[Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to welcome SAGE Publications’ Michael Todd.]
“We need to apply the science of communication to the communication of science” – Preston Manning
While the study of communicating will never be an exact science, it certainly behooves researchers to take some time to study the best ways to communicate their research to the public to extend their work’s impact. With special expertise on topics related to so many of today’s headlines, scholars can write op-eds and opinion pieces for news outlets and blogs from a unique and important perspective.
In an effort to share some best practices for writing an op-ed, we enlisted the insight of our own resident journalist (and Social Science Space Editor) Michael Todd. Read through his tips below.
- Generally op-eds are 750 to 800 words long.
- Unlike some academic writing, keep sentences reasonably short and clear, and paragraphs much shorter than you might be used to.
- Do not use footnotes, and keep citations in your text to a minimum. If you must acknowledge others’ work (and with the word limit, be sure it is a must), identify the person/organization only. In other words, do not use “as Smith (2006) found,” but “Innovative medical sociologist Susie Smith’s work with teens suggests …”
- Avoid passive voice (but don’t obsess over this).
- Be learned, but also be colloquial
- Avoid all acronyms unless they already have a claim on the public consciousness (e.g. PTSD).
- Start by explaining why you’re telling me this now. This does not have to be a bald statement, and probably shouldn’t be. It can be an anecdote, a reflection on a current headline, or even a call to action, but it should be explicit and quick. Yes, there will be a headline that helps accomplish this, but ultimately the headline might change.
- Consider explaining why you are telling me this. If you are writing about your specific research output, that’s easier. If you are writing about a current event and your expertise shines a light on some facet, briefly mention your background. Note: in general, your actual work will carry more weight with the public than your degrees.
- Pick one facet of the issue and go deep. Do not attempt to sketch out the entire history or scope of the issue and end up dealing in broad generalities. Instead, stay focused and specific. There’s probably lots of interesting tangents you could find yourself on – save them for your next op-ed.
- Know what you are asking and make sure your piece includes a call to action. The usual point of an op-ed is to spur action, and the reader should both be convinced of your point of view and know what to do about it.
- Readers don’t care about literature searches and rarely care about methodology.
- Identify who your audience will be before starting to write. Foreign Affairs or Wired readers can be assumed to have some background in their publication’s focus, but you can’t assume that about a CNN.com or New York Times reader. Nonetheless, it’s dangerous to assume everyone already knows something that’s well-known in your field.
- Satire and sarcasm rarely work. Humor can be misconstrued – don’t abandon it, but be careful. And if you’re not particularly funny, this is a bad time to try and change that.
- Provide some specific and real-world examples. Readers live on the ground, not at 30,000 feet, so try not to use speculative examples. Remember the maxim: Show, don’t tell.
- Briefly acknowledge obvious arguments against your position and equally briefly rebut them. If you’re seeking funding, explain why your project should have a claim on taxpayer money. While it is a zero-sum game, try not to pit your pork against someone else’s pork.
- Also, acknowledge weaknesses of your position that you may not be able to rebut (e.g. it will be expensive or this will inconvenience some stakeholders) but explain why it’s worth acting anyway.
IV. Extra Tips
- Having trouble? Start by writing a headline or a tweet that really summarizes what you want to say – this can really help cut to the chase and focus your piece if you have too many things to say.
- Start writing even if it’s imperfect at first. Weak, but begun, is better than perfect and undone.
This post originally appeared on the SAGE Connection blog.