How to Write as a Public Humanist

Written by
Benjamin Schacht

Mar 7, 2022

Mar 7, 2022 • by Benjamin Schacht

Recent years have witnessed a shift in how we imagine the role and career of someone with a humanities PhD. Many factors, including the pressures of a seemingly ever-shrinking academic job market, have spurred humanists to seek alternative forms of employment and new outlets for their research and writing. Rather than keeping their discussions confined to professional colleagues for whom knowledge in the academic humanities has traditionally been produced, humanists who see the humanities as vital to public life—and who in turn see public engagement as essential to the flourishing of the humanities—are increasingly using their skills as scholars and writers to spark dialogue outside of exclusively academic circles.

For early-career humanists who aspire to this sort of publicly engaged intellectual work, this is an exciting development; however, it naturally raises three interrelated questions: What outlets exist to publish the writing of those who have a PhD in the humanities and are aiming to communicate their knowledge and ideas to a nonspecialist audience? How do these humanists get their writing published in such outlets? And how can humanists, especially those who do not occupy traditional tenure-track jobs, make time to write?

For Whom Should You Write?

Taking these questions in order, we can begin by noting that there exist many publications whose tone and audience—and sometimes explicit mission—make them natural outlets for the kind of writing and public scholarship under discussion here. Not all the following venues accept pitches (more on this below), and some of them are open only to those with a university affiliation. Nor is this list exhaustive. Nevertheless, it should give you confidence that a growing publishing ecosystem exists for public humanists while offering examples of how to write in a public mode.

Public Books, for example, “unites the best of the university with the openness of the internet” and aims “to publish writing that is erudite without being esoteric and brings scholarly depth to discussions of contemporary ideas, culture, and politics.” For those with an interest in health and the humanities, Synapsis provides an open-access forum for writing that “connects medicine with the humanities—critical reading, looking, listening.” Meanwhile, the Gotham blog, a project of the Gotham Center for New York City History, publishes writing focused on New York and its history. (Full disclosure: I have written for the Gotham blog and Synapsis, hence my familiarity with them.)

Other outlets specializing in publicly accessible writing informed by an advanced humanities education include JSTOR Daily, “where news meets its scholarly match”; The Public Domain Review, a charmingly illustrated journal “dedicated to the exploration of curious and compelling works from the history of art, literature, and ideas – focusing on works now fallen into the public domain”; and Aeon, which publishes long-form essays “on science, philosophy, society and the arts,” all of which are free to read. The Conversation publishes opinion pieces by experts hailing from the full range of academic disciplines and offers an excellent model for pithy, public interventions based on specialist knowledge. (To write for them, however, “you must be currently employed as a researcher or academic with a university or research institution.”) Literary Hub, meanwhile, publishes literary criticism, poetry, fiction, news, culture, and more. Along similar lines, Electric Literature is a “nonprofit digital publisher with the mission to make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive.”

Pitching Your Writing and Honing Your Style

After you identify possible publications, the next step is pitching your writing to one of them. Most publications have a page devoted to submissions, which can often be accessed by clicking an About link. It may sound obvious, but you should carefully read a publication’s submission guidelines before sending in a pitch. JSTOR Daily links to this helpful explainer, which outlines the general qualities of a strong pitch. These include having a specific idea, being concise, finding the right editor, and checking the archives of a publication to make sure you’re not duplicating previously published content.

Some of the same principles apply to cultivating a writing style appropriate for such publications. Your writing should be pithy, lucid, and direct; it should eschew the kind of specialist language that may be appropriate in academic publications but that may not be familiar to a nonspecialist audience. You should make explicit connections between your knowledge and areas of broad concern to the public. Furthermore, you should consider approaching your opening paragraph like a journalist or a novelist. As the editors at Synapsis suggest, you should aim to make your first line one that grabs the reader’s attention.

Making Time to Write

Once you’ve tackled where to write and how to write, a thorny question remains: how to find the time to write. Although they arguably should, not all publications pay their contributors, which can make writing feel like it’s not worth the time or effort. Moreover, if you’re employed outside of a traditional academic setting, you will have to find time to write outside of your everyday job duties. This is easier said than done, but there are strategies you can adopt. Mornings and evenings can be ideal times to spend an hour on a writing project. While these may seem like small chunks, when used regularly they can allow for the completion of substantial pieces of writing. The increasing prevalence of remote work and its lack of commute, moreover, means there might be more time at the beginning and end of the day to write. Finally, the type of writing at issue here often takes a slightly shorter form than an academic article. That should make it somewhat less daunting to tackle despite time constraints.

Of course, this will still be a challenge, not least because, to have anything to write about in the first place, one must also make time to read. Nevertheless, here I’ve offered a sketch of how, theoretically at least, humanities PhDs with an interest in sparking public dialogue can find opportunities to share their knowledge and ideas with a broad audience. This skill will become increasingly important to master as the role of the humanities PhD continues to change.