Do You Want to Write for SAPIENS?
Ask SAPIENS is a series that offers a glimpse into the magazine’s inner workings.
In this free online webinar, SAPIENS Editor-in-Chief Chip Colwell explains the ins-and-outs of writing for the magazine and its peer publications. Learn who is behind the SAPIENS editorial team, how to propose and craft an article, and why writing for the public matters. Whether you’re an anthropologist who has successfully published popular pieces or a graduate student looking to publish for the first time, this webinar will provide you some key tools to write for SAPIENS.
>> Eshe Lewis: Just going to give us an extra minute so everyone can get in here. I see our room is filling up quickly. Okay, I am going to go ahead and get us start. Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much for joining us from wherever you are in the world.
This is the webinar How to Write For the Public. Chip Colwell, the editor in chief from SAPIENS Magazine will be talking you through how to write for the public. But first I am Eshe Lewis. I’m a cultural anthropologist and I’m the project director for the public Scholars Training Fellowship which is a three‑year program offered through SAPIENS Magazine with the help of eye wonderful grant by the John Templeton Foundation.
We are running three cohorts. We are almost at the end of our first year. But there will be three cohorts of anthropologists who will be learning public science writing and podcasting skills with the help of the SAPIENS editorial team, the podcasting team, and for orderly keynote speakers who are experts in their field and will be generously imparting their knowledge.
If you are interested in learning more about the fellowship program and the training program, please stay tuned. We will be having another workshop in June where we will talk through the basics of the program and let you know more about that as someone who is interested in applying.
I am sharing the link to the fellowship training program right now in the chat so you can look into that if you are interested. And with that, I am going to hand this over to Dr. Chip Colwell who is going to be talking you through the basics of writing for the public. Chip?
>> Chip Colwell: Great, thanks so much, Eshe. And thanks to all of you for being here. It’s really thrilling always to have the chance to connect with anthropologists who have an interest in writing for the public and I hope no matter where you are in your journey in public anthropology, whether maybe you are a graduate student or even undergraduate with kind of a vague interest in this or you are an advanced scholar looking to deepen your craft,
I hope there will be lots that you can get out of this workshop about how to write for the public. So I would like to begin with an introduction of myself. But I’m also hoping all of you can say hello. So please in the Q&A say a little bit about yourself, where you are from, what you are up to, what you are doing, maybe what area of research you are working on. I would love to just get a sense who have is in the virtual space here.
And really throughout the entire session here feel free to use the Q&A even though this is a bit didactic as it’s set up in Zoom. I am hopeful that we can have at least some exchanges. So please do use the Q&A function however you feel that it lets you ask some questions as we go.
So as Eshe mentioned, my name is Chip Colwell and I’m the editor in chief of SAPIENS, which basically means that I help out really amazing team of anthropologists and editors to publish the digital magazine SAPIENS which is an editorially independent publication of the Wenner‑Gren Foundation.
I myself am an anthropologist. I’m an active researcher and maybe lots of academic work, but I also deeply value ways in which our work can be spread and have an impact beyond the ivory tower. So I’ve worked very hard now for more than a decade to write op‑eds, to write popular books, I did a TED Talk, podcasting, all different kinds of ways to try to share the work that I have been doing with broad international publics.
So I share this kind of ‑‑ the two hats I’m wearing because hopefully many of you can empathize with and understand what it means to have these two hats to, on the one hand, be dedicated and see the value of speaking with each other and doing great research, but also being a great science communicator and sharing our work with very broad publics.
I would like to before we begin just acknowledge that I am on the traditional lands of 48 Native American tribes that are currently spread throughout the rocky Mountain West here in Colorado where I live. And much of my work has been focused on trying to support indigenous land rights and much of my work goes towards those efforts.
I would like to begin with a story, a story about Jane Goodall. Jane in is the 60 was a young woman who didn’t have a clear path forward in the field of anthropology. She just had a deep passion for it. And in the summer of 1960, she had the chance to study the lives of chimpanzees whose emotional lives, their behaviors and really their whole world was largely unknown to us.
And so quite famously, Jane Goodall went to the forest and tried to observe the lives of the chimpanzees, but it was difficult from the start. There were all kinds of issues with setting up the camp and doing the fieldwork in that area.
But the hardest part was getting even close enough to the chimps to be able to observe their behavior. Well, after about six months, her funding was running dry and she hadn’t made enough discoveries to probably sustain her work there.
And as she was really contemplating leaving the field and doing this work, she stumbled upon a chimpanzee that she later named David Gray Beard. And David was taking a piece of straw and now very famously turning it into a tool to fish out termites. And this was just a huge discovery for Dr. Goodall and for science more broadly, that really ignited huge debates about what makes humans unique and the role of tool‑making in human evolution.
And of course this discovery launched Dr. Goodall into global superstardom. Several years ago I had the chance to hear Dr. Goodall speak, and she talked about this discovery. And she first published it in a scientific journal. And she shared how, yes, that had an impact and helped establish further funding.
But it wasn’t until 1965 when National Geographic televised a documentary about her work. It was really that moment that changed her trajectory. And she went on to say how right from the beginning it was very obvious to me how important it was to involve the media, to share scientific observations with the general public. Why should we keep knowledge in an ivory power when it can make so much difference?
So as we go along for the next hour, I would encourage all of you to take out a piece of paper or pull up a document on your computer and answer some questions. The first question is what knowledge do you want to have outside the ivory tower? What difference do you want to make?
And I believe that if you can answer these questions, they really provide a kind of North Star for you, because becoming a public anthropologist or if you already are done, doing it even more successfully is hard work. This is a craft that can take many, many years, many people who do public writing in fact can do it for decades and say they are never really done learning.
So this is a long journey. It’s a worthwhile journey. But I think if you have the sense of what difference you want to make in the world, then it can very much help propel you and sustain you in the work to come.
Some have said that this is a golden age of science writing and public communication in the humanities in a way, never before have there been so many different outlets and so many different ways in which scholars can reach global publics.
Here is just a very small list of different publications that reach all different kinds of publics. We have very established and venerated outlets such as National Geographic and Discovery who do publish the work of scholars. You have kind of new up comers in the digital space such as Aeon and The Conversation.
And then you have anthropologist focused publications such as Otherwise. This is a new magazine that’s really fantastic, and Allegra.[ ] And of course there is SAPIENS itself. And so as I mentioned, SAPIENS is a digital magazine of the Wenner‑Gren Foundation and we publish about 150 articles a year reaching about three to five million readers all around the world in any given year.
We hope that the work that we do leads to not only great articles but also is a great process for you because we understand that many anthropologists might be doing this for the first time. So our editorial team is dedicated to ushering anthropologists into this world of public writing.
We have had many successes at the magazine since we launched in 2016. Here are just a few reasons that you might consider publishing with us. And I put these out not to brag, but really to hopefully inspire you to say that there’s many reasons why you might write for us and the many benefits that might flow to you when you write for us.
But really in short I’m hoping that you are here today because you are eager to make a change in how anthropology impacts the world. And I really want to invite you to be part of this movement to make anthropology matter in the world more broadly.
So in today’s workshop, there are really two parts. The first is going over some general principles that hopefully will help you reframe how you think about telling the story of your work, of you, and why your work should matter in the world. And then secondly there’s an essential part of the process of writing for the public that we call a pitch. And I am going to explain what this is later on.
But most basically it is your proposal to an outlet of magazine or newspaper about the topic that you would like to write for them. So let’s start with some of the first principles. So the very first principle is audience, audience, and audience. So when you are writing for the public, you sit down to write for only one important person in your life.
And this is someone you will never meet called a reader. So that is from Tom Radford, editor at the Guardian. And this is an important reframing of writing when you are switching from an academic audience to a public audience. In the academic world we often know who our audience is.
It’s often our colleagues, our professors. It’s the people who only meet at conferences. We have a very real sense of how our words are going to have an impact on our own community. But when you are writing for the public, you might be writing for tens or even hundreds of thousands of people with very different interests, with different agendas, with different values, right.
And so you can’t really at the outset make any assumptions about who they are. What you can do, though, is begin to imagine who it is that you want to reach. You can ask things like what is their age or gender or geography? And what would motivate someone to read your piece? Are they reading it to be entertained? Are they reading it to be in the know? Are they reading it to have a link to share on social media?
And even though these are kind of imagined audiences, these audiences nonetheless will help you shape what it is you want your piece to be and who you want to read it. So let me give you an example of the ways in which you can craft the exact same story, but in very different ways depending on your imagined audience.
So let’s look at Cosmopolitan Magazine which is a quite popular fashion and women’s magazine. According to their own stats, their average reader is 26 years old and they are reading to be glamorous, sexy, and successful.
So compare that magazine to another called The Economist which according to their stats, their readership is composed of 70 percent male‑identifying. Their average age is 47 years old and they are reading to be wonky, informed citizens of the world.
Now, both of these magazines covered a story that is almost identical in its argument. And the story covered a lot of the unethical practices in beauty brands and makeups and those sorts of cosmetics and other products that are used.
Now in Cosmopolitan this was framed very much as this is relevant to you because you are a consumer of these products likely. And you should be informed about the ethics underlying these companies. The Economist covered essentially the exact same story, but instead it’s framed all around the business model and the implications of what’s going on in cosmetics industry or businesses in that industry, but also businesses writ large.
So you have essentially the exact same story, but it’s framed in very, very different ways according to the audience. So this is to say that if say you were researching something like the ethical practices of cosmetics, you have options. On the one hand you could steer your writing towards an audience where it is very much about the consumer.
The other audience is very much about, maybe the business people or policymakers whose work impact that industry. So same topic, different audiences. In terms of SAPIENS audience, these are some numbers which, of course, are always in flux but gives you a sense of who is reading the magazine.
A couple of things to point out here is that the average read time is about three minutes. So this gives you an immediate sense of the importance of getting to the point and being concise and also having a really good story that’s going to pull someone through for at least three minutes which is probably about a thousand words.
You might also notice that the average number of pages visited on a site is just a little over one. So most of our readers are coming to us through Google or social media. They are reading one specific article, and then they are bouncing off. Very few readers come to SAPIENS.org and then just kind of bounce around and read lots of things.
So this means that each article has to kind of brand itself, has to be able to sell itself without leaning too heavily on kind of the other articles around it. Because one article likely is not simply going to lead a reader to the next.
The last thing to point out is you can see that about 75, almost 75 percent of our readers are coming to us through their mobile devices or their tablets. So this means that most folks are reading us probably on the move, maybe on a bus or subway, maybe in bed at night as they are looking for some entertainment.
This is very, very common for the popular outlets that you might be writing for. So again, this gives you a sense just from these numbers alone of the kind of reader that might be interested in reading your work at SAPIENS, but also beyond.
The second principle is to avoid anthro‑speak. So jargon is a specialized vocabulary that is particular to a group or profession. And there are lots of benefits to jargon. I use it myself in my academic work. You know, it leads to shared concepts, quick shorthands. It’s a very efficient way to talk about often really complex phenomena in a simple and direct way for people who understand those terms.
But jargon also loses most or even all of its meaning when it’s shared with people who aren’t in your field and there’s a very long list, so long that it ran off the page here, of why or I’m sorry, how jargon impacts those who are not part of the in group. It intimidates, it excludes, it complicates. It confuses. It alienates. It makes for lifeless reading and so much more.
I might also just note that there is substantial research that shows jargon leads to both bad science and bad science communication. So in fact, the more jargon that you use in even your academic writing, writing for insiders, it’s less likely to be cited and used by your colleagues.
And then similarly for outsiders, but more used jargon the less likely it is that your public audiences will understand you. So in short, it’s incumbent upon us as public communicators but also even as scientists to be very, very cautious in the way in which we use jargon and to recognize even the words we are using that are jargon.
This is not to say that you can’t ever use jargon. Of course, I said I use jargon in my academic writing and sometimes I even use it in my popular writing. But when I’m using it, I’m using it very intentionally and carefully and sparingly and ensuring that, like, the first time I’m using it that I’m defining it so that everyone understands what the jargon is and why it’s being used.
The next principle is to simplify complexity. So let’s compare these two paragraphs. This first paragraph that I have here comes from an actual abstract from a conference. And what the author seems to be doing here is complicating what is actually a fantastic set of questions. And I’m sharing this not to pick on this particular person, because this kind of language is very common I’m sure many of you will recognize it.
But it’s to say that this kind, this form of language is very problematic. So in an in‑person workshop, I often will have people try to dissect this phrasing. The single sentence and say in plain English, what is this person really trying to say?
So ask yourself that just for a moment here. What is this person really trying to say by saying now that we have refuted the scholarization thesis that presumed that modernity brings about a unilateral disenchantment of the world, how should we envision the operations of religiosity and the category of the sacred in modernity?
So what is this person really, really trying to say? I think what they are trying to say is something like this. For a long time, scholars thought that the modern age would turn people away from religion towards more secular beliefs. But religious life continues to be an essential part of our world. So, how should we think about religious practices and questions such as what is sacred today?
A brilliant question, an important question, a question that deserves to be seriously discussed and contemplated. But when you are using language that people even with a Ph.D. who have been in the field for two decades can’t understand, that’s a problem. We need to become better communicators in the sense of shaping our language to be direct and clear rather than using language to seem more sophisticated unnecessarily.
Right. Allow your ideas themselves, allow your ideas to speak for themselves and to do so in a very clear way. So we need to simplify the complexity within our field. Some people might ask does this mean dumbing down our science or research?
The answer is definitely not. What it means is walking readers slowly through the logic step by step in plain language taking care not to lose them. The metaphor in my mind is that you have a group of people behind you, and you are leading them on a journey, the journey of your work, your ideas, your research, whatever it might be.
And you have walked this many times this, path many times. You know all of the landscape. You know the features, the pitfalls, the places to avoid, the places to go to. But the people behind you have never been on this journey before.
So you want them to experience what you’ve experienced. You are trying to share it. But they are on this journey for the first time. So you have them behind you, and you just want to make sure that as you go on this journey, that they are not being lost or confused at any point.
The fourth principle is head before heart. So consider this image for a moment. So this image is extremely powerful and it’s powerful because you see a child being passed through barbed wire. It’s very difficult to identify I think what exact year this is, who these people are, where this is happening.
You don’t have a lot of details in the image. The image does not convey information. What it does is speak immediately to the heart. It pulls you in. It creates empathy in this moment of crisis. So we want to replicate this in our writing because when you are moved first by the heart, when you are pulled into an image like this, it makes you want to ask questions and it makes you want to care, right.
Where is this happening? When is this happening? Why is this happening? What happened to these folks? What happened to this child? Right. So when you are moved by the heart, you then are moved by the head. So how can we do this?
So this is from a recent essay that we published on SAPIENS. And it begins like this. We cut the engine as the sun was coming up, letting our small boat drift toward our target. A massive ship carrying liquified natural gas that was anchored a few miles offshore. My friend Abu (a pseudonym) had brought me out this that morning with his usual fishing crew as the oil tanker loomed overhead. Dwarfing our small skiff.
We idly chatted as we brought in Indian oil sardine and scad by the hundreds. It goes on to say what happened to Abu and the others, why they are doing this work, and both the benefits and the harm that are being caused by the oil industry. It’s only after the introduction of Abu and the others that we get to kind of why this matters. This is the head, right.
So before the petroleum boom of the 1960s, small‑scale fishing was the largest and most significant industry in the region. After the first wells were drilled, however, traditional fisheries were quickly eclipsed in importance by the global fossil fuel industry. Fishermen were met with seas darkened by oil and choked with the industrial machinery extract.
To fish in this region today is to fish ‑‑
The author in this case gets to the point. He explains why this mattered because that’s the head. But you first are pulled in to care about these actual fishermen whose lives are being impacted. That’s how we translate head for heart in writing.
The next principle is the need to share just one big idea. So why do we do this? We do this because in popular writing, there are very short attention spans as I noted, the average read time on SAPIENS is about three minutes. They have about a thousand words on average to get someone’s attention. And keep it.
There’s also tight word counts. So a lot of magazines and newspapers have really quite strict word counts. An op‑ed in most major newspapers will probably be about 700 words which is really about too long abstracts when you think about it, academic abstracts. Even longer‑form essays in most publications are going to be 2,000 words max.
So you simply don’t have a lot of words. We talked about this. We want to simplify complexity, right. We want simplicity over complexity. It’s important that rather than providing a reader all of the complicated ways of framing our work, we are trying to simplify it. And finally, you know, there’s ‑‑ it’s important for us to choose from the many different subjects that we could talk about, choose just one.
And we do this because it’s also important thematically to make sure that our readers understand what the fundamental theme is of our work. And you might consider, for example, Star Wars, you know, the massive epic program, movies and television and otherwise, that now a dozen or more different movies and whatnot.
It covers thousands of years of history and imagined history. There’s all different kinds of characters and fights and love stories and everything else. And yet what is Star Wars really about? Star Wars is about the triumph of good over evil. So what’s important is that your reader has to be able to walk away with that kind of explicit of theme, that they need to be able to say this is what this article is about.
So you can have some complications, right. You can have different plot lines. But it’s vital that even amidst all of those, the range of possible stories that you can tell and maybe you do tell that you are still having one theme that really drives home with the reader.
And this is a very hard but necessary process because you just simply don’t have the word count, the attention span or anything else that will allow you to tell a huge epic story by yourself in one piece. So it’s vital that you choose one topic, one key theme, and be able to drive that home.
The last principle is also perhaps the most important. Tell a story. So here is a paragraph that I pulled off the internet. And often when I ask folks what this is about, maybe they will kind of figure out that it’s cricket‑related. And then when I ask what is actually going on here, in this case, in this paragraph, most folks cannot really share to noninsiders what is happening.
It’s just, there are so many parts to ‑‑ jargonized parts of this paragraph that it’s hard to break down. We can look at another paragraph I grabbed from the internet. This one is about chess. And again, I’ve done this workshop a handful of times, and I have yet to meet someone who can fully explain why I can’t fail to smile at this, right. So what these paragraphs demonstrate is there you can only appreciate what is going on here if you are an insider to these stories.
Because they do tell a story. So how is it that we can tell a story when we are the insiders, but we are trying to share with outsiders? So here is an example, a few sentences from another website on the web talking about American baseball.
And the challenge here is to translate what is happening to someone who doesn’t know anything at all about baseball. And the way, the instinct that a lot of us would have is to try to break down all of the different rules. And baseball has a million different rules like our own disciplines, right.
So most people would say, okay, in the bottom of the ninth, okay, so in baseball you have typically nine innings. Nine innings are composed of each inning is composed of two sides having three outs before they ‑‑ that happen as they try to score. And outs happen in a couple of different ways. The ball can be hit and caught in the air or when it’s hit on the ground you try to throw someone out at first base.
Well, there’s four bases that are kind of in a diamond shape and you have to run around all four to get home. And you see how you kind of go down this rabbit hole of trying to break down all of the different rules. So what is our way out of this dilemma?
Well, the way out of it is to simply tell a story, to pull all the way back from, you know, we’re down on the ground. We are going to go all the way up to 30,000 feet and not talk about any of the rules at all. We are going to instead tell a story about what happened.
So it might look something like this. The game was almost over, and the home team was losing to its most hated rival. The beloved captain of the home team made a last‑ditch effort to win. He took a big risk. It looked like it might pay off. But when his teammates tried to help him score, a key player on the other team shut them down. The game ended. The home team went down to bitter defeat.
Right. So here is a story that doesn’t explain innings. It doesn’t explain outs. It doesn’t explain the bases. It doesn’t explain any of that. What it does it tell a story about two peoples in a bitter rivalry, the close play that almost wins it, but instead doesn’t.
So that’s what we want to do with our work. We don’t really want to tell the public or the publics that we are trying to reach all of the rules and details our work. We want to go from this topic of our work to a story. So here are some examples, real‑life examples of how we get from topics to stories, right.
So someone might come to us as many have and say I want to write a story about climate change. Okay. That’s great. But climate change itself is a topic. So how do you tell a story? Well, a story make we publish on SAPIENS would be a horse breeder in Siberia cannot graze his horses because the melting permafrost is changing the grass for feeding.
Right. So here you have a specific place, a specific person with something at stake that a person whose life is being impacted because of climate change. And now we want to know what happened to this person. We want to understand how climate change is actually changing this person’s world.
Another topic. Humans have collected fossils for thousands of years. Really cool. But what’s the story? Well, one story would be in 2020, researchers in Israel working in a three thousand‑year‑old village found a shark tooth. The tooth dated to 80 million years ago. Right. There’s a mystery. There’s a sense of discovery.
There’s a set of questions that we are going to want some answers to. This is from topic to story. Another topic. The Raramuri of Mexico are renowned super runners. We ran biological anthropologist Daniel Lieberman went to Mexico to participate in a 12‑hour running ceremony and tried to figure out what makes a super‑runner.
So now we have an anthropologist who is going to a specific place to try to experience this and to try to understand now we have a story. Storytelling is deeply human, a way for all of us to share our experiences, dreams, and knowledge. And stories stick with us, right. We might hear facts. We might hear the truth.
But those are easily forgotten. Relative to stories. Stories are what shape our imagination, what connect us to each other. And so what we want to do is become storytellers in our work of public anthropology.
So before I move on, let me pause to see if there are any questions in the Q&A for part I. So please put anything in there that might be puzzled about or any specific questions. Happy to try to address those now. Great. We have a question here. How long must one be an anthropologist to contribute to the magazine or can you come from an adjacent field, humanities and history, for instance?
So we have mostly supported anthropologists defined by people who have a degree or in a department or a student in an anthropology program. But we recently are shifting that a bit to recognize how interdiscipline the field anthropology has become and how anthropologists are working in a range of different settings.
So to write for the magazine, we are open to those working in adjacent fields; however, we do still ask that you be able to articulate what forms of anthropology you are drawing in or speaking to. And we do this because our primary funder and supporter, we are a program of the Wenner‑Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research whose core mission is to support anthropology world‑wide.
So that is why we have this focus on anthropology. That’s part of our mission, too. But again we are embracing the interdisciplinary elements of the field. So thank you for the question. Any others? Well, again, feel free to put them in the Q&A but I will go ahead and continue on to the next section here.
So anthropologist also typically writing for two different ‑‑ sorry, are writing in two different formats, two different forms. The one is an essay, and an essay is a narrative that takes the reader on a journey of discovery. These tend to be longer, about one to 2,000 words. And it’s a stronger ‑‑ it’s a stronger clearer story that you are trying to tell or share.
An op‑ed is an opinion that identifies a problem in the world and proposes a solution. So this is you saying I see something wrong with the world and from my work or from my ideas I have an answer for those problems. There are some venues that will publish both essays and op‑eds, for example, the Atlantic or The New York Times. But there are others that tend to specialize in one or the other.
So essays, you want to just be careful that you are pitching, that you are proposing to write for those places that actually publish essays. And then op‑eds for a number of venues, you are actually going to submit the actual draft of your proposed op‑ed. But for some places, they actually do want a pitch, still. So, for example, the Guardian, The Washington Post, there’s a handful of very prominent global newspapers that still want a pitch.
So it’s all to say that there’s two different forms, and you want to align the type of piece you are going to write, the genre, with those outlets. So the pitch is a proposal. Think of it as almost a kind of abstract that you are writing to editors to try to convince them to accept your piece so that you can work together and publish it in their venue.
There is an amazing resource at The Open Notebook that’s called the pitch database where you have actual pitches to a whole host of popular venues where you can see what a successful pitch actually looks like. So I would encourage all of you as you think about where you might want to write, go to this database and find some examples so that you can base your bitch based on ‑‑ so you can base your pitch on some of these examples there.
And at SAPIENS we very much welcome pitches. And we do use a pitch process. We do this partly because it helps us. It’s very efficient when you pitch. It makes it actually easier for you because you don’t have to write a 2,000‑word essay. You can simply pitch your idea first in 300 words that saves you time and effort. But it’s also to encourage all of you to deepen the craft of pitching because without learning how to pitch, it’s very, very difficult to learn how to write for the public
because you first need to convince editors that your idea is worthwhile, that you are capable of writing for the public, that you have a great story to tell; otherwise, you are just simply not going to have the opportunity to write those full essays or op‑eds.
So a pitch has several key elements. Pitches can actually look very different in different venues. Some venues like The Conversation will actually ask you a set of questions that you have to answer. Others will be wide open and just say pitch us. So the format of the pitch might vary depending on the venue.
But the pitch itself is more or less the same no matter what. Because a pitch has to have some elements that every editor is going to be asking themselves. So you should be able to summarize the articles, your proposed article’s key point or argument in a sentence or two.
So you need to be able to narrow down the theme, the central idea. This is the Star Wars analogy that yeah, it might be complicated, you might have a lot of different points and story lines, but you can still convey to an editor here is what I want readers to walk away W good versus evil in the case of Star Wars.
Secondly you should be able to summarize the article’s narrative structure in about two to 300 words. So you want to give a sense of the story or the argument. Right. What’s your beginning point? What’s your middle, the substance of your story or your argument? And then what is your closing point? What is the journey that you are going to take the reader on?
And then finally you should give a flavor for the writing style and the pitch itself. So that means not only, you know, very tight grammatically and convincing and compelling, but it should ‑‑ the tone of the pitch should match your imagined tone of the piece itself. So if you have a piece that perhaps is a bit humorous, then you want the pitch to have a bit of humor.
If you have a pitch that is very serious, you should be envisioning a piece that is very serious. So no matter where you are pitching, you want to have these three elements in them. So here is an example of a pitch from SAPIENS that we’re using here with permission from the person who pitched it, Maria Donovan.
She wrote ‑‑ (reading the slide). An editor looking at a pitch is asking themselves four questions. The first is why now? Why does this piece, why does this piece of writing need to come out right now? So you can have an article that maybe is tied to an anniversary like this, maybe something that is happening in the news. But even articles what we would call in the industry evergreen pieces because they are always relevant need to have some kind of hook.
An example from this from my own writing is I wrote a piece about wrapping gifts Y do many of us wrap gifts? And this is a perennial question. It could apply almost any day of the year. But I felt it had the best chance of having the biggest impact on readers if you timed it in the holiday season at the end of the calendar year.
Even though that’s an evergreen topic, there’s still a why does this topic need to come out right now amongst so many different things that could come out? The second question an editor is going to ask is why you? Why are you the person to write this story?
An example I often give is I’m very deeply passionate about climate change, but I have never once written an academic piece of writing about climate change I don’t have any specialized degrees in that area. I never received a grant or awards dealing with climate change, right.
Why should anyone listen to me about climate change? So what you want to do is convince the editor that you have a singular or a special view, special insight into the topic that you are writing and that you have a kind of maybe not even expertise, but a particular viewpoint that’s based in your own story, your own biography or your own research or expertise.
The third question an editor is going to ask themselves is, so what? Why should we care? Why should our readers care about this? You need to have an argument about what’s at stake with your argument. And then finally what’s the story? Can they actually tell a story? And even with op‑eds, even though it’s presenting an argument and there’s more of a debate, there’s still typically a story there where you are taking a reader.
You are introducing them to a problem. You are explaining the problem. You are then working towards a kind of resolution, right, because most stories have a resolution. So you want to be able to show to the editor that you understand that arc and that you have a compelling story and not just a topic. So I’m hoping that some of these questions will help you understand how you want to approach public writing.
So thinking all the way back to the question of audience, if you have a piece of paper out, think about who is your audience? How will you reach them? What is your one big idea? How do you move from your topic to a story? And when you add up all of those different elements, you will have the foundations for a pitch.
So then your question is simply, where do you want to pitch? Finding those outlets that align with the style of writing and the length of writing you have in mind. And then putting together that pitch. And almost every single outlet that accepts pitch will have some sort of guidelines, right. So they will say please pitch us. Some have those forms. Some give actual word length.
Some often will say this is what we are looking for. So make sure you read those guidelines, and then follow through on your pitch. And I would just encourage all of you, hopefully you are willing to give this a shot. And be patient with yourself. Understand that this is you are maybe perhaps learning something new, and that your craft may take some time to deepen.
And even then this can be a very competitive field. So, for example, I have been told by editors at the New York Times that 95 percent of what they publish in their op‑ed pages have been invited. So that means only five percent of what they are publishing is volunteered. And they receive hundreds of pitches every day. So they are really only looking at, you know, realistically accepting a few pitches out of hundreds every week probably.
So there are some venues that can be highly, highly competitive, and others that may be a bit more open. And your chances are a bit better. So I’ve experienced this myself. My very first op‑ed in 2010, I got very upset about something and I fired off an op‑ed draft to my local paper. An hour later they said yeah, this is great. We are going to publish it. And I said wow, that’s really easy. I am going to do this again.
And the next time I tried writing something, it was rejected and I tried again and that was rejected. And I tried again and that was rejected. And then I tried again and it was accepted. And so I began a much more kind of realistic view of what it’s like to write for public audiences.
But I found no matter where I’m writing or what the process is, it’s always been deeply rewarding knowing that your ideas can help shape really important issues that you care passionately about. So I would just encourage all of you to embrace the journey and know that it is a journey. It really is less about the destination and it’s the journey itself.
So in conclusion, I would just offer SAPIENS as a resource for you. We have a lot about pitching, about writing for magazines. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions at all about the pitch process at SAPIENS or even if you have questions about other venues. I’m happy to be a resource for you as much as I can.
So with that, I am happy to answer any last questions as we go. And I’m seeing here a few in the chat. One question is, is the public scholars training fellowship program open to first‑year Ph.D. students? And the answer is yes, it is open. It’s opened to anthropologists at all levels; however, we have found in this first year of running the program that the participants, the fellows who have done the best are those who do have their research at least completed, their dissertation research typically.
Or if maybe you are a graduate student but you come from a research‑heavy program and you already have something to work on. The reason is because a big part of the fellowship is creating a podcast about your research as well as an article for SAPIENS about your research. So if you haven’t completed that work, it’s ah bit too tentative, perhaps, to be able to share your story.
So in short, we do consider all applicants from all ranks and all stages of careers, but we do have a stated preference for those who are further along in their graduate program and have completed their research. And another question is, as an undergrad, how do I write compelling why you section for my pitch since I’m currently not an expert in any of the fields I would like to write about?
I think what I would recommend there is not to kind of put up a façade of expertise, but rather just acknowledge where you are in your life or where you are at. And really empathize your personal experience or your personal story, because I think your personal story that is yours. And no one can compete with it, right. So it doesn’t matter what your actual book learning is on a particular topic, whether you have degrees or not, whether you are published on a particular topic.
It’s really your story. So, you know, it is hard often to kind of break into public anthropology as an undergraduate, but not impossible. And I would just encourage to you think about how you can use your own story to position yourself as having a really unique perspective on whatever question or topic that you are trying to write on.
I’m not seeing anymore questions, then. Let’s go ahead and close the workshop. So again, thank you all so very much for your time and your interest. And I hope that we will have a chance to cross paths again. Please keep SAPIENS in mind. Please read SAPIENS, SAPIENS.org, to learn about our work and everything that we’re trying to accomplish for the field and beyond it.
So thank you all so much. If you have any remaining questions, again, please reach out to me directly. Take care, everyone. Thank you.
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We’re glad you enjoyed the article! Want to republish it?
This article is currently copyrighted to SAPIENS and the author. But, we love to spread anthropology around the internet and beyond. Please send your republication request via email to editor•sapiens.org.
Accompanying photos are not included in any republishing agreement; requests to republish photos must be made directly to the copyright holder.