In times of political turmoil, we often wish that there were more sociological perspectives in the popular media. This is especially true when issues of power and inequality are involved. One of the best ways for sociologists to make our voices heard is to write something ourselves, but writing for the public is different than writing for other scholars. How do you know if your contribution will be valuable? What makes a great op-ed? And how do you get it into the right hands? In this blog post, I detail my own process for deciding when and how to write for the popular media.
1. Am I the right person to speak up? The first step to writing an op-ed is similar to writing an academic publication. Ask yourself if your idea is a unique contribution to the broader public discourse—and if you’re the right person to make that contribution. Remember that the conversation you’re entering is likely different from the scholarly discourses you’re familiar with. What may be a unique contribution for the public might feel tired to you as an academic. Or something that feels new to you might be old hat to activists who have been doing the work in a different way. Before sharing your opinion, read what others have written. Figure out how you fit into the conversation that is already taking place.
Remember that you’re competing for space with other people who have expertise on the topic. Is your contribution worth taking that space from an activist? Or even another scholar in your research area? Consider your own positionality when deciding when and how to speak up. As a timely example, I have received requests in the last week from a lot of non-black scholars and public figures to give feedback on the op-eds they want to submit about anti-black police violence. If all of these op-eds were to be published, there would be very limited space left for the community most affected to speak for themselves. A widely read op-ed can shift the public conversation on an issue in a really big way, making it more difficult for some views to gain traction. Extending the same example, if op-eds written on police brutality by white allies get a lot of clicks (and they do), newspapers might seek them out in the future instead of centering black activist voices. Who might your work silence? What precedent are you setting? Sometimes public scholarship is knowing that the cause is bigger than you are and you need to back off.
Also, it’s pretty common for your great idea to get written up by someone else while you’re in the process of drafting something. Don’t get discouraged and celebrate that the idea is out there. There is so much public work to do. Appreciate whoever took it up, send them a congratulatory note, and follow them on Twitter if you don’t already. You can get the next one.
2. What kind of piece do I want to write? We talk a lot about op-eds in academia, but there are other forms of public writing that are available to academics. A lot of popular publications now include “Ideas” sections, which offer people with expertise a place to share information without taking the same kind of strong political stance required in an op-ed. If you want the general public to know a fact that you know or to elaborate on an important nuance lost in the public debate, but you’d rather not wade into the complications of making policy recommendations, publishing an Idea might be a better fit for you.
Op-eds, in contrast, are all about making an argument and defending a political position. You can still convey new information, but be prepared for an editor to ask for a concrete call to action in your piece.
If your plan is more a list of musings that you hope will start interesting conversations with the people around you, you might consider writing a blog instead. You can choose a more targeted audience and there is an expectation that blogs don’t need to be as polished. If the idea is really, really good, blogs can still get a lot of traction and change public debates. If the idea is not so good, they fade into obscurity more easily and do less damage.
3. Do I have time? Most public-facing pieces are short, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a time commitment. Unlike academic writing, you need to be able to finish your public writing fast before the discourse moves on without you. In general, you probably only have a week—or less—to weigh in. Many academics who write for the public write op-eds in advance that they can edit up to fit the current political moment. If this quick turnaround intimidates you, you might consider that tactic.
Quick writing isn’t the only consideration. The editor you’re working with will probably also have a lot of revisions for you, especially your first time writing for a particular outlet. The first time I wrote for the New York Times, my editor had me up at all hours of the night to get my op-ed out in a timely manner and expected a response to each message within an hour or two. If you’re writing an op-ed—especially for somewhere high prestige—prepare to block out your entire schedule for the next 48-72 hours.
Public writing takes time after publication too. There is often fallout from writing a public piece—especially if you’re writing on a controversial subject. Ask yourself if you are mentally and emotionally prepared for (usually unkind) unsolicited “feedback” on your work to trickle in over the next week or two. There might also be opportunities to continue to publicly engage after your work is out. Ideally, you should be prepared to make time for radio interviews or phone calls with people who want to connect over your work. This is the most fun (and professionally advantageous) part of public writing—you want to leave space for it in your schedule.
4. What do I write? In my view, most successful academic-authored op-eds fit into one of three categories: (1) I have information the general public doesn’t have; (2) I disagree with something someone else wrote; or (3) people ask me this question all the time—so I assume more people need the answer.
When taking the first approach, the “information” you’re offering might be findings from research—your own or others’—or it might be a theoretical perspective or sociological lens you think would be beneficial. The point is to disrupt the public discourse on a topic to include something everyone else has missed.
The second can be harder to spot. While some media outlets allow for direct responses to other pieces, many do not. Instead, these pieces briefly reconstruct problematic arguments to take them down point by point. They usually still offer new information to support their claims—you do, in fact, still need to support everything you say in an op-ed and undergo rigorous fact-checking—but the focus is on trying to end a troublesome discourse rather than propose a new one.
The third is—for me—the easiest to write. These lingering questions that people always have for us tend not to be tied to any specific news cycle. Instead, you can write these pieces more at your leisure—and the editing process is often slower and more manageable too. When these pieces are done well, they read more like literature reviews than manifestos about your own work or political ideology. You’re just sharing information that has been locked away in the Ivory Tower with people in the general public who are hungry for it. These pieces are particularly good at re-starting conversations that have been dormant for a while. They are also good for revisiting an issue you wanted to address, but that you didn’t have the time or bandwidth for in the moment.
5. How do I write it? There are a lot of considerations in writing a great op-ed, but this is the advice I give most often:
Avoid the jargon. Make your writing accessible. One of the most common reasons academic-authored op-eds get rejected is because the editor couldn’t understand you—and so they know that no one else will either. Before submitting a pitch, ask someone outside of your discipline (and ideally outside of academia altogether) to read what you’ve written and identify what they couldn’t follow.
Keep it short. Many publications unofficially limit the length of op-eds to 900 words or less. Don’t submit anything longer than that.
Lean into your own expertise. Your position as an academic does not make you competent to opine about anything you’d like. Focus on your own expertise and make sure your qualifications come across to the reader.
Read examples. Look to great op-eds to see how they structured their argument and what kinds of calls to action they made. There are differences in the expectations of different publications, so make sure you’re looking at examples from the specific place(s) you want to publish.
For more advice, I recommend the resources available at The OpEd Project.
6. How do I get it published? There is an assumption that the academics who write op-eds have connections to the popular press that make it easier for us. I’m sure that is true, but it also isn’t the only way to get in touch with an editor. Your .edu email address goes a long way at getting someone to open your pitch. Here’s how to get an op-ed picked up from a cold email:
Find the right editor. Most publications solicit op-eds or letters to the editor on their website, but I have never had anything I have written picked up that way. Instead, email broadly. Any editor can recommend an op-ed for publication. Use Muck Rack or LinkedIn to identify editors at your preferred publication. (You don’t need to have a profile on either website to use their search functions, which are also displayed in Google results.) Send your piece to someone who has done work on a similar topic in the past. You can email as many people from the same outlet as you would like in a single blast, but wait 24 hours before sending your work somewhere new.
Write the right email. Use a subject line like, “Op-ed pitch on [topic].” In the body of the email, introduce yourself and what makes you an expert with valuable insight to share. Below your signature, include the text of the op-ed. Editors do not open attachments from unknown email addresses, so be sure to copy and paste. Even though it’s called a “pitch,” be sure to include a full draft.
Follow up—or let it go—appropriately. If you don’t get a response within 24 hours, that’s (probably) a rejection. Move on. If you did hear from an editor who expressed interest but then the emails stopped, follow up. A chaotic news cycle might have distracted your editor, but it doesn’t mean that they have lost interest.
Public writing is a powerful way that academics can make a difference. We have valuable perspectives to share and the public is eager to engage with what we have to say. I look forward to reading more op-eds from sociologists!