I recently attended a workshop organized by the Duke Office of News and Communication on how academics can translate their arcane jargon-filled world views into compelling, and news worthy, op-ed articles for local and national newspapers. Coincidently, a lot of their advice applies to blogs.
Op-eds, short opinion pieces found in the back of most newspapers, are often overlooked outlets for scientists to reach the community. You don’t have to be a syndicated columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner, or even a Nobel Laureate to be an op-ed contributor. They dispelled a few myths and gave a lot of useful tips.
Myth 1: Don’t you have to be invited in order to write an 0p-ed?
Reality: No, anyone can submit an op-ed to any newspaper. But you probably have a better shot if you go through your university new and communications office.
Myth 2: You need stature (tenured professor, Nobel Laureate, policy wonk) to publish an op-ed
Reality: Op-ed contributors can be anyone. But they are well-informed and articulate writers. They often have a relationship to the topic they’re writing about and bring fresh thinking to relevant issues.
Myth 3: If I can’t write for the New York Times then its not worth the effort.
Reality: While the NYTs, LA Times, and the WSJ have national coverage, your local newspaper probably reaches tens of thousands of people, and that’s a great start.
Myth 4: I should take my time writing an op-ed in order to craft a well-written piece
Reality: It’s an op-ed, not a peer-reviewed scholarly article. This is not an excuse to be sloppy with your facts or prose, but rather to better understand your audience and venue. News journalists live in a world measured in minutes and hours, not days or weeks, or months. If you have an idea for a compelling piece then write and submit without delay. Your work should be well written, but it also needs to be timely and relevant.
Myth 5: Op-eds should be written with objectivity and impartiality in order to be convincing.
Reality: No on several fronts. Op-eds are, again, not scholarly articles but points of view. The writer does and should have an opinion. The writer should have a personal investment in the topic. If the writer doesn’t care about the outcome, they why should the reader? Op-eds should feel like one person talking to another. The writer wants the reader to know or do something specific, and they want that reaction now.
Effective Op-ed articles accomplish the following:
– Written under 750 words, if its more then editors will likely not even read it
– Don’t open with a question; state your topic and stance explicitly, preferably in the first few sentences
– Make an emotional connection with their reader; humor is one way
– Content is timely, connects broader or deeper issues to recent and important events (such as local issues for local newspapers)
– Try to inject yourself (maybe through personal or professional experience) into the article; this is an op-ed after all!
– If you have a claim, show the reader, don’t tell them. This means be specific with numbers, facts, events or provide an infographic, if possible
– Hook the reader within the first few sentences with a compelling reason to read further. The reader should understand the point of the piece within a couple sentences.
– The editors will be asking, “Who is the writer, why are they writing this piece, are they writing on a timely topic in an original and concise manner?”
– Have a clear OPINION
If you’re thinking about writing an op-ed, contact your university news and communication office with your ideas before pouring your heart and soul into a piece that’s not publishable.