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Ask Dr. Editor

How compelling op-eds work

Five keys for persuasive public writing.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | SEP 21 2021

Question:

My new book finally has a publication date, and I’d like to write an op-ed on my book subject, disaster studies and disaster response. How do I go about distilling a 200-page book into a newspaper article?

– Anonymous, Anthropology

Dr. Editor’s response:

Congratulations on the imminent publication of your book – that’s a fantastic career milestone, and one that I hope you’re celebrating. Let me put in a small plug here for my May 2020 piece, “Getting your book read when you’re a humanities scholar”; even though you’re in the social sciences, much of the same advice will still apply.

Once you’ve sufficiently fêted this accomplishment, dear letter-writer, I’d encourage you not to try to distill your whole book into the 750-or-so words that an op-ed will occupy. Instead, think about some concrete action that you’d like to come out of your research. Do you want to call on the federal government to invest more in disaster response preparedness? Is there a particular policy change you’d like to bring about? Or are you wanting to remind people to check their earthquake preparedness kits?

An op-ed isn’t just about informing; it’s about spurring action and bringing about change. You should only begin drafting once you know what you want your readers to do after reading your piece.

To consider how you’ll compel your readers to support your call-for change, let’s look at a recent op-ed – “Canadian universities must act now to protect their communities,” published by the Vancouver Sun – and look at the keys to its efficacy:

1. It’s timely

Editors want to publish op-eds that relate to or expand on an ongoing conversation. Think of the media as a dinner party (from back when we used to have those). It would be awkward for you to sit down next to a group of chatting people and proclaim, “So, you know that current federal disaster policy? Isn’t it bad?”

Unless your topic is so world-changingly important that it will start a conversation of its own – something equivalent to a kitchen fire in our dinner party scenario – you’ll need to hook your argument to a topic that is already under discussion.

Parkes and Mathen’s op-ed, published in early August, would in most years be coming out too early for the usual back-to-school season. COVID-19 shifted the timing of those conversations, though, and this op-ed was published about a week after the University of Guelph and McMaster University both announced that they would require vaccination for all students living in university residences. Parkes and Mathen are thus participating in an ongoing conversation about vaccines and campuses.

You can tie your op-ed to an ongoing subject in the news, as they have done, or you can consider whether your op-ed might connect in some way to the calendar. For instance, editors regularly publish op-eds about love, dating and sex around Valentine’s Day. Given that your book focuses on disasters, you might time your op-ed so that it is published on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina or the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

2. It has a clear overarching structure

There’s no single correct structure for an op-ed; the form that your piece takes should be whatever shape best supports the content of your argument. Ms. Parkes and Ms. Mathen’s op-ed might be described as an hourglass. Their opening makes a general claim about American and Canadian universities, and they then move into a narrower consideration of, first, the Charter and, then, the specific rights it guarantees. They then return to an overarching consideration of what the Charter does and does not protect, and finally they consider the impact that not acting would have on, first, young people, and, then, “marginalized and racialized communities.” Their structure is broad-to-narrow-to-broad.

In my January 2019 column, “How to craft an organizational structure for your research article,” I suggested that academics whose journal articles don’t follow the introduction, methods, results and discussion structure  should instead visualize the structure of their articles to make sure that they have a coherent one – whatever shape it may be. The same is true for op-eds.

I once worked with a client whose piece of writing was shaped like a snowman-amoeba who wore a beret. It’s not a structure I’d recommend for anyone else’s writing, but it was the perfect structure for her work because it fit the content. By drawing the shape of your argument, you can look for sentences, paragraphs and sections that don’t cohere into an overarching whole.

3. The sentence structures are also clear

The majority of the op-ed’s sentences are right-branching – that is, sentences in which additional details about the action come after (or, in written English, to the right of) the subject and verb. Every sentence in the second and third paragraphs of the op-ed branches to the right, with the subject and verb near the beginning of the sentence and the verb close by.

As I’ve argued previously, right-branching sentences are easier to understand, more persuasive and more inclusive. While you can’t modify the inherent complexity of your subject matter – in this case, the complexity of the Charter’s provisions and limitations – you can use writing strategies such as right-branching sentences to reduce the complexity with which you communicate your argument.

This isn’t to say that every sentence you write needs to be “see-Jane-run” simplistic. The first sentence of Parkes and Mathen’s op-ed is centre-branching, and their second sentence is left-branching. This structure does not render these sentences impenetrable quagmires. However, if the whole piece were written with those sentence structures, it would edge into quaggy terrain. The op-ed is dominantly right-branching, and that’s the strategy I advise for maximizing both readability and persuasiveness.

4. The sentences are a good length

The average sentence length in the op-ed is 18.91 words. The authors achieve this low average percentage by including a number of short, to-the-point sentences throughout the piece: “There are several rights that could be on the table” (10 words); “The Charter also guarantees freedom of conscience” (seven words); “But here is what we do know” (seven words). These short sentences don’t impose a heavy cognitive load, and so will be accessible to the widest possible range of readers.

When they do need a long sentence, as in the 37-word one at the beginning of their final paragraph, the authors balance such length by placing a shorter sentence nearby – in this case, the nine-word closing one.

5. The voice is appropriate

In her 2019 Public Influence: A Guide to Op-Ed Writing and Social Media Engagement, experienced op-ed writer and political science professor Mira Sucharov provides examples of voice at work, from “folksy wordplay” (p. 67) to “rants” (p. 71) and even “slow-burning outrage” (p. 69).

Parkes and Mathen use a fairly objective voice in their op-ed, focusing on articulating facts. I suspect they’ve chosen an objective voice to appear credible, but, in an op-ed, you have the option to be satirical, snarky, funny or even angry. In my opinion, this op-ed could have ended on an angrier note, perhaps pointing to the hypocrisy of institutions that speak to equity, diversity and inclusivity, but then perpetuate harms that have, as the authors note, “tentacles of harm that have had disproportionate impacts” on equity-deserving people.

Op-ed writers are to be applauded for their efforts to engage non-academics and influence evidence-based social change. Considering these five keys as you draft and edit your op-ed should help you to find a forum for your op-ed and effectively convey your message to a broad readership.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @shortishard.
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  1. Stuart Chambers / September 23, 2021 at 15:27

    Great tips to expand any academic’s influence.