Noah Feldman on How to Write for a Popular Audience

These tips are condensed from an interview.

Here’s the unspoken secret of the contemporary media world: in the age of the Internet and social media, every single media outlet is hungry for good content. That ranges from the more popular aspects of scholarly journals straight through to the big media news generators—whether that’s Huffington Post or even Buzzfeed or Vice.

The point is that it doesn’t have to only be the New York Times or the Boston Globe or the Washington Post. They’re all eager for interesting content that nobody else is providing, and that’s what scholars have to offer. We’re never telling the same story that everybody else is telling because we’re aiming to say something original from a scholarly perspective. Whether we’re right or wrong, we always have something new to say.

Six things to keep in mind:

  1. When the media call you, take their calls because that’s how you begin the process of getting your ideas out there. I think many academics think, “Oh, I’m not going to take all those media calls because it’s a distraction.” Or, “It’s not narrowly within my expertise.” By taking their calls, even if you speak to the reporter off the record, you get some sense of how they think and what they’re interested in.

  2. Don’t be afraid to send your work in unsolicited to public venues. I think a lot of academics feel, “Well, everyone in my field knows me by my reputation but nobody knows me at such and such a newspaper.” That’s true but editors will respect your ideas and the position that you have. If you send something good and it’s clear and accessible, it’ll get published.

  3. Get out and meet people. Our world, the academic world, is a wonderful world and I’ve lived in it for most of my professional life. Many of my friends live in that world. I think it’s a great world—but it’s not the only world that exists. There are other people out there. And they live on your street and their kids go to school with your kids and you could meet them at a baseball game. There are people out there and media is a part of that and it’s important to get to know people who straddle different worlds because those people can help introduce you to editors.

  4. Appeal to the reader. Unlike the academic process, where if you submit an article to an academic journal, it’s guaranteed that it will be read by somebody, and it can take a long time for a scholar to get back to you, and their scholarly opinion is meant to be very detailed and well thought out, in media, you expect a very rapid response.

    That response will be based on a very quick reading, usually of just the first two paragraphs of what you’ve said. And that’s where most academics go awry. They don’t realize that the opening of any piece of popular writing has to begin by showing the reader why the reader should be interested in what’s coming. That can be a hook to the news or a recent event or it can be a statement of a general problem that affects us as humans or it can even be something entertaining.

    The point is it has to grab the reader. We’re accustomed to thinking that what we do—because it’s inherently interesting to us—naturally, everybody should be interested in it. But that’s not the way the world is. The editor as well as the reader wants to be grabbed.

    I would say the single hardest thing for academics to learn to do is that first paragraph where you draw in the reader by connecting your interests to his or hers. I see this again and again when academic friends of mine give me pieces to look at. Often nine-tenths of the piece is completely accessible and very well done but the first paragraph is not. And it takes years to learn how to do it well. I still don’t think I do it anywhere near as well as many of my professional journalist colleagues but I’m working on it, and I work on it everyday. And I can’t emphasize that strongly enough—it’s not that the world has to be interested in what you’re saying, you have to find a way to make the world think that what you do is interesting.

  5. Try blogging. I mean if you want to learn how to write a popular piece, a good way to do that is by blogging and seeing if you can get anybody to read your blog. And that could just be your own blog and then over time you could migrate to the blog of a scholarly publication. That is a great training ground.

  6. Follow the news. Timing has something to do with success also. Let’s say I’ve written an article about the prominence of labor unions in civil society. It might be that 300 days out of the year that story wouldn’t be of interest to anybody. But it might be that sixty-five days out of the year, there’s some news story about unions or about civil society or about governance. In those moments, I can do an introduction that says: “You may be wondering why democracy is working in Tunisia well, the answer has something to do with labor unions.” And then there you are. Or it might be: “Labor unions are before the Supreme Court this week, which leads us to the question: why should we care about labor unions at all?” The point is that whatever topic you work on there are actually news hooks and you have to think creatively about what they are.

Image of Noah FeldmanNoah Feldman is a Faculty Associate of the Weatherhead Center, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and a Senior Fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard. As an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, he contributed to the creation of the country's new constitution. He is the author of six books, most recently, Cool War: The Future of Global Competition. He is also a columnist for the international news agency Bloomberg View.

This is one of three articles on the growing number of academics who are writing for a public audience. Weatherhead Center Faculty Associates interviewed on this trend include Harvard professors Noah Feldman, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law; Jennifer Hochschild, the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and professor of African and African American studies; and Dani Rodrik, the Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy.

Also in the series: Scholars and the Public Eye and Q & A with Professors Hochschild, Feldman, and Rodrik