When it comes to writing, the academic style and journalistic style are quite different. This page has tips on what how to structure your writing for a popular audience.
Journalistic Story Structure
From the time you’re a small child, you learn to start a story at the beginning: Once upon a time there were characters, and then they performed actions that led to consequences.
You may be tempted to explain your research in the same way: you start with the background and then you provide evidence that leads to a conclusion.
That is not how journalists write, and that is not how you should write for the public.
The single most important paragraph is called the “nutgraf.” That is the paragraph very high up in the story — usually second or third paragraph — that clearly states the argument you are making. A reader who wonders, “Where is this story going?” is going to stop reading. The nutgraf tells the reader the point of the story immediately and gives them a framework to contextualize everything else to come. You should probably write this paragraph first.
Another important piece of the story is the “lede.” This is the paragraph or two (or occasionally three) that comes before the nutgraf. This is the introduction that draws the reader in by being some combination of engaging, relatable, entertaining, or surprising.
Look at the three extremely short paragraphs that begin this section: I wrote about childhood stories — relatable. Then I hit you with something surprising — your instinct for storytelling is all wrong. That’s a lede. It should be easy to read so that you don’t lose readers. I used very short paragraphs for that reason. Then by leading into the main point, your reader can decide whether this is a piece they want to read in full.
After your lede and nutgraf, you will lay out the evidence for your argument. At that point, you’re welcome to back up and give the historical context. This is the body of the story, and there are fewer rules about how to structure this section as long as your points flow into one another and support the argument in your lede.
The end of the story is the “kicker.” The classic style of kicker will refer back to something in the lede and bring the story full circle. That isn’t always possible, however. Sometimes you can end on a quote, or simply end on an idea that has finality. Perhaps it looks to the future, or expresses some fundamental irony. If the rest of your story works well, an editor can help you with the kicker.
Now that you’ve learned a bit about story structure, keep an eye out for these elements in the stories you read.. You’ll find them everywhere!
Keep Paragraphs Short
When you write for the public, especially for an online audience, keep your paragraphs short.
One or two lines is plenty for a paragraph. If you can break up your 3+ sentence paragraphs, you should.
You should also keep your sentences simple and declarative, ideally using active voice. Long paragraphs and sentences lend impenetrability, particularly on a mobile phone, which is never good.
Busy people will stop reading at the drop of a hat. Don’t give them reason to.
Use an Approachable Tone and Level of Language
The Scientific American submission guidelines have a very nice way of putting their desired tone, which pretty much holds true for any public scholarship: “as though you were at a dinner party with intelligent, educated non-scientists who are curious about what you do and what you think about.”
Academics are accustomed to — and rewarded for — talking about their work using the language of academia, which contains complex phrasing and vocabulary uncommonly found outside of scholarly publications. There are certain phrases that probably form the bedrock of how you discuss your field.
To get a piece accepted in a mainstream publication, you will need to write in a much more plainspoken, conversational tone, and without confusing jargon.
The good news is that you know how to do this! You regularly have conversations with non-academics in which you are understood. You simply need to apply this level of language to the way you write about your work. That may require you to fundamentally re-think how you describe your work.
When you feel stuck, don’t just change a word or two: take a step back and think about a completely different way to express your idea. You might also try reading your text aloud to see how it sounds when spoken. Or ask someone who isn’t an academic and doesn’t know your subject area to read it and explain it back to you.
We're Here to Help
While time doesn’t allow the Communications Office to ghostwrite your stories, we can help you talk through any story ideas you have and advise on pitching editors. We may also be able to offer feedback on your drafts. Please email Julie Sloane.