Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care


Tips on writing for The Conversation

From The Conversation

The first thing to say here is that it is not that difficult; you will be pushing at an open door. The reason that The Conversation has done so well is that people love reading the thoughts of academics; love discovering your ideas; love being given access to your knowledge and expertise.The hardest part is getting started. The Conversation is a great place to do that.

Ten top tips

This list of tips and tricks applies to any writing you might do for the media, but they're tailored towards writing for The Conversation. Follow these 10 pointers and you won't go far wrong.

  1. Understand your Brief: Make sure you know what the publication wants from you and how they want you to submit. Stay within your academic discipline. If a commission is vague, challenge the editors to firm it up. Sticking to word counts and filing before deadline will make you friends.
  2. Answer a question: You will most often be writing relatively short pieces which makes it crucial to set yourself tight parameters. Crystallise your argument into a clear question that you can definitively address.
  3. Nut graph: A tired journalistic cliché perhaps but useful to know. This is the line in the 2nd or 3rd paragraph which explains to the reader why they should read on, why this is important, and how it might affect them. It also helps tighten your own focus while writing.
  4. Keep it punchy: Short sentences are good sentences. They get ideas across simply. They help readers to follow complicated ideas. And they make sure that your writing remains accessible without being simplistic. This can be especially important in your lead paragraph…
  5. Take time over your lead: This is what will often decide if people read on. It should intrigue and inform at the same time. It should introduce the central question and concepts in your article while acknowledging any news event that has inspired you to write…
  6. Love your news hook: Commissions from media outlets that don't come directly from a research paper you have promoted will likely be hooked onto a major news event or theme. Let that suffuse your writing. It will attract readers, encourage engagement and influence debate.
  7. Drop the jargon: Obvious, but worth emphasising. Readers are put off by acronyms and unfamiliar language. Be careful with your assumptions about readers' knowledge and don't be afraid of leading people to complex ideas through simpler language. (There is a list of words you might do well to avoid in your copy at the end of this sheet)
  8. Don't end on a whimper: And don't let caveats suffocate your article. There will be counter points or apparent contradictions that are worth noting in brief, but you should write with conviction and try to offer the reader a decisive thought to close. That said….
  9. Beware hyperbole: Nothing puts off editors and readers more than the nagging feeling that you are overplaying your hand. Deploy your knowledge reasonably; be empirical in your approach. Be very clear where your opinion owes more to your ideology than to your research.
  10. Love your editor: They are there to help and know how to package copy for consumption. At The Conversation, getting you published is literally the sole motivation. Be indulgent of requests for clarification, and be understanding if your points are not immediately understood.

The banned list

Every news organisation has a house style which their staff reporters are required to apply to all the content they produce. This applies to everything from how currencies are abbreviated, to what world leaders should be called on second reference. In most cases, you will be writing commentary articles which tend to be less tightly marshalled and for which your editor should ensure any technical requirements are met.

More interestingly, however, all news organisations have a list of phrases and constructions which are unwelcome in copy. They might be overused, clichéd or simply needless. This list might be an unspoken understanding, dictated by an egomaniacal editor-in-chief, but at The Conversation we encourage an open approach.

They may, very occasionally, have their place, but avoid the phrases and words below to help your copy stand out from the crowd:

  • Stakeholders: just say who they are
  • Actors: just people. If they're involved, say why
  • Interestingly: show don't tell
  • Holistic: normally just means using or doing more than one thing "It's the [x] stupid": a campaign slogan from 1992 which has probably had its day "to impact": a clumsy verb "hit the headlines": uncomfortably close to journalese
  • Synergies: always requires more explanation "Sex, lies and xxxx": a film title from 1989 which has definitely had its day "On the 8th of July 1975…": bad start for an opening para (dates themselves not banned) "In and of itself": needless Silver, or magic, bullets: few things are, or are claimed to be (apart from actual silver bullets) "It remains to be seen.." or "Time will tell if…": a crushing conclusion to an article
  • Brits: ditto yanks, poms etc
  • Paradigm: there's probably a better word
  • Panacea: (see silver bullets)
  • Etc: it just looks like you got bored