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“How often should I be writing for the general public?”
Researchers ask me that question all the time — often with a slight cringe, in the way the nine-year-old me would ask my parents how long I’d have to practice the piano before I could go play baseball with my friends.
They want more impact than peer-reviewed publishing reliably returns. They want to become authorities, not just experts. They want to be able to play Rachmaninoff in concert. They just don’t want it to take 10,000 hours.
My answer to that question isn’t what it used to be.
My answer is: “That’s the wrong question.”
I used to answer that question with a number: 1,500.
Aspiring researcher thought leaders should publish an average of at least 1,500 words a month for non-specialists.
That’s because researchers who are already thought leaders — people whose evidence-based ideas and solutions are leading significant change in the world and driving outsize value for their institutions or organizations — average 1,500 words a month.
Publishing that much is one of the two markers my research shows is indispensable to get to this level. The other is to publish multiple books for non-specialists around themes of interest to decision-makers.
Even more publishing, in other words.
Below: a chart of the monthly publishing output in public venues from some researcher thought leaders.
Some of the figures were averages over a period of months during 2017-2018; some were for single months in 2018 I chose at random:
I haven’t changed my mind about the big picture this chart shows. These people have already arrived as thought leaders. They already have clear points of view, media attention, invites to write op-eds and guest on podcasts and appear before private roundtables and give lots of talks…and all the other markers of thought leadership.
And yet they’re still writing at least 1,500 words a month as well.
That’s because they had the habit well before they arrived.
So: If you need a quota of 1,500 words/month to motivate you, then by all means.
Here’s the biggest change in my thinking: You also get immediate benefits from frequent publishing — benefits essential to developing authority.
Because the biggest challenge researchers have in writing for non-specialists — especially when starting out — isn’t just time.
It’s: What do I write about?
To which I respond: You write to find that out.
You write to see.
Instead of waiting to see a hook (an event or conversation for which your expertise could make a contribution) and white space (the uniqueness of your argument within that conversation), you write to find them.
Instead of waiting to see a problem for which you can offer a solution, you write to discover them.
I’ve come to this realization through my own participation in a daily writing program over the last six weeks.
At a certain point in the practice of frequent publishing, your sense of opportunity suddenly expands.
You open a news site or your Twitter feed or your email one day and you suddenly see multiple hooks for new thought leadership — five questions on which you have a strong point of view, two or three for which you can offer a tightly argued solution.
You shift from scarcity to abundance.
The problem becomes not figuring out what to write, but choosing what to write about.
And that vision and abundance build on themselves.
They might even become addictive.
For anyone who has worked with researchers to increase their field of vision for thought leadership content and their ability to deliver that content compellingly, the force of this dynamic will seem nothing short of magical.
Working with an editorial professional will accelerate your progress along this process. That partnership will help you refine your hooks and white spaces, your problems and solutions much, much faster.
But writing frequently itself is the first catalysis. So organizations that want to develop their research staff’s thought leadership capabilities must give those researchers a vehicle in which they can publish frequently — a Facebook page, an external-facing blog, even an internal blog.
So, not “how often should I be writing for the general public?”
Instead: “How will I stop?”