social class) but also counter to popular beliefs.

For writers with expertise and experience in a field, public writing must remain constantly aware of that public while also navigating the high standards of traditional scholarship.

That means opening a public piece by being interesting can be accomplished by following a key guideline from Joseph Williams (Style): write with characters and plot. Readers are often interested in people doing things—narrative; and people are really interested in real people doing real things.

For teachers and professors, we can often share actual classroom stories, but public writing can also mine the rich world of journalism for real-world stories that accurately reflect the broader generalizations found in high-quality research.

Yes, qualitative data (narratives) can be outliers or misleading, but our job as experts is to choose and shape narratives that are representative, while also engaging the general public.

Within a few opening paragraphs, then, we want to engage and focus our readers while establishing our credibility; this is a much different and much harder task for a writer than the formulaic introduction/thesis.

Here, we need to acknowledge that public commentaries generally fall in a word-count range of about 750-1250 words (typically at the lower end). This is really brief for complex topics (ones that academics may cover in several 1000 words), and many feel writing public commentaries has more in common with writing poetry (concision, concision, concision) than other forms of prose.

I agree—since I am also a poet.

The bulk of your piece, however, must be the main claims, evidence (hyperlinked) and elaborations that constitute the body. In the body, typically you are challenged to make complicated and sometimes technical information accessible to the general public.

Word choice, sentence formation, use of evidence—these are the really hard parts of doing public writing (and these i no template). And while your evidence is essential, hyperlinks must be used as if readers will not follow them, and the credibility of the evidence (just as you do initially with yourself) must be established in a way that is compelling to the average (non-expert) reader.

And here is the truly frustrating part of public writing: although, for example, I noted that major medical organizations and the American Psychological Association all have clear stances against corporal punishment of any kind, much of the responses I have received completely ignore or even discount that evidence (evidence that in the academic world would carry a great deal of weight).

Since public pieces are brief, as well, your agenda is best served by having a clear major claim/argument and then a few supporting claims; keep the argument as simple as possible without being simplistic.

Just as a narrative is engaging as an opening, the bulk of your discussion must be carried by concrete and vivid details; always give the reader as many sensory triggers as possible (an old Flannery O’Connor rule about writing fiction, by the way).

Now, as we think about an ending, I want to make a counterintuitive claim: The traditional view of the essay (as we have been taught in formal schooling) includes that the body is the meat of an essay; thus, the part that matters most. However, in public writing, the opening captures the reader’s attentions, and then the ending leaves the reader with the impression that likely works or doesn’t in terms of making your case.

Instead of thinking about a conclusion as a restatement of the introduction (horrible advice, by the way, that serves no purpose in any type of writing), the ending often is most effective when you work on framing your argument.

Framing also depends heavily on the use of the concrete. Once you establish a story—or even a refrain—in your opening, you can return to that image, those people, that event, or the refrain in the final paragraph or two.

That motif, then, gives your piece coherence in the reader’s mind, establishing an internal logic to the piece that may have a stronger influence on the reader intuitively than the rational arguments of the body.

As a final point—something I stress to my students since their writing often will be evaluated, graded: work diligently to have a final few sentences, a final few words that are vivid and leave the reader with the new idea or new impression that is at the center of your argument.

“What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice,” explained George Orwell in “Why I Write,” adding, “I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

“The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us,” Orwell continued; however, “It is not easy. It raises problems of construction and of language, and it raises in a new way the problem of truthfulness.”

As educators, academics, and scholars/researchers, we are well prepared to tackle “the problem of truthfulness,” and if we the informed do not, we are leaving that important task to others less credible.

3 comments

  1. mwover

    I agree with Mindy Nathan. This is a wonderful demonstration of the principles discussed. As a writing teacher, I give this post an A!

  2. szemelman

    I’ve been “curating” a series of teacher essays for the Chicago Sun Times for the past year. My angle is for the writer to stress something positive, rather than try to construct a full argument for or against a particular policy. I figure the ordinary reader will just get bored quickly from our rants. I ask that each piece include a story about success with a challenging student or a classroom strategy that was exciting. The paper gave a limit of 600 words — and then reduced it to 550! So a writer can hardly provide much supportive evidence beyond the story. To see some of these pieces, Google “teacher essays Chicago Sun Times.” This is not an impossible writing task — but it’s true that school does not usually teach it. Just think of the impact we could have if news media everywhere were publishing pieces like these.

    Now I need more essays! They must come from Chicago metro area teachers. If you teach in the Chicago area or know someone who does, please help me out!

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