I admit it: I am an odd academic. When I have a great idea for a story or some new research to share, my first instinct is to find a way to craft it for a public audience. Colleagues somtimes raise their eyebrows — public writing, no matter how much you do or if it is successful, will not help you achieve tenure. Only peer-reviewed chapters or articles in books or journals will help you achieve tenure.
Fair enough. I do some of that, too. And it has its own satisfactions. But my first love will always be public writing. Short. Snappy. With a heartbeat, a story arc, maybe a villain and a hero and a damsel (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), some narrative tension and a sweeping conclusion. (Heads up: I’m still working on the sweeping conclusions. Mine tend to slink into a corner, confused…)
But help is at hand. Following a rather cataclysmic shift in the ivory tower (take a look — I’m sure it moved several feet closer to the ‘public’!), I feel a sea change. Academic writers are looking to make their work more accessible to a public audience. What’s more, universities are starting to realize that fewer and fewer university students will spend their careers working in universities. So, teaching students to write ten page papers, complete with footnotes and a bibliography may be a good starting place, but it does not prepare them for ‘real life.’ Reports. Public presentations. Media releases. Newsletters. Memos.
To capture that energy, I have organized a one-day symposium for the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan, and opened it up to graduate students and colleagues in several related departments. The result? A capacity crowd registered to attend an all-day session built to encourage an appreciation of good writing in general, and writing for a public audience in particular. I’m grateful to my NiCHE colleagues for starting me out — I have been lucky enough to attend similar conferences through NiCHE, and they were superb.
And, I have snagged some big guns to come out and help me. Colleen MacPherson, editor of On Campus News, leads the pack with a basic writing seminar. Bill Waiser will talk about vision, voice, and crafting a good narrative lead with an arc. I have the tough slot of the day, right after lunch — and my topic is the plain language report. Others might call it the executive summary, or the lay language report. Perhaps a more plodding document, but a good first step in learning to cut technical jargon from your research project. But at the end of the day, we have a treat: Kathryn Warden, director of Research Communications at the U of S, will guide us through media relations, press releases, and op-ed pieces.
It promises to be a fascinating day. April 10th, 2012 at 144 Kirk Hall, University of Saskatchewan. Pop by.