Recycle Your Work 2: Content Is All Around You

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Earlier this week I wrote a blog post about recycling work—using the effort from one project to produce more output in another format. I approached this primarily from the point of view of my own work at a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, but the general ideas can be applied to many different workplaces. The first post only covered some of what I had originally intended to say, so this will provide some additional information. The original message was:

  • Always promote things you have written, or events that you have participated in, on the social media platforms where you have a presence.
  • Provide short summaries of the content you are promoting for people without the time to consume the full, original format.
  • Upgrade a single tweet to an explanatory thread; upgrade a thread to a blog post.
  • Recycling doesn’t have to start with something longer that then gets summarized; it can go in the opposite direction. An internal email exchange with your colleagues can be promoted to a blog post or op-ed.
  • You won’t have time to recycle everything, so focus on what is currently in the news and what you are most highly motivated to write about. Your own emotional energy will carry your efforts forward.
  • If you are bashful about promoting yourself, use your re-posting of content as an opportunity to thank the people who helped you in the process of your work (don’t forget to tag them).

Once you start looking for opportunities to recycle your work effort, you’ll start seeing them everywhere. Even discussions at meetings can be fertile ground, whether internal meetings of your own colleagues or working group and coalition meetings with your extended network. As long as you take notes, a room full of smart people focused on timely, important issues should always yield something worth writing about. It’s important to respect any Chatham House-style restrictions that a particular event or group might have, of course, but it’s the information about the underlying topic that will be more valuable than any particular attribution. Moreover, if you regularly attend meetings that don’t generate anything that could be turned into a practical work product, why are you going in the first place?

From the other end of the spectrum, a long report, paper, or article can be a future gold mine of spinoff pieces going forward. The amount of reading and research necessary to wrote something substantive and detailed on a public policy issue should give you the data and arguments for several shorter items. If you’re like most of the people working in the political world of Washington, D.C. and are looking to persuade the public of your particular point of view, simply writing one 50-page report, no matter how impressive, is not enough. You need to carry that message to the widest possible audience through multiple channels. That means being seen in both daily newspapers and SSRN.   

Writing multiple shorter pieces based on a longer publication isn’t just a matter of copying and pasting, though. You can tailor your downstream content to different outlets with different audiences. Something that started out more academic can lose some of its academic or legal jargon and become an op-ed. A general argument about the importance of topic X can become a “Why Conservatives/Liberals Should Care about X” article for a magazine with a particular ideological affiliation.

Your expertise on the background of an issue can also be quickly picked back up when the field sees a major news development or there is a relevant anniversary. If you write something about the history of the United States Army Corps of Engineers and their work on removing obstacles to domestic shipping, you’ll be perfectly positioned to comment on the Ever Forward getting stuck on a sandbar in the Chesapeake Bay, or the upcoming 200th anniversary of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1824.

While we live in a world of short attention spans that often focuses on Twitter-length takes, many of us do still read books as part of our working life. If you’re working on a long research project, you may need to make your way through several entire volumes, in addition to the ones you refer to only for specific chapters or details. That is an excellent opportunity to write a review of those books, which will itself become an additional piece of published content. My colleague Ryan Young and I even started a blog post series to collect some of these, which we call “Retro Reviews.”

A research project’s bibliography, if expanded and annotated, can itself become an entire publication. My colleague Iain Murray wrote a study on the future of the gig economy in 2016, and eventually turned his research materials into another study (with Ryan Khurana) titled “Platform Economy Bibliography: A Study Guide for a Rapidly Developing Field.” That’s some excellent recycling.

Anything that adds some value and would be useful to another researcher or activist in the field can be repurposed and turned into a new piece of content. I’ve often heard researchers explain, “I looked for this online, but I couldn’t find it, so I had to create it myself.” If you have something like that, whether it’s just a list of books, a chronology of events, or graphic of how your data is best visualized, that’s new content for the world to see. Don’t keep it locked up on your hard drive.