Introduction to the ECR Spotlight Series

Participants at the Academic Writing for the Public workshops around a large table as they write and sketch their project ideas

Last year, GENDER.ED launched an ECR Spotlight Series to showcase the cutting-edge research being done by ECRs at the University of Edinburgh. This year, our series focuses on PhD researchers. Their posts offer some fascinating new research from gendered political protest in Hong Kong to what an analysis of abortion discourses in the early twentieth century can offer our present political moment. The posts emanate from two ‘Academic Writing for the Public’ workshops that GENDER.ED hosted in July and August 2022.

One morning this summer, a selected group of PhD researchers gathered around the conference table of the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities. They had applied to participate in a two-part workshop—”Academic Writing for the Public”—that I organised on behalf of GENDER.ED as a former journalist turned academic myself. Student writing from the workshop would be developed into potential pieces for publication on the GENDER.ED blog. Fortified by coffee and breakfast pastries, our interdisciplinary group (from Middle Eastern Studies, International Development, South Asian Studies, Health in Social Sciences, English Literature, Politics and International Relations, Medieval Studies, and Social Work) was ready to begin! 

Students were first introduced to GENDER.ED as a cross-disciplinary hub to develop and showcase excellence in gender and sexuality studies across the University. We then delved into the three main goals of this first workshop: to understand how our research travels beyond our own discipline; to frame our research for different public audiences; and to pitch our writing for a public audience.  

In our first exercise students introduced themselves and their research in a few lines, learning how to summarize. They then paired up with someone to hear about each other’s work. We then went around the room, with each person sharing the other person’s project in the most compelling way possible. Participants were both surprised and reassured by what had stuck in their partner’s minds; it was a great example of how our research sounds to an unfamiliar audience! 

The second exercise invited participants to identify two public audiences that they wanted to be in conversation with. On large sheets of chart paper, they pasted sticky notes and began writing out with coloured marker different kinds of audiences (I noticed: “policy networks,” “media outlets,” “NGOs”) and one paragraph framing their research for each of these audience. Comparing the different narratives was a good exercise in framing and resituating our research. Now we were ready to pitch pieces to editors. But how do you approach an editor? What makes a good pitch? How long should it be and what should you say? 

I handed out three different pitches and participants guessed which ones were successfully published and then we discussed why the pitch might have made the cut. Participants then began writing their own pitches for the GENDER.ED blog. We ended the first workshop with draft pitches and a wad of notes for how our research sounds to others outside our discipline and unfamiliar with our work. 

Over a month of searing summer later, we met again at IASH. It was now mid-August and participants assembled for the second part of the workshop with their draft blogs. This time we could have a look at our own writing in detail. Workshop Two focused on three elements of public writing: strong openings and endings; the particular challenges and pleasures of writing about gender and sexuality; and choosing and signposting the conversations that our short pieces would engage. 

In Exercise One, we pulled up the blog of Feminist Review to discuss concrete examples of openings lines and paragraphs. Participants worked in pairs to reflect on what kinds of openings they found compelling and the perhaps more difficult question: when did our attention drop from a piece, and why? I then shared specific suggestions for how to compose a strong hook—or entry—into public writing. Participants then spent some time furiously reworking their own blogs, guided by the new ideas. 

Given the often-diminished status of gender and sexuality studies in the academy we next turned our attention to the challenges of writing about our topics. Participants were shown different examples to learn how to define conceptual terms for broad audiences; how to lay out the stakes of their research; and how to explain ideas that might seem obvious to you but might be completely new to someone else.  

Finally, we learned how to select our conversations keeping the brief wordcount requirements of public writing in mind. We asked ourselves questions like: what part of your research are you describing? What are some of the broader conversations that you are a part of? We ended by summarising key elements of a good blog post and participants promised to send along their reworked blogs. 

This is the introductory post in the ECR Spotlight Series.