adventures in writing for a larger audience

I’ve recently started writing for places that have larger audiences. Today a piece came out in Time, which will probably be part of something more regular (one a month) that I write on class, inequality, elites, and social science research. And earlier this summer I had an op-ed in the NY Times. It’s been a really interesting experience. Particularly because the editors at these places have a really strong hand in what you end up writing. I’m still very much an amateur at this stuff, so no big lessons yet, but a few things I’ve learned in the process: (1) your point has to be super straightforward. Being subtle, or, caveats, or, embedding your point within a larger argument isn’t really possible. So, for the Time piece part of what I was hoping to write about is “holding elite’s feet to the fire”: basically, that when elites felt constrained to pay taxes, they are likely to affirm their belief in such practices; but when they feel wiggle room to undermine this, they do. You can’t get that in 500 words. Especially if you’re trying to tell a story with some evidence that will appeal to people. So (2) this kind of writing is very different from academic work. Basically, with academic work you try to have a scientific attitude where you critically and skeptically evaluate your own argument. So if I look at the structure of my own book, in most cases when I make a claim the next section seeks to undermine that claim (or critically evaluate it). This isn’t what I’ve ended up doing in either of the pieces. You basically put your head down and bullishly make your argument. It can be kinda hard to do as someone who has been trained not to write like this. But still, it’s a good experience. (3) You have to deal with a huge worry of “what will my colleagues think of this?” Especially because of the second issue, no one will be terribly impressed by what you’ve written. And so it requires a little segmentation in your mind. “This is for a general audience.” (4) There is a certain degree of responsibility to your discipline when writing these things, because they’re not super common (we’re not political science or economics). And that can be heavy, and runs against the third concern. And finally (5) everyone has this line that writing these kinds of things is bad for your career — that you should be an academic first. I don’t have tenure so I can’t quite say what the ultimate effect will be. But so far, I have had no experiences that would support this view. People seem generally glad to see a little sociology in the more popular press.

3 Comments

  1. Posted September 19, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    It’s a good column you wrote, Shamus. You did a nice job. It is a different genre.

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  2. Posted September 24, 2012 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    Good for you! As far as colleagues go, I’ll say that long as you have your house in order (good teaching evals, high quality research stream), then you should be fine. When an academic’s popular writings are a thoughtful extension or compliment to quality scholarship, it’s usually a plus. Finally, few of us have the opportunity to reach a large audience. Take that opportunity and enjoy it. Life is too short for nay sayers.

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  3. Posted September 24, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Both really good pieces, Shamus – smart, sociologically relevant, and timely for current debates. Keep it up!

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