Ask SAPIENS is a series that offers a glimpse into the magazine’s inner workings.
For academics used to the idea of “publish or perish,” writing may seem to be a well-practiced and even perfected skill. But trying out a new writing style for a new audience—from crafting a tweet to penning an essay for the general public—can be an intimidating challenge, even for the most senior of professors.
If you’re struggling with this endeavor, then don’t despair. SAPIENS has a team of expert editors (including myself) with decades of experience wrangling the words of academics into insightful, clear, and interesting essays.
One of the most basic questions we’re asked at SAPIENS is: “How do I write an essay?” This article provides a framework and starting point.
There are two things you must know intimately before you start: your audience and your core point. Know these things and the rest will be far easier. Once you have locked down those two core elements, there’s a basic formula that you can master for almost any essay.
SAPIENS targets a general audience. Some of our readers are anthropologists, but most of them are not. Think of your reader as someone who is very intelligent but not knowledgeable in your area of expertise. Remember that even another anthropologist won’t necessarily know your subject area, the politics of your country or study sites, or the jargon of your specialty. Your essay should be full of depth and insight, providing new information and perspectives even to close colleagues, but it also needs to include basic background and context so that anyone can easily follow along.
A simple tip is to imagine that you are at a cocktail party and the conversation has turned to something you know a lot about. You want to inject some insight into the conversation. You want to thrill, delight, and inform the person you are talking to. That’s your job and the mood you should be in as you pick up your pen (or raise your fingers over the keyboard).
Remember that you are not writing an academic talk or paper or a grant proposal, where your primary mission may be to dive straight into the details, impress your colleagues or a panel of reviewers, or acknowledge others in the field. Buzzwords, jargon, and formal citations do not belong here.
SAPIENS readers are engaging with your essay not because they have to but because they want to. Grab their attention and hold on tight. As anthropologists know better than anyone, human beings have evolved to tell and listen to stories around the glow of a campfire. Harness this knowledge, and be sure you are telling a tale, complete with characters, tension, and surprises.
Anthropologists often have ethnographic research or a dig site to talk about: real people doing real things in real dirt. Pity the poor chemist who has less evocative characters like atoms and elements!
The next fundamental is to have a point. You may know a lot about a subject, but an essay needs to be more than just an overview of a topic. It needs to express a single (preferably surprising) viewpoint.
It should be possible to express the core of your main point in a single sentence containing a strong verb. To have a story, someone or something needs to be doing something: for example, battling a crisis, gaining an insight, identifying a problem, or answering a question. This statement may even become the headline for your essay. An op-ed, by the way, is a very similar beast to an essay, but its point is by definition an expression of what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it.
Once you know what you’re writing and for whom, you can write.
A strong essay contains some basic elements.
A colleague of mine once observed that writing is like certain styles of jazz: The improvisation is layered on top of some standard rules in order to make something beautiful. Until you master the basics, it’s safer to follow straightforward strategies in order to avoid accidentally playing something jarring and incomprehensible.
In keeping with the musical theme, I offer seven notes to play in your piece.
One: A lead.
Resist the temptation to rely on stereotypes or often-used scenes. Provide something novel and compelling.
Two: A nut paragraph.
This section captures your point in a nutshell. It usually repeats the gist of what your headline will capture but expands on it a little bit. A good nut paragraph (or “nutgraf,” to use some journalist jargon) is a great help for your reader. It’s like a signpost to let them know what’s coming, providing both a sense of security and of anticipation, which can make them willing to come on this journey with you over the next thousand words.
The nut is often the most important paragraph but also sometimes the hardest nut to crack. If you can write this paragraph, the rest will be easy. (The nut for this piece is the fourth paragraph; in the essay “Trump’s Slogan,” it’s the third.)
Remember to include in your nut, or somewhere near it, a “peg”: some real-world event that you can hang your essay on, like hanging your coat on a hook on the wall, to place it firmly in time and space. Does your point relate to something going on in the world, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, a policy change, a new archaeological dig or museum object—or maybe a pandemic? Does it relate to a holiday, such as Halloween, or a season? Did you recently publish a paper or a book on the topic? Why should your reader read on right now?
Three: Who you are.
Let your reader know what you are an expert in, what you have done that makes you an expert, and why they should put faith in your point of view.
Your byline will link to biographical information that declares you are an anthropologist of such-and-such variety at so-and-so university or institute, but the essay itself should spell out that you have, for example, spent decades among a certain community or surveyed hundreds of people affected by an issue. Sometimes your own personal details—your race, your nationality, your heritage, your lived experiences—may also play into your expertise or story. (See how I snuck my own expertise into the second paragraph of this piece.)
Four: Background and context.
After the opening section, your essay’s pace can slow a little. Tell the reader a bit more about the situation, place, insight, or people you are writing about. What’s the history? How did things get to be the way they are? Why does this situation, place, or finding matter to the rest of the world? Why is it important, and why are you personally so interested in it?
Don’t wander too far along the way: Each paragraph should continue to speak to and support your main point. It’s an essay, not a book. Keep it simple.
Five: The details.
Expand on your point. Provide details, facts, anecdotes, or evidence to back up your point and tell a story. Perhaps you have quotes from people you interviewed or statistics behind some aspect of medical anthropology. Those details are the meat of your piece. What insight can you provide?
Back up your view with facts, and provide links to firm evidence (such as published research papers, by yourself or others) supporting any assertions. Sprinkle in an occasional short, pithy sentence to hammer your point home.
If your point of view is contentious, acknowledge that. Let the reader know which groups disagree with you and why, and what your counterarguments are.
This approach will add to your credibility. If your point rubs up against what most readers will think, then acknowledge that too. Anticipate common reactions and deal with them head on.
Round up your point, sum up your argument, or perhaps look forward to what needs to be done next. (But please don’t simply say, “More research is needed,” which is always true and too broad to provide helpful insight.) Leave your reader with a sense of satisfaction rather than a craving for more or a feeling of confusion.
Sometimes it is nice to have a final point that ends your piece with a bit of a kick. If your essay is amusing, this “kicker” might be designed to make the reader laugh. If it’s discussing a serious societal problem, it might hammer home what’s at stake. If your essay is personal or reflective, it might be an experience that crystallizes your point. For an op-ed, it may be a call to arms.
An essay as a whole should say to the reader, “Look at the world through my eyes, and you will see something new.” Your goal is to enlighten in a clear, entertaining way.
Your editor’s job, by the way, is to help you do all of this: to formulate your point as clearly and strongly as possible, and to prompt you for an anecdote or story to make that point come alive. Your editor’s job is not to mangle your ideas or force you onto uncomfortable ground, nor is it to put things in ways you would not say them or make your voice unrecognizable. If that happens, be sure to speak up.
Remember that if your editor is misunderstanding your text, your readers will surely misunderstand it too. If your editor trips on a point, or stumbles on your phrasing, so will your readers. Editors are experts at identifying problems in a piece but not necessarily experts on how to fix them—make that your job.
Many, many subtle points of writing exist beyond what I have included in this guide. The interested writer may wish to read a slender book packed with fantastic advice: The Science Writers’ Essay Handbook: How to Craft Compelling True Stories in Any Medium.
And there are some considerations that are particular to, or prominent in, anthropological writing—such as the ethical presentation and protection of your sources and the importance of original writing even when retelling the same tales you have published before. Your editors can help you address all of these challenges.
Writing for the general public comes with many benefits. It helps convince funders and university deans that your area of interest is important. It may count toward your application for tenure or raise the profile of your institution. Perhaps most importantly, it can help strengthen your own writing and clarify your ideas in your own mind—cementing your conclusions or spurring ideas for further research. Stepping away from your usual audience, methods, and ways of thinking is a great way to gain novel insights.
Writing for the public brings your important ideas to the wider world and may even help change that world for the better.
You surely have something important to say: Write it for us!