Public Scholarship

Some planners participate in research and practice simultaneously, through processes of public scholarship. One example is Bent Flyvbjerg, who developed and employed the phronetic research method to explain transportation planning in Denmark, and to promote political, institutional, and environmental changes. Flyvbjerg’s work in Denmark led to peer-reviewed articles (Flyvbjerg, Holm, & Buhl, 2002; Flyvbjerg, Skamris Holm, & Buhl, 2004), chapters in edited volumes (Burchell, Mandelbaum, & Mazza, 1996; Allmendinger & Tewdwr-Jones, 2002; Campbell & Fainstein, 2003), and complete books (Flyvbjerg, 1998, 2001). Eventually, his writing extended to multimedia communication, including radio, print, and television. Ultimately, Flyvbjerg’s public scholarship led to substantive changes in local planning documents and public engagement processes.

W hen we read work by Bent Flyvbjerg, we can understand why he has had such a profound impact. His writing is incisive and evocative. Consider these lines, from his 2002JPER article “Bringing Power to Planning Research”:

First, I would choose to work with problems that are considered problems not only in the academy but also in the rest of society. Second, I would deliberately and actively feed the results of my research back into the political, administrative, and social processes that I studied.

—Bent Flyvbjerg, 2002, p. 362

In this chapter, we will return to Bent Flvybjerg as we highlight key writing concepts and strategies.

Technical Versus Non-Technical Writing

As you might assume, the difference between technical and non-technical writing is more of a spectrum, or sliding scale, than a black-and-white distinction. For instance, while the preceding quotation comes from a highly regarded and rigorously peer-reviewed journal, some academic planners may find the language overly personal or subjective. Indeed, public scholarship like Flyvbjerg’s frequently falls into the gray area between technical and non-technical writing.

One very common strategy that blurs the line between technical and non-technical writing is storytelling. Stories play a variety of roles in planning research and practice (Sandercock, 2003; Throgmorton, 2003). Even in quantitative empirical work, stories are important for engaging the reader and for leading them through a sea of complicated information (Bern, 2002). Flyvbjerg demonstrates how storytelling can set the stage for decades of research and practice. In the following quote, he begins the story of the now infamous Aalborg Project. The details of this very first meeting remain relevant throughout all of the articles, books, interviews, and public policies that Flyvbjerg ultimately produced:

In Aalborg, Denmark, on an autumn day in the late 1970s, a group of high-level city officials gather for a meeting. Only one item is on the agenda: initiation of what will eventually become an award-winning project recommended by the OECD for international adoption, on how to integrate environmental and social concerns in city politics and planning, including how to deal with the car in the city. From the very outset the stakes are high. Making the car adapt to the city in the scale now envisioned is something never before tried in Denmark.

—Bent Flyvbjerg, 1998, p. 9

While the line between technical and non-technical writing can be blurry, it is nevertheless useful to make certain distinctions. One difference concerns the logic and chronology’ of the narrative structure. Non-technical writing may employ a complex chronology or obscure logic, but technical writing never will. As Daryl Bern explains in Writing the Empirical Journal Article: “It is not a novel with subplots, flashbacks, and literary allusions, but a short story with a single linear narrative line” (2002, p. 4).

Another difference concerns tone. Non-technical writing may employ colorful imagery' and emotionally charged language. On the other hand, even if the author is a strong advocate of certain ideals, technical writing “aims to be clean, clear, and unemotional” (Katz, 2009, p. 3). Flyvbjerg may be an advocate for change, but he advances his position through rigorous research and through his willingness to engage potentially confrontational dialogues without aggression—not through allusion or through emotional appeal.

A third difference concerns evidentiary standards. Peer-reviewed journal articles, in particular, must show extensive evidence in support of their arguments (Katz, 2009). Non-technical writing, on the other hand, does not have set standards for what constitutes appropriate evidence. This does not mean, however, that non-technical writing is incapable of presenting rigorous evidence.

Finally, good technical writing involves layers of expertise. Bern states that a person who is “intelligent . . . (but) with no expertise . . . should be able to comprehend the broad outlines” of technical writing (2002, p. 4). At the same time, “specialized audiences who share a common background” should be able to gain a much deeper understanding of the same project. Non-technical writing, on the other end, is generally intended to inform and inspire a non-expert audience (Bern, 2002).

With these considerations in mind, we can see that some written products, including peer-reviewed articles, ordinances, and legal documents, require mostly technical writing. Other written products, such as poetry and fiction, require mostly nontechnical writing. Still other written products—such as plans, reports, and newspaper or magazine articles—may involve a mix of technical and non-technical writing.

Public scholar Nan Ellin employs this mixed approach to writing. She translates complex ideas for a lay audience, seeking to give her work a broader reach and a wider impact than it would have strictly within the academy. Consider this passage from Ellin’s book Good Urbanism. Here, she draws the reader in with a simple and accessible metaphor, which at the same time captures a subtle and insightful observation about cities. In this way, Ellin uses colorful, non-technical writing to set the stage for the more technical case studies that follow.

A house I once lived in came with a potted grape ivy. I watered the plant regularly but oddly, it never grew. It didn’t die, but during the two years I lived there, it never changed shape nor sprouted a leaf. Leaving this grape ivy behind for the next inhabitants, it became emblematic for me of so many places that, while they may be surviving, are clearly not thriving.

—Nan Ellin, 2013, p. 1

Planning and JAPA

In considering technical and non-technical writing for planners, it is interesting to compare the writing guidelines provided by Planning magazine with the instructions for authors provided by the scholarly Journal of the American Planning Association. Both are products of the American Planning Association.

Planningis intended for popular consumption by “professionals and interested lay-people” (Tait, 2012). Planning’s guidelines are brief, requesting “a straightforward, nontechnical style” with “a minimum of elaboration." JAPA is a leading academic planning journal (Goldstein & Maier, 2010), although it is also targeted at a professional audience. JAPA’s guidelines are extensive, with several pages of requirements and instructions for authors. The journal wants “vivid and direct writing in the active voice,” with as much detail and elaboration as needed to establish “significant research news.”

These guidelines differ substantially. Planning magazine prefers brevity and overall clarity to rigorous specificity—a non-technical writing style. JAPA also wants clarity, but at a much higher level of detail and for a much more specialized audience—a more technical writing style. Both publications seek to provide lessons for practicing planners, but lessons are central to Planning magazine while they provide a conclusion to JAPA articles. Unlike many academic journals, to remain accessible to readers, the most technically challenging sections of JAPA articles are relegated to appendices.

Research You Can Use

The two styles of writing come together in a bi-monthly column written for Planning magazine by the second author of this chapter, titled Research You Can Use. The column has been appearing since 2006, and has covered at one time or another almost every type of research method in language intended to be accessible to the practicing planner (see Chapter 3, Planning Journals and Topics, in Advanced Quantitative Research Methods for Urban Planners). A few simple writing principles underlie these columns:

  • 1. Tell readers something they don’t already know in almost every paragraph, only occasionally state the obvious, and never dwell on the obvious.
  • 2. Strive to make technically challenging material seem simple and familiar (creating a series of ah-ha moments).
  • 3. Write in terms of concepts and examples, always describing the forest (a concept) before exploring the trees (examples). People don’t learn well with one or the other, but not both.
  • 4. Wherever possible, add graphic illustrations to clarify text, break up text, and create interest. It is the reason why planning reports and books are almost always illustrated.
  • 5. Whenever possible, present the material as a story. People like stories. It is the reason newspaper articles often start with a human-interest story, politicians often tell stories to illustrate their larger points, and many of us read stories for entertainment.
  • 6. Circle back to earlier ideas, particularly at the very' end, as familiarity' is the key to understanding.

7. Remember that more (volume of writing) is usually less, and less is usually more. The columns were initially a single page, but have spilled over to a second page in recent years. They are seldom much more than 1,000 words.

One of the columns is presented in Figure 2.0; it illustrates the preceding concepts with concrete examples (following all seven rules). The column is a story of discovery. It is short and contains a high density of information. It has one big concept and several examples. It simplifies complex technical information to the extent possible. It contains a graphic illustration. It circles back to the lead sentence at the end. These concepts are evident in all the Research You Can Usecolumns, which now number more than 70. See

This column originally ran in P/annmgmagazine, and permission has been granted by the American Planning Association to reprint here.

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