A Wonkhe guide to writing blogs

It has always been the case that Wonkhe depends on our amazing and talented community of contributors. Without your ideas and analysis we would not exist and we would be unable to help drive forward the HE debate. However, we know that putting thoughts down on paper can sometimes feel like a daunting task, even for the most proficient writer. The good news is that we are here to help.

What to write about?

For us, it’s obviously going to be about higher education and it needs to be something new, whether that’s a new issue, piece of analysis or even a new take on an old idea. Originality is important, and comes in many different forms, so if in doubt, run your idea below us in a pitch (see below).

We aim to make everything we publish accessible and engaging so that it’s useful for both the die-hard policy wonks and those looking for an entry into the many complicated issues facing our sector right now. Whatever your idea, it is important to be clear about your argument and your topic of analysis.

Our analysis must always be based on ideas, not individuals. Wonkhe is never a forum for airing personal grievances.

Whatever your perspective, or role, in higher education, you can write for Wonkhe. It doesn’t matter how senior you are. You may be working in policy, comms, planning, academia, recruitment, student services, leadership or something else entirely. You may not work in a provider of higher education, but have a keen interest or stake in what happens to the HE sector from another perspective.

Writing on Wonkhe can be a quick way to raise your profile in the sector – we are very widely read by an influential audience across UK HE, government, the media and policymaking more broadly. It can also be great for your organisation which will be seen to value and support the HE debate.

Taking forward your idea

If you have an idea of what you want to write, send us a pitch. This only needs to be a short paragraph, or a series of bullets, but it needs to tell us an outline of what you have in mind to write.

All pitches should be sent to our Deputy Editor, David Morris, at david@wonkhe.com.

Our blogs

We publish a number of types of article: the long-read, data-based analysis, opinion pieces and something fun, and lots of other styles besides. We have nine blogs on Wonkhe:

  • Analysis: Analysis of policy, news, speeches and the latest developments in and around higher education.
  • Comment: Ideas, opinions and views from a wide range of voices and perspectives.
  • People: Life, work, study and the professions in higher education.
  • Data: From big data to little data: trends, uses (and abuses) in higher education, government and policymaking.
  • Stacks: Peruse the stacks for little thoughts, running debates and higher education’s oddities.

These four blogs are just for Wonkhe’s use:

  • Policy Watch, which sets out the latest policy developments in HE.
  • Registrarism, a blog by Paul Greatrix, registrar at the University of Nottingham.
  • Our Live blog.
  • Our Team blog.

On the main page of the site, you can click through to examples of articles that fall under each of these headings or find them all in one place on our archive page.

How to write for Wonkhe

After discussing a pitch with us, it’ll be time to submit a first draft. We rarely set hard deadlines and are not demanding in this respect unless we believe the topic is particularly time-sensitive.

Our pieces average around 800 words but frequently we publish articles that are substantially longer than this for features and analysis, or shorter where appropriate. Whatever the length, it needs to be justified and we are not inflexible on this point. We often ask for first drafts to be somewhere between 600 and 1000 words, and go from there.

Getting your article published

Once you have sent your piece back to us, we will conduct a full edit, and may come back to you to clarify points. We will endeavour to check any changes with you before publishing, unless they are very minor and we are confident that the meaning has not been changed. This is a normal part of the process, so please do not be put off if we suggest changes to your piece. If it is your first time writing for us, we will also need a high resolution picture of you and your biography, so that you we can add you to our list of contributors.

We cannot always publish your piece immediately. We are often working on several different pieces at the same time, and try to schedule publication to ensure that all articles get the best possible exposure. We are a small team with limited time for editing. Please be patient with us and do not take offence if we don’t get back to you immediately.

Where an article is particularly time-sensitive, we may be able to expedite the process.

And remember, we are here to help. If you have questions or concerns at any point please get in touch with us.

The importance of style

Wonkhe values clear, articulate and accessible writing. We believe that the higher education debate is best developed by eloquent style and empathy for our readers. Even the most original analysis, argument or ideas can be ruined by poor prose.

Good writing requires attention to detail, patience and a willingness to draft and redraft. Perfecting the craft of writing is a lifelong endeavour; indeed, it can never really be perfected, only constantly improved. The pursuit of effective style is an interesting topic in-and-of-itself. Our favourites on the topic include Steven Pinker’s ‘The Sense of Style’, or for those looking for a quicker introduction, George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’.

We don’t believe there are many rigid laws to good writing, but there are several good rules of thumb which, if followed, can make your articles more popular, more influential, more memorable, and more likely to be published.

Classic style

Good prose is like a window-pane. The goal of classic style is make it seem as if the writer’s thoughts were fully formed before they clothed them into words. Classic style should not be equated with ‘formal’ or ‘academic’ style: our readers enjoy a relatively informal style and a degree of irreverence.

Be specific and succinct; don’t waffle or generalise. Where there is research or an article that backs up your point, you can refer to it but we do not publish footnotes and limit the use of hyperlinks inside articles to that which is strictly necessarily.

Try to avoid the following traps, all of which are common mistakes in academic and policy writing, and in many blog submissions we receive:

  • Meta-discourse – Don’t open your blog by signposting what you are about to say (e.g. ‘In this blog I will cover the following issues…’). Avoid opening with cliche and banality, such as stating something that has happened (‘After the events of the last few weeks…’). Start with a strong and clear introduction to the issue that will provoke the reader’s curiosity.
  • Hedging and apologising – Your blog should have a line of argument and should stick by it. Avoid “shudder quotes”. Avoid hedging phrases with ‘nearly’, ‘partially’, ‘seemingly’ etc. Avoid overusing intensifiers such as ‘very’; this is a form of hedging that suggests a deliberate lack of precision.
  • Bad metaphors – Most metaphors, particularly in non-fiction prose, are bad and overused. Create your own imagery, or rephrase commonly used imagery into something original rather than repeating clichéd phrasing.
  • Abstract nouns and meta-concepts – Perhaps the most common error in policy and academic writing. Could you describe a ‘level’, ‘perspective’, ‘intake’, ‘context’, ‘framework’, ‘process’, ‘tendency’, or ‘variable’ if you saw one? Don’t list things you can’t see or touch. Abstract nouns are incredibly confusing for the reader and make for uninteresting blogs. They can often be shortened into the relevant verbs and nouns. Call a spade a spade, not a ‘garden implement’ or ‘earth moving tool’.
  • Zombie nouns – Adding ‘–ance’, ‘-ment’, ‘-ation’, ‘-ing’ to a verb to make it a noun is a common and cardinal sin in public policy writing. It is often a short-cut for the writer, but very confusing for the uninitiated reader.
  • Passive voice – Few things irk Wonkhe editor-in-chief Mark Leach more than the passive voice (“The White Paper was released by BIS”). Although not without its uses, many submissions that we receive use the passive voice excessively and require extensive editing into the active voice (“BIS released the White Paper”). Passive phrasing steers the reader’s attention away from the actor; this is sometimes necessary, but only selectively. More often than not, the reader’s attention should be trained towards the ‘doer’.
  • Obese phrases, sentences and words – We will edit out unnecessary phrases and clauses that can be expressed in fewer words, such as ‘‘in the event that’; ‘for the purpose of’; ‘in view of the fact that’; ‘at such time as’. The full-stop is the most underrated piece of punctuation; if a sentence is too long, split it in two. A first edit of any piece of writing should evaluate the usefulness of every word on the page. If the sentence can live without it, cut it.
  • Jargon and cliched concepts – Higher education policy is cluttered with jargon and cliched ideas and concepts. Try not to overuse specialist vocabulary and references; you are writing for an informed audience, but must not make your blog inaccessible. Don’t assume the reader knows how TRAC or RAB works. Use an everyday English equivalent if at all possible. Try to avoid cliches of academic parlance, parodied excellently here.

Bear in mind these are all rules of thumb, and not fixed-laws. We are flexible about style and not dogmatic about rules; what matters is for our writing to be engaging, interesting and clear.

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