Publish or perish. It’s a mantra that haunts academics at all stages of their careers. The process is simple enough: research, write and submit work for peer review. If all goes well, a few dozen people read your article and your CV gets a new line. This may be enough for your tenure review file, but if you want to disseminate your knowledge to a wider audience, the model is lacking. You can hope a journalist stumbles across your research, but unless you just cured cancer, you may need to be more proactive.
One particularly accessible alternative is to submit an article to a newspaper or magazine. Since each publication targets a specific audience – ranging from turkey hunters to Canadian policymakers – this allows you to engage the exact people you seek. Mid-sized Canadian magazines have circulations ranging from 10,000 to 75,000, and the largest daily newspapers can reach several hundred thousand readers. What’s more, the credentials of most academics can make it easier to convince an editor to accept your article.
Sculpting an idea
You won’t likely be able to publish a chapter straight from your dissertation. But, if you have a good idea targeted to a specific audience, with a narrow scope, you might get an editor’s attention. Whatever your idea, use the article as an opportunity to pique the reader’s interest, rather than offer a comprehensive analysis.
In terms of scope, if you cannot explain your idea to a stranger in less than 30 seconds, you either haven’t given it enough thought or you are trying to tackle too much at once. Depending on where you are looking to publish, word limits will likely range from 250 to 2,500 words, so be realistic.
Finding a suitable publication
Most university libraries will have a copy of The Canadian Writer’s Market, which lists Canadian publications by category and reveals circulation, frequency and editor contact information when available. You can also get a good idea of what is out there by perusing your local bookstore or keeping your eyes peeled for magazines in waiting rooms.
When contemplating a suitable publication, make sure your goals match theirs, by answering these questions:
- Who is their target audience?
- What is their geographic base?
- What is their writing style?
If you are writing about the growth of field hockey in British Columbia, don’t waste your time pestering the editor of the Montreal Gazette. Likewise, don’t even think about submitting a verbose article to a magazine known for its 10-word sentences. Your goal is to sell an idea to an editor, so if you can meet their established style and target audience, it’s better for you.
Drafting a submission
What an editor expects you to submit varies by publication. Always check for submission guidelines on a publication’s website and follow them. If the editor accepts freelance submissions, there are almost certainly guidelines. While searching, find the name (and proper spelling) of the editor. Generic submissions to “whom it may concern” might make the editor think you were too lazy or unprofessional to research their publication.
If you want to present an opinion piece to a newspaper, many expect submission of a finished article, since these tend to cover very timely topics. But most magazine editors expect a formal, one-page “query” e-mail. This short letter should be directly addressed to the editor and should include:
- An engaging explanation of your proposed topic;
- The approximate length of the article, in words;
- Why it is of interest to the publication’s readers; and
- Why you are the right person to write it.
If the editor likes your idea, he or she will contact you and fill in the remaining details. If not, try somewhere else. You are passionate about what you research, so why not disseminate it? Instead of publish or perish, why not disseminate or disappear?
I think the key here is also not to give up as you continue to write and submit. It’s a numbers game, just like designers submitting their works for competitions and clients. The route is long but the reward is immense!