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“Researchers don’t have a clue about deadlines and word counts”

“Researchers don’t have a clue about deadlines and word counts”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Writing workshops at FASoS: the reader is more important than the writer

Academics have an ethical obligation to write articles for a broad audience, partly to counter others who are less than expert in the material or who wish to manipulate us. This is the standpoint of the Melbourne-based guest lecturer Simon Clews, who is giving writing workshops all week at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Researchers increasingly write for a broad audience, but this requires different skills than writing for an academic readership. Assistant professor Anna Harris decided to organize writing workshops for FASoS researchers. But why bring an expert all the way from Australia? “Simon Clews has a good reputation, he teaches all over Asia, Canada. I did my PhD in Melbourne and went to many of his workshops. The output of the participants is extraordinary. On the website you can see all the books, opinion articles and lectures that people have written after following his workshop.”

On Monday, after a long day of workshops, Clews orders a scotch in Café de Poort. His impression of the FASoS researchers is good. “It’s a catch 22. My impression of the participants is always good. They’re the ones who apply and see communicating with the outside world as essential. The problem is the academics that don’t show up.”

It’s in part generational, he says. “Ten years ago, the notion arose that as a researcher you needed to engage. The public wants to know what you’re doing, where the money’s going. At the same time, researchers realized that a full-time academic job for life is history. Only 2 percent of PhD students end up as faculty. The majority of employment is outside academia, so be sure you speak the language.”

You tailor your workshop to the participants. What were the preferences of the FASoS researchers?

“Books. I’ll teach about social media, books, magazine features and opinion articles, but today we talked a lot about books, non-fiction. Most important here is: keep it short. The words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the chapters, everything. That’s what the public wants. One of my exercises, also to get to know each other, is to capture your life or research or whatever in a haiku, seventeen syllables.”

Why?

“To be able to explain your research to everyone, everywhere, at any time. As Einstein said: ‘If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.’ Once I had my nine year old son mark the participants’ texts. He covered them all with red ink, didn’t understand any of it. ‘Boring’, he wrote sometimes.”

What are researchers not aware of when writing for a broad audience?

“They don’t have a clue about deadlines and word counts. They’ll easily start with five thousand words. ‘Deadline next week? No problem.’ Yeah, sure. To start with five thousand words is fine, if you boil it down to four thousand. In the end editing is more important than writing. In George Orwell’s books every word is working for its money. My advice is to get rid of the adverbs and adjectives. They’re like salt and pepper, the seasoning of writing – just a bit is enough.”

You’d like researchers to write opinion articles in newspapers, but very few actually do.

“They have an obligation to do so, especially on topics like migration. Keeping quiet creates a vacuum, filled by people who don’t know or who fool us or try to manipulate things. Look what the tobacco industry did. Researchers should feel ethically responsible. But yes, it can be hard. Some are scared. In academia, they feel safe among their colleagues, writing in their ‘little’ language. Speaking to the public is dangerous. You don’t have any control, you don’t know what’s going to happen. But I mean, you’re not in the world to never be challenged. You’re not Michael Jackson.”

You also teach researchers how to call publishers and editors to pitch ideas. What’s crucial here?

“Don’t call. No one picks up the phone anymore. Just email. How to pitch? The University of Queensland started this three-minute thesis initiative, in which researchers pitch their four-year research project in three minutes. That’s a good exercise.”

A pitch has to be exciting as well.

“True. A useful trick is to remember the very moment you chose your topic, to remember the excitement, the passion. And think about the audience. Academics are preoccupied with getting the data out there. But the reader is more important than the writer. Sometimes, a researcher returns from a lecture and sighs, ‘They didn’t get it.’ Well, there’s nothing wrong with the public; after all, they came to your lecture because they were interested. You failed to reach them.”

What do you say to academics who don’t trust journalists?

“Too bad for you. Get over it. You just have to talk to them. Journalists are only doing their job, they’re not nasty people, out to get you. If you’re clear, they’ll be clear. Today we’re living in a culture of distrust. Journalists but also politicians and public officials have never been as distrusted as much as they are these days.”

Who is Simon Clews?

“It all started more years ago than I care to remember when I was studying theatre and dance in the UK”, his website says. Since then Simon Clews (Birmingham, UK) toured with a theatre company and spent a couple of years in Paris, where, among other things, he taught English to French businesspeople and spent nights flipping burgers. The next stop was Australia, where Clews worked in theatre, film and television and did “an awful lot of festivals and public events”. For 14 years he was the director of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, an annual, 10 day literary festival with guests including John Coetzee, Dave Eggers, Isabel Allende and Alain de Botton. He is currently the director of the Melbourne Engagement Lab, a university platform that helps academics and graduate researchers to engage with a broad audience.

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