Trite as It Sounds, Writing for the Public Means Practicing What We Preach

Ryan Skinnell | San Jose State University

For the past five years or so, I’ve been faithfully compiling a document of the sort that physiologist Melanie Stefan classified in 2010 as a “CV of failures.” A CV of failures is exactly what it sounds like—a log of “every unsuccessful application, refused grant proposal and rejected paper” (467). Mine also includes job rejections, teaching failures, administrative missteps, and more. It’s long, sometimes demoralizing, and against Stefan’s recommendation, I won’t be sharing the entire thing publicly.

Notwithstanding my reticence, Stefan’s goal in advocating for keeping a CV of failures is not demoralization but encouragement. She believes they’re useful for identifying all the work that goes into scientific research, even when it’s not “successful.”

As she points out, only 1 in 7 major grant proposals in her area of research is funded. In other words, a scientist in her field should expect to fail 86% of the time.

Scientists are, obviously, not alone. Academics of all stripes experience a lot of failure, whether our careers are research-, teaching-, or administration-intensive, or a combination thereof.[1] As just one example, rejection rates for major journals and book series in rhetoric and composition are generally comparable or even higher than the numbers Stefan cites. Rather than treating each failure as a personal fault, however, Stefan suggests reframing them as necessary—even desirable—steps toward success.

Full disclosure: my essay is not about failure (this one by Annie Halseth is). It is, rather, about how rhetoric and composition specialists can learn to write for public and/or non-specialist audiences.[2] But I start with failure because it is a helpful entry point to begin thinking about writing for public audiences, where failure is inevitable (and probably even more common than in academia).

Image of a portion of the author's CV of failures.
The longest section of my CV of failures by far is “Public Scholarship/Op-Eds.” It includes 38 rejections from no fewer than 33 outlets, major and minor, along with a reminder to myself: “I stopped counting in 2020-2021 because the numbers got too high to keep track of.”

Failing sucks, of course, but as Stefan emphasizes, each failure is laden with potential for the kinds of learning and practice that can lead to future successes. But then, writing teachers already know this—or at least, we know it for our students. I’m not convinced we know it for ourselves, for reasons I discuss below, but we really should.

I contend that academics who want to write for public audiences can, and should, reconceive of ourselves as student writers and approach new writing challenges in the ways we ask our students to do—for those of us who are writing teachers, to practice what we preach.

The argument I’m making here may seem so obvious as to be trivial: anyone who wants to write for public audiences needs to learn to write for public audiences in much the same way that anyone who wants to write in college must learn to write in college.

Less obvious, at least in my experience, is how frustrating it is to actually take this argument seriously. In fact, I spent the first part of this essay ruminating on failure because it can—and should—direct our attention to one of rhetoric and composition’s most basic, enduring lessons: learning to write is hard; it takes time, motivation, practice, persistence, investment, and support; and learning to write well in one domain doesn’t necessarily transfer to other writing situations. This is as true for “successful” writers as it is for the developing writers who take our classes.

Indeed, it may be truer for “successful” writers than for novices. As Chris Anson points out in “Habituated Practice Can Lead to Entrenchment,” “When writers’ contexts are constrained and they are subjected to repeated practice of the same genres … their conceptual framework for writing may become entrenched, ‘solidified,’ or ‘sedimented’” (77). When conceptual frameworks become entrenched, writers often unwittingly approach new writing tasks with “successful”—but ultimately inappropriate—processes.

At the risk of overgeneralizing, I’m going to suggest that anyone who has navigated the gauntlet of academia well enough to be reading this essay is at least at risk of entrenchment. For those of us who have built a modicum of success publishing mostly or only academic scholarship, I’d wager that the likelihood of entrenchment is even higher. That’s certainly been the case for me.

Learning to write for public audiences, then, is no simple matter for writers who have to unlearn their successes in order to relearn new conceptual frameworks.

However, I think rhetoric and composition specialists in general, and writing teachers in particular, are uniquely positioned to undertake this task if we can lean on our disciplinary knowledge to help us detrench from successful-but-inappropriate writing frameworks.

To put it bluntly, what rhetoric and composition teachers know about learning to write—about genre, rhetoric, evidence, timeliness, and so on—is as useful for us as it is for our students. But what we know as teachers is not always what we actually do as writers. If we can reimagine ourselves as students learning to write for new audiences, however, we can profitably return to establish concepts to help ourselves learn new processes.

In the limited space left to me, and bearing in mind that this may seem elementary to our teacherly selves, I nevertheless want to briefly unpack some of that knowledge as it applies specifically to writing for public audiences.

First, three cheers for basic genre analysis. As it happens, writing for public audiences is often generically straightforward. Take op-eds, for example. The basic elements of an op-ed should be familiar to anyone who knows anything about 5-paragraph essays. In general, they include:

●  The main idea or lede (attention-grabber)

●  The argument (thesis statement)

●  Evidence (usually 3 pieces)

●  A “to be sure” (counterargument)

●  A conclusion (including a call to action)

The paragraphing is different but the 5-paragraph elements are all there, pretty much in the same order. Other public-facing genres are similarly straightforward and just begging for us to identify their common conventions.[3]

Of course, we know that writing isn’t a plug-and-play activity, and conventions only give us a starting point. What matters at least as much as genre conventions is what the author is trying to argue, for whom, about what, using which evidence, for what purposes. Conventional or not, public writing is a complex rhetorical task that demands feedback, revision, and sometimes extensive rethinking, and that process can be frustrating.

In 2019, for instance, I pitched an op-ed about presidential campaign rhetoric to a major national outlet. The editor responded with a rare piece of formative feedback.

“I really like the premise of this… [but] for me, the primary question mark is evidentiary. The argument makes logical sense, but right now, the reader sort of has to take your word for it. … Are there any particular quotes/exchanges you can cite to back up your assessment?”

To an eagle-eyed writing teacher, the obvious lesson here is obvious: my evidence wasn’t appropriate for my audience. I was citing academic scholarship, but the editor wasn’t moved—he wanted either empirical evidence (particularly polling data) or quotes from powerful people (particularly politicians or their top advisors).

I revised, but I had a hard time locating appropriate evidence for a public audience. The essay was rejected more than half a dozen more times by different outlets before I abandoned it altogether. I still think the argument was right, but being right only goes so far without good evidence.

The essay also languished for another reason. It’s another obvious, important, but sometimes-dispiriting point that all writing teachers know: timing matters. I missed my kairotic window. The moment when it could have made an intervention came and went while I futilely combed through polling data and speech transcripts.

Given the volatility of the news cycle, writing for public audiences is a much speedier affair than writing for academics. Even a beautifully written essay may be rejected if it doesn’t address a timely issue of obvious relevance, and what counts as “timely” moves very quickly in the public square (to say nothing of what counts as relevant).

That op-ed failed. It failed several times, in fact. But despite the accumulation of rejections, or maybe because of it, I found myself repeatedly confronted by the most mundane lessons of our field.

Genre matters, evidence matters, timing matters. And learning how to use them well is hard.

Fortunately, we have a long history and a deep stock of tools—including some elementary ones—that can help us.

For example, I’m relearning to use the writing process—the basic one: I invent arguments, draft, seek feedback, and revise. I also read examples of my target genres and try to emulate them. I practice various kinds of audience awareness. I’ve even enrolled in writing classes, including the Op-Ed Project Public Voices Fellowship.

I have also learned important lessons about myself as a writer and about the practices and pitfalls of writing for public audiences—often in humbling ways. In particular, it’s taken me a long time to distinguish what I know as a teacher of writing from what I practice as a writer. I tell my students, “Writing is hard. It takes practice and dedication,” which I believe as a teacher. It takes more effort than I would have guessed to re-believe it as a writer.

These are all things we teach our students and things we’ve all done at one time or another as we learned to write. But it turns out, the basic insights of our field—the same ones we teach our students—turn out to be handy, even for highly productive writers trying to learn to write in new genres for new audiences.

In truth, such lessons might feel less humbling and more humiliating if I didn’t have a better sense of what learning to write looks like from nearly 20 years teaching it. Sometimes I feel humiliated anyway. Sometimes I feel angry or aggrieved or misunderstood or insulted. No amount of “success” seems to banish those feelings in perpetuity. But, as a teacher, I know those feelings are part of the process. The only people who avoid them do so by refusing to write in the first place.

For teachers, there’s a hackneyed lesson here about the enormity of obstacles facing student writers. Of course, by “hackneyed” I don’t mean untrue. Quite the opposite—it’s a threadbare lesson worth constantly relearning.

For writers, my advice is no more groundbreaking. In fact, it’s pretty trite. Writing teachers who want to write for public audiences should work their processes but should also confront the reality that they may need to learn new processes to accomplish new goals. We have to read, draft, seek feedback, revise, submit, rinse, repeat. We have to keep practicing even when we feel like failures. In the end, we have to figure out how to become writing students again, albeit students with particularly useful insights from our lives as teachers.

Works Cited

Anson, Chris. “Habituated Practice Can Lead to Entrenchment.” Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Utah State UP, 2015, 77-8.

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 70, no. 2, 1984, 151-67.

Skinnell, Ryan. “Coming to Terms with the Inevitability of Epic Failure; or Once More unto the Breach.” Explanation Points: Publishing in Rhetoric and Composition, edited by John R. Gallagher and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Utah State UP, 2019, 229-32.

Stefan, Melanie. “A CV of Failures.” Nature, vol. 246, 18 Nov. 2010, 467.

Young, Anna M., and Jennifer Mercieca. “Putting the ‘Public’ in Rhetoric & Public Affairs.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 24, no. 1-2, 2021, 379–96.

1I make this case specifically about academic publishing in “Coming to Terms with the Inevitability of Epic Failure; or Once More unto the Breach.”

2 Anna Young and Jennifer Mercieca make a good case for why academics should write for non-specialist audiences and why academic institutions should learn to value such writing better.

3 Rhetorical genre theorists have been arguing this point for decades. My favorite article on this point is still Carolyn Miller’s landmark “Genre as Social Action.”

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